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Community Engagement Resources

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. It covers promising practices, case studies, tools, and examples for Washington State local governments that you can use to develop and improve your agency’s community’s engagement practices.



Overview

Effective community engagement practices create a vehicle for participatory local democracy by giving members of the public the opportunity to become directly involved in guiding policy decisions that will shape the future of their community. Meaningful engagement that is based upon a two-way communication process between the public and their elected community leaders can play an important role in efforts to restore and build trust in government. Community engagement and outreach programs will also be key components of any efforts by local governments to address social equity and inclusion.

New and rapidly evolving communications technologies are creating more ways for local governments to connect and engage with the public through remote meetings, email and text alerts, social media, mobile apps, and more. More people are online today and local governments that take advantage of digital technologies will be more effective at engaging with them.

There are no one-size-fits-all approaches to community engagement efforts. Local governments have a range of options and methods from which they can choose depending upon their particular needs and circumstances, many of which are presented here, along with recommended resources and current program examples.


Resource Guides for Community Engagement

There are many sites that publish, curate, and make available extensive resources relating to community engagement and public participation tools and techniques. Here are a few that we have found to be most useful, together with links to some selected references.


Frameworks for Assessing Community Engagement Needs

Several organizations have created community engagement frameworks based on increasing levels of engagement and the public’s role at each level. Participation levels typically range from inform, consult, involve, and collaborate, up to empower. The engagement frameworks are usually presented in a matrix, which can be helpful in deciding on the types of meeting formats and engagement techniques that may be best suited for specific engagement needs and objectives.

Probably the first and still one of the best frameworks is the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum of Public Participation and the accompanying Public Participation Toolbox matrices.

Here are a few additional community engagement frameworks that can help you to determine which types of engagement approaches will work best for your purposes:


Effective Public Meetings — Tips, Tools, and Techniques

Even as smartphones, mobile apps, social media, and other digitally-enabled interactions become ever-more ubiquitous, face-to-face public meetings are still one of the most common ways that local governments engage and interact with the public. The most common settings in which local officials and members of the public meet occur during regularly scheduled meetings of city and county councils or commissions. Public hearings account for yet another large portion of the types of meetings where local officials interact with the public.

Regardless of the type of meeting, there are a number of tried-and-true steps that local governments can take to enhance the quality and effectiveness of those interactions. This section offers tools and techniques for planning and running effective public meetings, including general meeting tips, dealing with conflict and disruptions, guides to help citizens participate, and audience interaction and polling tools.

General Meeting Tips

These resources provide general advice and tips for making planning and running better meetings.

Dealing with Conflict and Disruptions During Public Meetings

From time to time, elected bodies are faced with conducting controversial, emotionally charged meetings or public hearings where tensions are high and tempers may flare. Such meetings can really test the members of the elected body and staff. Here are some resources that can help you to prepare for difficult meetings and manage them in ways that can make them less stressful and more productive for everyone.

Guides to Help the Public Participate Effectively in Meetings

For first-time visitors, city or county council/commission meetings can sometimes be confusing and intimidating. To help new visitors or anyone else who may need some assistance with how to participate effectively in meetings, many local governments offer guidelines and suggestions that are designed to help attendees participate in public meetings. These are often posted on a legislative body’s webpage or on advisory board or commission webpages. Printed versions can be distributed at meeting sites.

Here are a few examples of guides designed by Washington local government:

Audience Interaction and Polling Tools

Audience interaction and polling tools include devices like “pulse pads,” which combine wireless hardware and presentation software to collect real-time responses to audience questions, and newer cloud-based apps (e.g., Slido, Poll Everywhere) that collect responses from the audience using various electronic devices like smartphones, laptops, and tablets. In either case, these devices or apps allow meeting participants to register their opinions and see the results instantly tabulated for all participants in the room.

These tools offer an effective way to gather audience input that can be tabulated and stored for future reference. The hands-on interactivity and instant sharing of the results make them popular with audiences as well. Audience input is usually collected anonymously, which can help in eliciting more candid responses.

  • 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) — Participants were invited to use pulse pads to register their priorities for short- and long-term needs as part of a downtown and waterfront revitalization project.
  • 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.

Public Meeting Formats

This section highlights several types of public meeting formats that are frequently used by local governments depending upon their particular engagement needs and objectives. Engagement frameworks like the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation are often used to guide these decisions. 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.

Each section includes recommended resources and examples.

Public Hearings

Local governments are sometimes required by state law to hold public hearings for legislative or quasi-judicial purposes.

Legislative hearings are usually held to obtain public input on important legislative policy matters that affect a wide range of citizens, such as those required for budget adoption or comprehensive land use plan updates.

Quasi-judicial hearings involve the legal rights of specific, identifiable parties, such as consideration of land-use variances or permits or site-specific rezones.

Public hearings can occur as part of a regular or special public meeting or, in some circumstances, can be separate from it. Public hearings are obligatory when due process is required or when a specific statute or local regulation requires one. Local governments may also hold a public hearing when they want public input on a sensitive or controversial policy issue that has broad community interest. Testimony from both sides of an issue is usually recorded for public record, which generates a report summarizing key points.

