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Communication and Citizen Participation Techniques

This page highlights a variety of approaches for obtaining public feedback and for involving citizens in shaping the plans and programs that significantly affect their lives.


Overview

Our communities are increasingly made up of diverse groups that have diverse interests and obtain information in different ways. A rapidly changing world means that traditional approaches for gathering feedback may be less effective today. Busy schedules mean that citizens will appreciate convenient, comfortable, and quick ways to stay informed about government services and community issues, and also to register their views on them. Technology offers new opportunities for quick and cost-effective ways to distribute information, as well as reaching out and involving citizens. New variations on public meetings and other improved outreach tools can allow a more thorough vetting of issues and exchange of information that results in more widely embraced plans and projects.

Local governments will have different communication needs and a varying need for citizen comment or involvement depending on the particular type of situation. At times, local governments will simply want to get information to citizens about a new service or program, an upcoming event, important issues, or a temporary service disruption. At other times, communities may want to gather information or opinions from citizens, or even recruit citizens to study issues in depth and provide advice. At other times, it will be desirable to work directly with the public and even partner with citizens to develop alternatives, creative ideas, and solutions to community-wide concerns.

There have been several interesting efforts to categorize a "spectrum" of participation levels and to develop matrices that can be helpful in considering which type of participation technique is best fitted for specific participation needs and specific situations. Probably the first and still one of the best frameworks is the IAP2's Public Participation Toolbox prepared by the International Association for Public Participation. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation built on this framework to develop its Engagement Streams spectrum and tools matrices with increased emphasis on techniques involving higher levels of engagement. Finally, a draft Portland (OR) Public Involvement Tool Kit (Public Participation Spectrum, and Public Involvement Tools by Category) is a useful local government-developed aid for choosing the right tool for the right participation need.

The most effective community involvement programs use a combination of approaches to reach a wide cross section of the community.


Public Meeting Formats that Facilitate Public Participation

Public hearings are required in many situations and assure, at a minimum, the rights of interested citizens to attend and/or testify. Even so, formal city hall and courthouse settings can be intimidating, and hearings can sometimes be dominated by those who are more comfortable with public speaking. Such hearings may not be the best way to encourage comment from a wide cross-section of community residents and may not fit into citizens' busy schedules. The format of hearings often leaves little, if any, room for reasonable discussion, give or take, or response to prior testimony. Instead, it is important to conduct a thoughtful public process in advance of the public hearing. Local governments are trying new approaches to meeting with citizens and make it easier for citizens to express their opinions and for local officials to understand citizen needs. Scheduling convenient times and providing comfortable settings encourages participation. Opportunities for face-to-face exchanges can facilitate understanding and a balancing of diverse interests.

This section highlights a number of meeting approaches to supplement required hearings that can be tailored to fit a variety of situations. A combination of these approaches can generate a better understanding of issues, attract a wider spectrum of participation, and involve citizens in shaping better decisions for the community as a whole.

Open Houses, Workshops, and Forums

Focus Groups/Small Group Processes

Focus group meetings provide particularly fertile ground for understanding the unique needs and interests of various community or business groups. They are designed to get at the unique perspectives/opinions of specific groups, to benefit from the groups' shared knowledge, and to understand how various groups would be affected by programs or policies. Participants are selected based on what they share in common. Other types of small group approaches may involve a broader cross-section of members. They generally encourage free expression and interaction. The back-and-forth exchange of information can lead to a creative combining of ideas and balancing of interests to refine alternatives or create entirely new solutions. Some communities break a larger audience into small "roundtable" discussion groups to focus on specific issues following a presentation to the entire audience. In either approach, the small group setting offers a more comfortable setting for speaking freely, listening, and interacting to others.

Recommended Resources

Examples

  • Sammamish Community Center Focus Group Research: Executive Summary (2011) - Presents results from small group process on community center with clearly defined objectives
  • Spokane Meeting in a Box (1996) - The ultimate in comfort and convenience - a unique, and award-winning self-guided growth management plan workshop designed to be held in living rooms, community clubs or whenever and wherever convenient! Still a great outreach idea!
  • University Place Resident Focus Group 2011 Report (2011) - Professionally designed small group process to gather citizen perceptions on University Place and gather feedback for developing an effective city performance measurement and communication program. Includes meeting materials.

Task Force/Advisory Committees for Specific Plans or Issues

Citizen advisory committees are appointed to study and provide comments and advice on a (sometimes ongoing) program, project or set of issues. Members meet regularly to provide ongoing input and advice over the duration of the project. They may represent a cross-section of the community, or may be a set of people with knowledge or concerns about a particular issue. A task force is similar in some respects, but is assigned a specific task, often with a time limit for reaching a conclusion and resolving a difficult issue, subject to ratification by official decision-makers. Task forces are sometimes rather large groups in an effort to include representation from a variety of affected interest groups. The task force is often charged to work toward consensus.

  • Issaquah Task Force - Klahanie Study - City appointed an annexation area advisory task force to advise the city on its annexation study, and on effective communication to the public about the study and proposed annexation

Making Meetings Fun

  • Orton Family Foundation - Community PlanIt - This online, interactive game, built by Emerson Professor Eric Gordon, brings people together over the course of several weeks to complete planning-themed missions. Players walk away with a better understanding of planning, more interest and capacity to change their communities, and great ideas for their communities.

