Of all the community engagement misconceptions I have heard, one stands out for its cynicism: Engagement isn’t even worth it in the first place.
Many organizations sleepwalk through the community engagement journey. They do things the way they have always done them and get the same results. A policy might undergo some cosmetic changes based on feedback, but even without the changes, City Council would likely have approved it anyway. Or they ask residents a question they already know the answer to – if a transportation planner in Los Angeles asks the community to do a visioning workshop, the community will envision fewer traffic jams. In each case, the existing process predicts the outcome without much wiggle room.
A few weeks ago, I posed a simple question to some of my colleagues at Bang the Table: When was good community engagement the defining factor in the outcome? When did it not just correlate with a good outcome, but directly cause it?
Community engagement can lead to many different outcomes:
- Public support for an initiative that otherwise wouldn’t have succeeded.
- Uncovering a new idea or tidbit of information that hadn’t been considered.
- Producing a final product that was cheaper, easier to use, more popular, or somehow measurably higher-performing.
- A direct monetary investment in the idea that the community pushed for.
Outcome #1: Good engagement uncovers the true will of the whole community
The beautiful Australian beach community of Newcastle had a century-old heavy rail line carving straight through the center of town. A relic of the old days, it was noisy and inefficient. Level crossings would choke traffic flow. However, in Newcastle, a vocal minority of residents opposed doing anything to the existing rail line.
Local authorities were reluctant to change anything because every town hall meeting had a cacophony of angry voices shouting into the mic. Any forward momentum on the project would be derailed (heh) as soon as the community engagement process started. Plans were shelved.
This project was the first of its kind with Bang the Table, before the EngagementHQ platform was available to the market. Our CEO, Matt Crozier, was personally moderating comments that broke our terms of service, before we hired a professional team to do that for us.
Here’s what happened: Online engagement brought more voices into the dialogue, including the ones who couldn’t attend town hall meetings. More voices meant the most vocal residents or extreme opinions had less influence. About 3/4 of the community members supported decommissioning the rail line, much more than what leaders had initially thought.
Then, online engagement opened up new ways for leaders to understand exactly who they’re reaching in the community to ensure they were engaging an accurate cross-section. A deeper analysis into participation traced back a large portion of the “keep the rail” participants to message boards where trainspotting hobbyists inspired members from all over Australia to comment on the Bang the Table site to keep the rail line.
Both the overall sentiment, as well as the trainspotting ties, would have been impossible to figure out without technology that can scale across a community.
Fast forward a decade later and the railroad has been repurposed into public spaces and infill development.
Outcome #2: A better final product
Over in South Australia, the train dialogue was much more pleasant – but the stakes were high regardless.
In 2013, the South Australia Department of Planning, Transport, and Infrastructure announced they were phasing out the old transit ticketing system in greater Adelaide and replacing it with the Metrocard – a contactless card that could seamlessly work with the local bus, train, and tram system.
Getting lots of people to change their habits at once is tough. Doing that while introducing a new technology that doesn’t glitch is even tougher. Many new government technology rollouts have struggled at first after launching a product that glitched or confused people – think the Chicago Ventra card or healthcare.gov.
South Australia’s project brief tells the story of the engagement process, start to finish. The Metrocard transition illustrates their pillar of engagement, “We start together” – and it could not have been a better fit here. Customer and stakeholder feedback was important from the ideation phase all the way PAST the launch.
A media blitz from day one informed customers of the upcoming change. But merely informing is not enough. The SA Government engaged specific stakeholders, such as bus drivers, customer service representatives, people with disabilities, and the elderly – people whose perspectives might be unique – to hear their thoughts. Staff were on board buses and trains, asking people for their feedback early and often. Later, those same groups who would have been impacted the most by the change ended up being the strongest advocates for the project.
Most impressively, the uptake in the new ticketing system was 30% in the first month and 84% within 10 months.
This outpaced the other transit systems across Australia – an achievement the SA Government traces back to a robust public engagement process.
The thing I like most about this project is how they made engagement a priority for a much longer period of time than usual. We always say engage early and often. The status quo is to draft the changes behind closed doors, then ask for feedback, then make a couple of tweaks to the plan and roll it out, hoping you didn’t get too much public opposition. Instead, applying meaningful community engagement often meant they were able to create a stronger first draft’ of their project and were able to identify needed changes early on.
Outcome #3: Uncovering local knowledge you didn’t know about
In a TED Talk, Max Hardy shares how one word saved him a whole lot of time and saved a local water pipeline from destruction.
Water kept leaking in a pipeline near a remote Australian town. Engineers knew how much water was getting pumped in, and how much reached the town at the other end. The numbers did not justify continued investment, and the time had come to demolish it.
