In the mid-2000s Jay Dawkins was working as an intern for an engineering firm, and excited to be a part of an economic development project in an eastern North Carolina community.
Upon attending a public meeting at a local church, he went from excited to disparaged as it became apparent that the city’s plan had turned a blind eye to the concerns and needs of the residents themselves - and had to go back to the drawing board. As a long-time “software nerd” who grew up surrounded by public service, this was the moment Dawkins first pondered using software to create a better community engagement process.
According to Dawkins, community engagement - whether in a town of 5,000 or a major metropolis - comes down to intention and design. He spoke more about this, and five common pitfalls of community engagement, in a recent episode of the ELGL podcast, GovLove.
Below are the five common pitfalls, as framed by movie titles:
The Field of Dreams
If you build it, they will come? Unfortunately, that philosophy rarely works.
Government agencies are building more opportunities to engage: online hubs or forums, surveys, and websites, but this doesn’t work as a stand alone tactic. Better community engagement outcomes result from meeting people where they are, not expecting them to find us.
How do you do that? By keeping engagements mobile-friendly, reaching underrepresented voices through online targeting, analyzing demographic gaps, and bringing together online and offline efforts together with online town halls and sharing links on printed materials like signage and handouts.
None of us pretend to have any dictator-like powers, but sometimes we fall into the trap of listening like dictators. A common community engagement pitfall is holding public meetings for the sake of holding them, or asking for input when we have no way to apply it.
If our genuine intent is simply to inform the public, it’s important to communicate that intent when engaging residents. However, if residents are invited to share feedback, and we don’t acknowledge it or share how it was incorporated, public trust is eroded.
Organizations naturally won’t put the same weight on community engagement for every project, but we should clearly understand and communicate the public’s role according to IAP2’s Spectrum of Public Participation.
The (Echo) Chamber
Have you ever been to a public meeting and there was a follow-on online survey, but it felt like the only people who took the survey were the same people at the public meeting? There’s a good chance you’re right.
This “double voice dilemma” inflates engagement numbers and only increases the volume of the loudest voices by having their input counted twice. The solution is to capture data like name or contact information at public meetings and connect the dots to make sure that there is no duplicate input with automated data management.
Does it feel like you’re getting the same community engagement results over and over again, even if you are trying new tactics?
The solution is to re-engage with people who have already been a part of the process, while still using tactics that will reach new groups. The best thing you can do to avoid Groundhog Day is to de-silo data, particularly contact information, and then connecting that to the comments you’re hearing. Ideally you move towards a CRM where you’re managing data that is being collected in a way that is centralized, secure, and easy to share across departments. By knowing who is giving input and what they are saying, you can start to build that database to more easily understand residents and re-engage.
Don’t let your community engagement fall into a black hole like Matthew McConaughey. A recent study from The World Bank found that the biggest predictor of public trust was simply closing the feedback loop: letting residents know what happened with the input they provided. Sometimes the workload it takes to put together a plan leads to overlooking following up with residents on how their input may have impacted that plan. This is not a symptom of government apathy but a lack of time and energy. The right community engagement software will help you do more without having to do more work by automating time consuming tasks and making data-driven decisions.
What if you’re not the final decision maker? How do you get leadership on board?
This was the “so what?” question that Alyssa from GovLove asked. Maybe you get it when it comes to a better community engagement process, but how do you show that value to other team members, especially leadership?
The best way is to use the business philosophy of scaling: starting small, tracking success, and understanding what works. From there, you can expand your efforts. After working with 70+ local governments, we have seen this process work - with small and large projects alike - even if it was only closing the feedback loop.
If you are putting people at the center of community engagement and asking for feedback on the issues that the public cares about, then you will start to see better community engagement outcomes.