It’s surprising how seldom we see a breakdown of the cost of public participation across multiple channels or tactics. These breakdowns give a unique window into community engagement that can be extremely useful to agencies trying to create engagement plans and realistic budgets to meet their outreach goals.

That’s why we were so surprised when the Metro Nashville Planning Commission included a powerful slide breaking down cost per participant in a recent webinar with over 600 people online. The agency employed a staggering 8 different tools and tactics in their community engagement process for the APA award-winning NashvilleNext project. They then took the time to carefully breakdown the average cost to engage participants for each one.

Their community engagement activities included a range of face to face public sessions (events, meetings, focus groups, community conversations, lounges and book-a-planner) and three of the most well-known online tools: Textizen, MindMixer and MetroQuest.

Greg Claxton talking about cost per participant on NashvilleNext

Not surprisingly, the face to face activities were the costliest ranging from $9 – $47 per participant compared with $3 – $9 per participant using the online tools. While it would be good to have comparable data from other projects, there are some surprising things here.

The range in costs within the various face to face approaches is larger than I would have expected. I also would have expected higher costs for public meetings based on what I’ve seen in other projects. The relatively low costs are likely testament to Nashville’s excellent promotional efforts to fill the meetings. The meeting shown above was an outlier. It lower cost was due to a terrific turnout on a hot topic.

While it’s gratifying that MetroQuest came out looking great, it’s important to point out, as Greg Claxton of Metro Nashville Planning Commission does in the video, that each tool or approach can attract a different audience. In our experience the most cost-effective strategy can be to use some of the face to face tactics to target demographic groups that are missing online, thus filling in the gaps.

For the online tools, the results met my expectations but I live in the online engagement world every day. SMS-based tools like Textizen can be particularly effective with demographics that love to text. While the audience size might be more limited, it is certainly can be an important component of a project, especially those seeking to hear from youth. Generally, tools that require participant registration like MindMixer (now called My Sidewalk) attract less participation because of people’s resistance to sign up. Even given those factors the cost per participant was still relatively low for all of the online tools.

To learn more about the NashvilleNext community engagement process feel free to request a copy of the full recording of the webinar. The webinar was very well-received and they did a great job of describing their process. The session also qualifies for AICP CM credit for certified planners.

I also caught up with Greg Claxton at the APA National Conference. You’ll see several clips of our interview in the short highlight compilation video below.

Highlights from 9 Mini Interviews on the Floor at APA 2016

P.S. Here are some thoughts on why these sorts of cost breakdowns are so rare. Firstly, in order to compare between strategies fairly, agencies need to use a wide variety of different approaches on the same project. With shrinking budgets, that’s hard to pull off. Secondly, someone has to do the work to cost out and compare the results of each activity. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, that analysis has to be made public in order for you to learn about it. These projects are team efforts with multiple people, firms and departments attached to each activity and politicians and the public scrutinizing the effort. Given that mix of actors, there are almost always a few who would rather not share the cost-effectiveness details. Hopefully this sort of transparency will become increasingly common.