Outreach for Diverse Representation at Meetings

  • Seattle Neighborhood Planning Outreach and Engagement (Governor's 2010 Smart Vision Award) - Seattle's planning outreach program (engaging over 6,000 people) included use of bilingual or bicultural liaisons to host and facilitate workshops in its ethnically diverse and historically underrepresented neighborhoods.

Polling Devices

Hand-held polling devices or "pulse pads" allow citizens to register their opinions and see the instantly tabulated responses of all participants. It is easy for any participant to register an opinion, without being in the spotlight. As one city official noted, in an AWC brief: "It seemed to defuse the very vocal minority in the audience." The polling device can feel empowering and add an element of fun. It is a better tool for gauging reaction to various alternatives or choices, rather than eliciting suggesed changes. Even so, it can provide useful feedback on specific questions and can be combined with other exercises.

  • AWC: Take the Pulse of Your Community - Using individual keypads, audience participants can respond to questions, rank priorities and see automatically tabulated answers displayed immediately in PowerPoint format.
  • Marysville Special Meeting (2013) to review downtown and waterfront revitalization - Participants were invited to use pulse pads to register their priorities for short- and long-term revitalizations needs.
  • Sequim Citizens help to shape Sequim 120 (2012) - Sequim conducted a visioning open house and equipped participants with pulse pads to provide instant response to a 53 question survey. The pulse pad polling supplemented a variety of interactive activities including futures mapping exercises; a take-home "word cloud" questionnaire; and an activity focused on transportation values/priorities.

Telephone Town Hall

The telephone town hall (TTH) technology allows a city or county to efficiently call tens of thousands of residents to invite them to participate in a call-in meeting. The TTH technology can connect people from all corners of the community to the public meeting, so, it's a particularly useful way to hear from a cross section of the community on issues that affect people throughout the community. It makes it easier to hear from those who don't always speak up, since all have equal opportunity to speak without the glare of a spotlight. Although there won't be time for everyone to speak, and there isn't much opportunity for give and take, all who call in may leave a comment, and receive a reply later. It's also common to intersperse some polling questions to get a response from all listeners on some important questions.

  • USA Today: Telephone Town Halls Gain Popularity (2012) - Telephone town halls use technology that allows vendors to call tens of thousands of people in minutes. Over the course of an hour-long telephone town hall, hundreds of thousands of calls can be placed, inviting people to listen in on a live discussion and ask questions. The format allows for prescreening of questions. And it's a convenient way to reach thousands of people instead of the dozens who might show up at a municipal building. Used by Obama administration, members of Congress, AARP, American Lung Association.
  • Longmont, CO
  • Fort Lauderdale, FL: Telephone Town Hall Meetings - The city employed a multi-pronged outreach program to engage citizens in a visioning process including a telephone town hall with over 41,000 participants  

Virtual Meetings

Videoconferencing, webinars and other technological tools allow citizens to attend and even participate in meetings without leaving home.  

Charrettes

Charrettes bring together citizen and stakeholder groups with a team design professionals and other experts in intense, creative work sessions over a short time period. They can kick start a planning or design process and lay the foundation for the ultimate plan or project design. Ideally, charrettes provide a climate that stimulates an exchange of ideas, information, and opinions about needs and solutions. The process promotes consensus-building toward a common vision. The process harnesses the talents and energy of design professionals (as well as citizen participants) to help participants visualize alternatives and to recommend design solutions.

Recommended Resources

Examples


Effective Meetings

This section offers articles with information and helpful tips for the effective planning and running of public meetings and hearings, meeting facilitation, and dealing with emotions and conflict at public meetings.

Dealing with Emotions and Conflict at Public Meetings

Guides to Help Citizens Participate Effectively in Meetings


Speakers Bureaus, Presentations to Existing Groups, and Tours

A number of communities have established speakers bureaus with staff, or other effective speakers, that are available to make presentations on local government programs or topics. Since many service organizations, school classrooms, and other community organizations need short programs or speakers on a regular basis, it is a great opportunity for local jurisdictions to get the word out about some great services and programs, emerging issues, or to discuss plans on the horizon. It is also a great way to stay connected with the community in a positive way, and often, to learn of interests or concerns of the community groups. Guided or self-guided tours are also an excellent way to increase citizen understanding of important government services and to show off examples of quality development.

Speakers Bureaus

  • Richland Speakers' Bureau - City staff available to speak to community groups or schools on a variety of topics by appointment. Tours of a number of city facilities also available

Tours


Newsletters, Columns, and Flyers


Local Government Education for Youth


Citizen Education

  • Alachuan County, FL: Citizens Academy - The program is designed to explain and clarify the complex nature of county government and to show citizens how their tax dollars are spent. The goal in this effort is to foster an informed citizenry. Ambitious agenda, although daytime hours may limit who can attend.
  • University of North Carolina School of Government: Citizen Academies - Clearinghouse of information on citizens' academies, information, and innovative practices culled from dozens of successful programs across the country.
  • Planning Association of Washington and Washington State Department of Commerce
    • Short Course on Local Planning - Three-hour workshop which covers the legal basis for planning in Washington, comprehensive plan and development regulation basics, and role of the planning commission. Includes videos on a variety of planning topics
    • Land Use Boot Camp - Basic Training Agenda (2012) - More intensive workshop designed for cadet elected and appointed officials, planning professionals or those seeking a refresher in core planning essentials on legal issues and processes encountered in local land use permitting.

Last Modified: March 29, 2019