Recommended Resources

Examples

Remote Meetings

Local governments use remote meeting technology to connect with the public via web-based platforms or phone conferencing tools that allow individuals to attend and participate in public meetings.

Remote meetings became the default meeting format during the COVID-19 pandemic when public health mandates on social distancing made it impossible to hold in-person meetings. They are likely, however, to remain a feature of our post-pandemic world as local governments look for more ways to promote inclusion and participation in their communities. Hybrid meeting formats that mix in-person and remote attendance may become part of the new normal going forward.

Recommended Resources

These resources offer arguments in favor of a virtual or hybrid meeting format and tips on how to best conduct these types of meetings.

Examples

Open Houses, Workshops, and Forums

Local governments often convene informal gatherings — like open houses, workshops, and forums — that provide attendees with a “hands on” experience where they have the opportunity to interact with officials, department staff, and each other, to ask questions, provide feedback, and learn about particular issues, proposals, and projects that affect them.

These events are usually facilitated by staff but may also include participation by elected officials. Their informality sets them apart from more formal, regular legislative body meetings and public hearings, which contributes to their effectiveness in attracting members of the public. Don’t forget the coffee, tea, soft drinks, and snacks, which can go a long way toward creating a welcoming environment.

Recommended Resources

Examples

Focus Groups and Other 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. 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 with others.

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Examples

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, harnessing the talents and energy of design professionals (as well as citizen participants) to help participants visualize alternatives and to recommend design solutions.

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Examples


Equity and Inclusion

Community engagement efforts that are focused on equity and inclusion are designed to increase access to local government information and resources by people of diverse races, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, physical ability, and socio-economic status through the implementation of inclusive outreach strategies, plans, or policies. Inclusive outreach and engagement programs seek to build and maintain strong and sustainable relationships based on trust with community groups that have been historically underrepresented in all aspects of local government and community life.

Recommended Resources

Examples


Social Media

Local governments have fully embraced social media platforms in their efforts to find new and more effective ways to engage with citizens and to create greater trust and transparency. Social media platforms offer a variety of ways for managers to share news about local events and issues, address residents' concerns, provide emergency information, and showcase engaging content. Popular platforms have included Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterist, Snapchat, TikTok, and NextDoor.

While most local governments have been using popular social media platforms as a communications and engagement tool, in a new twist, some are also using AI-powered technologies (e.g., Zencity) to tap into and analyze community sentiment about local news and events as it is being expressed on those same social media platforms.

Recommended Resources

Examples


Email and Text Alerts

Email and text alert services give citizens the ability to sign up to receive updates, notices, and news about the issues they care about and to have them sent directly to their email inboxes or smartphones as text messages. Email and text alerts are particularly effective for local issues and projects that will play out over an extended period of time. For issues like these, alerts provide timely updates, news about milestones, new developments, and opportunities for more direct engagement as the issue or project moves forward.

Alert systems are also used for emergency communications purposes, providing subscribers with real-time information about severe weather events, safety, health, utility disruptions, major traffic incidents, and other similar emergency notices. Anyone with a smartphone can receive text alerts.

Despite the growing popularity of social media, email is still more effective in reaching users than use of Facebook and Twitter combined, making it an effective engagement tool. 

Recommended Resources

Examples


Mobile Apps

Mobile apps offer a wide range of methods for delivering local government services or for engaging with citizens through the convenience of mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops. For example, popular apps like SeeClickFix allow users to photograph and report problems like potholes, graffiti, or damaged streetlights, and submit them to their city or county public works department, get a tracking number assigned, and status alerts until the problem has been resolved.

Mobile apps deliver content in a mobile-friendly format that can be read on popular devices like smartphones and tablets. Apps also offer the ability to “push” notifications out to subscribers, which has proven to be an effective way of engaging with citizens.

Recommended Resources

Examples

  • Bellevue MyBellevue App — Allows residents to request services and access city news, jobs, and social media.
  • Federal Way “Eyes on Federal Way” — Powered by SeeClickFix, this app enables residents to report non-emergency issues such as roadside litter, graffiti, abandoned shopping carts and a variety of other issues to city staff from their smartphone. The app also tags the specific location of the issue through the user phone’s global positioning system, making it easy for city staff to respond.
  • Shoreline Service Request - SeeClickFix — This online reporting tool allows people to report and track non-emergency issues through the city’s website or via mobile apps.
  • Find city examples for “mobile apps” or county examples for “mobile apps" using MRSC’s City and County Websites Search tool to conduct a real-time search across Washington local government websites.

Web-Based Engagement Platforms

Web-based citizen engagement platforms are used to connect local governments and citizens to share information and solicit ideas and opinions about community issues, plans, and projects. These tools, which are usually embedded in local government websites, are designed to facilitate citizen participation in local decision-making by providing regular issue/project updates, relevant documents, opportunities for providing input, and for asking questions. Web-based engagement platforms differ from social media because they are designed specifically to host and facilitate two-way engagement processes on one or more policy issues.

