A Placemaking Journal

Public Process: Don’t botch your online engagement

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ’em down for your consideration.

If you’re a city or town, it’s a fair bet you’ve long since accepted the internet. People meet, pay bills, go shopping, research causes and self-diagnose illness online, and they expect to engage government in similarly convenient ways. You’re fine with that. In turn, you’ve responded with all the things they’ve clamored for: municipal websites, email updates, tools for paying fines electronically, and more.

Now you’re all caught up with their expectations. Or at least you were, until Web 2.0, the social web, came along. Now there’s new benchmarks and, once again, your constituents expect you to get on board.

Today, just as we observed during the first wave of online municipal pioneering, changing demands have presented opportunities for the private sector, which has responded with a variety of tools designed to make your efforts easier. Many, if not most, fall into one of two categories:

  • Project-specific websites you can set-up and manage yourself for little or no cost; and
  • Customizable tools for collecting resident ideas and opinions.

Both of these can be tremendously empowering and yet, in certain key ways, such efforts to simplify your life have also made things more complicated. In short, their impressive wizbangery can be deceptive, fooling the uninitiated into thinking it’s the tool that really matters, rather than the goal-focused story the tool allows you to tell.

Fear not. Today we focus on the two most common pitfalls, with some key ways to avoid them.

Online public engagement: Will it be your savior? Or your undoing?

“Put It On the Web”

New tools have made it easier than ever to set up a project website, fast and cheap, for just about any endeavor. So easy, in fact, that people often assume the task of populating it with content is equally so.

It’s not. Instead, what you end up with is city staffers with limited time and limited resources, and who already engage with the public regularly in person, suddenly presented with the task of doing so electronically as well. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, whenever they find themselves in possession of any piece of information even remotely related to the project, their response seems obvious: Put it on the web.

Raw information. Posted. Done.

That’s a problem. We’ve said it before, repeatedly, and I’m sure we’ll say it again: Your community has a story. A rich story, with a vivid history, complex characters, and a tangled web of interconnections. Your job, for any initiative, is to frame your story in the context of theirs. To present relevant details, making clear why they matter and how they help move the larger picture forward.

In short, like any character, you need to play a contributing role, and that role is infinitely less distracting if your motivations are clear. Otherwise, the story stops being about where the community is heading and starts being about you. Your missteps. Your weaknesses. Your responsibility for dissatisfaction on every conceivable front.

Think of the parallel: You’re in a traditional public meeting and someone asks a question about why the city is doing something. Do you provide a concise rationale, spelling out its benefits and role in larger community goals, or do you hand them a binder with 300 pages of reports and memos and tell them to have at it?

The answer is clear and it’s applicable both in person and online. If you’re running a project website, you need to do so with an eye towards the ABCs: applicability, brevity, and clarity. Otherwise, sincere efforts to operate transparently will end up having the opposite effect, obscuring the process in an insurmountable mountain of content.

The tangible outcomes: Frustration. Dissatisfaction. Cynicism.

A trusty rule-of-thumb? Provide however much content it takes to express, up front and at each step along the way, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how people can participate. No more. No less.

“Share Your Ideas”

Another common fumble is confusing the difference between collecting ideas and building consensus around community goals.

A variety of new tools have made it easier than ever for cities to engage citizens in a discussion of ideas. “What would you like to see?,” they ask. “Provide your ideas and rate the ideas of others.”

They’re very powerful tools — democracy in action — but, like a knife, they’re tools that must be handled with great care. Don’t be a victim of the “Blank Slate” dilemma.

That is, when presented with a blank slate, people naturally assume that anything is possible. But as you know, it’s not.

Avoiding problems is all in how you ask the questions. For example, you’ll often find questions like this: “How can we improve Founder’s Park?” Sounds empowering, right? Unfortunately, it also sets a foundation for failed effort.

Instead, the question should be posed this way: “The city has budgeted $4 million towards renovations for Founder’s Park. Keeping in mind that further land acquisition isn’t an option at this site, what improvements, initiatives or recreational options would you like to see prioritized?”

See the difference? The former suggests the sky’s the limit, ignoring the constraints, choices and trade-offs that will inevitably occur. This allows appealing but unrealistic ideas to rise to the top, subsequently disappointing advocates and fueling cynicism that “government isn’t listening to the people.”

Not to worry, though. If you’re already doing a good job of telling your story — regular intervals of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how people can participate — you’ll have far better opportunities to ask questions in context, making respondents contend with the same realities you do. Not only will this produce better data, you’ll be amazed at how quickly folks rise to the challenge, even to the point of self-policing within the group.

Ultimately, ideas that rise to the top will be those held to standards of viability, not wishful thinking. Which means you’ll actually be getting somewhere.

–Scott Doyon

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