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Community Engagement Resources

This page highlights a variety of approaches for obtaining public feedback and for involving residents 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.


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.

One of the best frameworks is the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum of Public Participation and the accompanying Public Participation Toolbox matrices.

Public Meeting 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.

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" and cloud-based apps that collect responses from the audience using various electronic devices like smartphones, laptops, and tablets. These tools offer an effective way to gather audience input that can be tabulated and instantly shared, making them popular with audiences. Since input is collected anonymously, this can help in eliciting more candid responses.

Below are examples of how such tools have been used in Washington. 

  • 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 which approaches to use, and it may involve more than one format. 

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

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 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 have become part of the new normal going forward.

These are examples of local governments employing the remote meeting format and taking public comment for remote or hybrid meetings.

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 and Examples

Focus Groups and Other Small Group Processes

Focus group meetings provide fertile ground for understanding the unique needs and interests of various community 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. 

Some communities chose to break a larger audience into small "roundtable" discussion groups to focus on specific issues since the small group setting can offer a more comfortable setting for speaking freely, listening, and interacting with others.

Recommended Resources and Examples


Charrettes pair resident and stakeholder groups with design professionals and other experts in intense, creative work sessions held over a short time period. 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.

Recommended Resources and 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 with community groups that have been historically underrepresented in all aspects of local government and community life.

Recommended Resources and Examples

Social Media

Local governments have fully embraced social media platforms in their efforts to find new and more effective ways to engage with the public and create greater trust and transparency. Social media platforms offer a variety of ways for agencies 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, Pinterest, 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 and Examples

  • Improving the Accessibility of Social Media in Government Toolkit — Contains helpful tips, real-life examples and best practices to ensure that your social media content is usable and accessible to all citizens, including those with disabilities.
  • Government Social Media — Supports public sector social media professionals by hosting national events, facilitating local training, and organizing a community of social media managers working in local government across the country.
  • King County: Social Media Handbook — Guidelines for the creation, oversight, maintenance, and documentation of social media accounts used by the county.
  • Mill Creek: Social Media Policy —  Guidelines for the city’s social media sites to ensure consistency, accuracy, value to citizens, and compliance with state and federal laws.
  • MRSC: Social Media Policies — Provides an overview of various approaches to social media policies for local governments, including sample policy language and 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. Email and text alerts are particularly effective for local issues and projects that will play out over an extended period of time since they  can provide timely updates 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, public safety or health concerns, utility disruptions, major traffic incidents, and other similar emergency notices.


  • Kennewick: Notify Me — Subscription link includes list of prior notifications
  • Sammamish: email and text alert updates — Allows residents to sign up for email and text alerts on topics of particular interest to them, including alerts on road projects, city council meetings, parks and recreation news, and many other items on the topic menu.
  • Seattle: Alert Seattle — Offers information on subscribing, types of alerts to sign up for, and privacy and contact information.
  • Whatcom County: Notify Me email alerts — Provides an extensive menu of email alerts including general notifications, bid postings, departmental “news flashes,” and agendas for the county council and various advisory boards and commissions.

Mobile Apps

Mobile apps allow agencies to engage with residents through mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops on a vareity of issues. For example SeeClickFix allows residents to photograph and report problems like potholes or damaged streetlights, submit this to a public works department, get a tracking number assigned, and receive status alerts until the problem is resolved. 

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 and Examples

Web-Based Engagement Platforms

Web-based engagement platforms allow local governments to share information and solicit ideas and opinions from residents on community issues, plans, and projects. These tools are designed to facilitate public participation in local decision-making.  

The webpages below are examples of how an agency can offer the public information on current projects (with links to project documentation) as well as the opportunity to ask the agency questions, take surveys, share or coment on items, and discuss project plans with other residents, 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 and Examples

Advisory Boards/Commissions

Local governments have long used 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.

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 governing body. 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.

For more information and examples, see our webpage on Advisory Boards and Commissions.

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. For more information and examples, see our page Youth Participation in Local Government.

Citizen Education

Citizen education programs are designed to give residents the knowledge and skills they need to understand and more fully participate in their local government. Examples include citizen academies, community leadership academies, police ride-along programs, and community emergency response teams (CERT).

Recommended Resources and 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. For more information and examples, see our page on Volunteer Programs and Policies.

Community Newsletters

Local governments have long produced newsletters as a way to share information about special events, agency activities, announcements, and more. Historically these have been in a printed format, either mailed directly to residents or distributed through a local newspaper, but in more recent years many local governments have developed e-newsletters to deliver content electronically to subscribers’ desktops, smartphones, and other devices. 

Recommended Resources and Examples

  • Bellevue: It's Your City Newsletter — Packed with information about city projects, activities, calendar events, resources, and city contacts, and issues. Also see Neighborhood News.
  • Boston, MA: Designing a Seamless Newsletter Experience, (2020) — By reducing the amount of text, and regrouping reader’s actions in each section into just one button, Boston was able to make their newsletters scannable and readable in less than five minutes. Grouping information using iconography also enabled them to maintain the amount of information shared with the readers while keeping it organized and accessible.
  • Snohomish County: E-newsletters — Subscription topics include county executive updates, council district updates, emergency management preparedness, and more.


Community surveys play an important role in gaining insights into the public's views and opinions about a wide variety of issues and can reach hundreds or even thousands of individuals via phone, mail, email, or online.

If, however, an agency has small sample sizes and low response rates, the survey may have difficulty achieving results that are statistically valid. When that is the case, their primary value of a survey should be to provide general insights into community attitudes and opinions that may or may not accurately represent the opinions of the entire population.

Recommended Resources

Speakers Bureaus

A number of communities have established speakers bureaus, populated by staff or others, 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.

Recommended Resources and Examples

  • Richland Speakers’ Bureau — City staff are available to speak to community groups or schools on a variety of topics by appointment. Tours of some city facilities also available.
  • University of Kansas: Developing a Speaker’s Bureau — As part of the university's broader community toolbox, this chapter offers an overview of steps involved in creating a speakers bureau, including how they can be used to raise public awareness of local issues, increasing your organization's visibility, increasing public understanding, and providing positive role models.


Guided, self-guided, or even virtual tours offer a first-hand look at agency 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.

Recommended Resources and Examples

Last Modified: September 21, 2023