Recommended Resources

Examples

These webpages offer the public a list of current projects with links to project documentation and the opportunity to ask specific questions, take surveys, share ideas, and discuss project plans with others, all in an online format


Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting includes a range of engagement techniques that center around involving citizens in the local government budgeting process either as an educational exercise, where, for example, they might have the chance to build their own budget through a budget simulation “game,” or more directly as part of a process in which a portion of a jurisdiction’s budget is set aside to allow community members, often through neighborhood organizations, to vote on how to use it.

There are a variety of participatory budgeting methods, and the best match will depend on how your jurisdiction wants to engage with the public, the types of projects that can be funded, and how much funding is available.

Recommended Resources

Examples


Standing Advisory Boards/Commissions

Local governments have long used standing advisory boards/commissions to assist elected officials in a number of policy-making areas. The most common types are the standing boards/commissions, such as those for planning, human services, and parks and recreation. Members of these advisory bodies are usually appointed by the governing body of the city, town, or county, and they serve multi-year terms.

Standing advisory boards and commissions often provide a path for many of their members to seek elected office as they gain substantive knowledge and experience with a range of local government issues.

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Examples


Ad Hoc Task Force/Advisory Committees

Ad hoc advisory bodies are usually appointed and convened for a limited period of time to consider a program, project, or set of issues and to report back with their advice and/or recommendations to the mayor, council, or commission. Members meet regularly and 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.

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Examples


Youth Engagement

Youth engagement programs are designed to provide opportunities for youth to learn more about their local government, develop leadership skills through hands-on experiences, and contribute to the conversation on community issues, including those that uniquely affect young people. Youth-oriented engagement and education programs give students the opportunity to meet directly with local elected officials and staff to learn more about their roles in leading and managing local government programs and services.

Recommended Resources

  • Institute for Local Government
    • Governments Engaging Youth Toolkit — Offers resources designed to help begin, grow, or expand youth engagement in your community’s programs by providing a framework, assessment tools, and case stories highlighting the broad variety of options available to suit your community’s unique needs.
    • Engaging Youth — Offers resources and case stories to help local officials and staff develop and maintain effective youth commissions and to engage youth in civic and work-based learning experiences.
  • MRSC: Youth Participation in Local Government — Provides examples of Washington State cities and counties that have established youth councils, commissions, and other programs to encourage teenagers and young adults to participate in local government.
  • National Civic League: Best Practices for Youth Engagement in Municipal Government, (2017) — Focuses on youth councils at the municipal level, including a report on best practices gleaned from a study of multiple youth councils in one metropolitan area.

Examples


Citizen Education

Citizen education programs are designed to give people the knowledge and skills they need to understand and more fully participate in their local governments. Active and engaged citizens who have a greater understanding of the structure and functions of their local government can participate and contribute more effectively in the political process and make positive changes for their communities. Examples include citizen academies, community leadership academies, police ride-along programs, community emergency response team (CERT) training, open houses, tours, and other similar programs.

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Examples


Volunteer Programs

Many local governments have established volunteer programs in their communities to take advantage of the diverse talents and interests of their residents. Examples include environmental stewardship, park maintenance, community emergency response, customer service support, special events support, and many others. Making volunteer opportunities available is not only a great way for local governments to engage with residents, it’s also an effective way for them to do more with less.

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Examples


Community Newsletters

Local governments have long produced newsletters as a way to share information about special events, agency activities, announcements, and other similar community news. Historically these have been in a printed format, either mailed directly to community residents or distributed through a local newspaper. In more recent years many local governments have added e-newsletters to deliver the same type of content and more (e.g., embedded video) electronically to subscribers’ desktops, smartphones, and other devices. 

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Examples


Surveys

Community surveys play an important role in gaining insights into the public's views and opinions about a wide variety of issues, including feedback on service quality, input on service priorities, support for proposed new programs and services, quality of life perceptions, and many more. Community surveys can reach hundreds or even thousands of individuals via phone, mail, email, or online, to give city and county leaders valuable insights into the views and opinions of their community members.

Due to small sample sizes and low response rates, many local government surveys have difficulty achieving results that are statistically valid. When that is the case, their primary value is to provide general insights into community attitudes and opinions that may or may not accurately represent the opinions of the entire population.

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Speakers Bureaus

A number of communities have established speakers bureaus, populated by staff or other speakers, that are available to make presentations on local government programs or topics. Since 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  services and programs, emerging issues, or to discuss plans on the horizon. It is also a great way to stay connected with the community and to glean the interests/concerns of the community group hosting the talk.

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Tours

Guided, self-guided, or even virtual tours offer a first-hand look at local government facilities and operations, giving viewers an increased understanding and appreciation of how thier government works. Popular facility tours include water and wastewater treatment plants, police departments, fire stations, city halls, and county courthouses.

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Examples


Last Modified: May 21, 2021