Residents caught wind of this and were furious. Cutting off the water supply is literally something you do to enemies in wartime. As Max Hardy shares, tongue-in-cheek, the local government did the politically prudent thing in this scenario: hire the only community engagement consultant naive enough to take this job.
After much anger from the residents, one trust-building exercise was to have engineers give residents a tour of the pipeline. There, they would point out the leaks and at least show the residents the facts. That way, it would be step one toward informed consent – giving residents a clear-as-day look at the reality of the situation and difficult tradeoffs.
One problem: the engineer couldn’t find any leaks. It was in great condition.
That’s when one woman said “Whiskey.”
It turns out that there was a longtime rumor in the community that someone up the road had been tapping into the pipes to grow crops to make whiskey.
A short investigation later, the bootlegger was caught, the leak was fixed, and the pipeline was financially feasible again.
Hardy sums it up:
“So here we were, trying to sell a solution to a problem that didn’t exist because we were trying to work on the wrong problem.”
By tapping into the community’s knowledge of the area, the local authority found who was tapping into their pipeline.
What leads to these community engagement outcomes in the first place?
Even if community engagement will not always be the defining factor in an outcome, it is still worth studying what these stories have in common and what we can learn from them.
I wanted to put this one at the top of the list because it is the one that everybody will nod their head in agreement when prompted, but aren’t fully committed to the exercise in practice. Being intellectually humble requires more than setting up chairs and easels and asking people “What do you think?”
Here’s what makes this so difficult: Oftentimes, the person running the community engagement session is the subject matter expert! Who’s to say that Joe Schmoe down the block knows more about policy than someone who has two decades of experience in the field?
If this applies to you, rest assured that I’m not trying to claim that Joe Schmoe knows more than you. Lock 10 city planners in a room together and they will produce a much better city plan than 10 random residents with the same task.
Expanding engagement across the whole community will reveal blind spots, help clarify the peripheral pieces, or even just build support. The first draft is never perfect. South Australia acknowledged that “all of us are smarter than any of us,” and listened to their stakeholders directly, producing a better product than their peers who chose not to engage.
Learning while moving.
Many people have seen Steve Jobs’ legendary iPhone reveal. 12 versions of the iPhone later, you can still feel the magic when you watch the video. Three things had to be true for this presentation to successfully kick off its wave of mass hysteria:
- We have been up to something big, but it has been a secret until now.
- It is going to be completely different than anything you have ever used.
- It is here, working in my hand right now.
Many people have grandiose visions of a grand launch, ribbon cutting, or unveiling just like the Steve Jobs presentation. This approach is almost always harmful.
Back to South Australia, a “build behind closed doors then launch” approach would have sunk the project. A quick cursory search of other ticketing system rollouts around the world shows that just launching something and then getting feedback afterward leads to all kinds of anger and confusion, and then angry calls for the leader’s resignation. All of this can be avoided by instead taking the design thinking approach of gaining deep empathy and designing solutions based on the needs that you have heard, then getting feedback on those solutions as quickly as possible.
This approach means you can identify red flags or blind spots earlier before they become glitches or PR nightmares.
Understanding equality isn’t enough.
In Newcastle, town hall was open to everyone. Public workshops had plenty of open seats. That’s equal. What’s the problem?
Equality was not enough. It took an online space where residents could engage at a time and place of their convenience for Newcastle to start hearing from those who were left out of the conversation before.
It then took a thorough analysis of who they were reaching – and who they were not reaching – to uncover the true will of the community.
This is a common theme in the American cities I work with. City Council meetings are a shining example of equality. The doors are open; whoever walks in the room at 7:00 on a Tuesday is welcome to join. If you want three minutes to speak, you get three minutes.
The problem is, equal access does not guarantee equal outcomes. Public meeting attendance is strongly correlated with race, age, income, education level, and homeownership, even though it is technically just as open to everyone.
The right approach in community engagement is not equality, but equity. Equitable engagement involves focusing more efforts on populations that have been historically marginalized or left out from decision-making in some way, instead of spending equal amounts of effort engaging those with means and privilege. Making a concerted effort to hear the voices that are unheard, and ensuring you have clear evidence that you have been representative before moving forward with a policy, ensures that the ideas that reach your desk are more well-rounded and reflect the true will of the entire community – not just the professional citizens (or trainspotters!).
Watch Jeremy Shackett’s webinar for a closer look: How Community Engagement Leads to Tangible Outcomes. He discusses how you can plan your consultation with the results in mind as well as analyze examples from other communities and explore how you can apply those lessons to your stakeholders. Watch here!
Content originally shared by ELGL.org.