The five benefits of engaging a larger, broader audience
Online public engagement tools are giving project leaders even more ways to reach out and gather public input. With so much change happening it’s useful to take stock and ask ourselves why we do this. What’s the payoff of better community engagement?
What does ‘better’ engagement even mean? Let’s start there. When we say it we mean getting more people involved, and to have those people represent a broader cross-section of the overall community – not just the same ten angry people that show up to every public meeting. Better engagement also means getting meaningful, informed and actionable data – not just random comments and simple text responses.
So why is this important? Here are some of the most frequent things we hear from clients about their return-on-investment (ROI) from improved public engagement:
1. Hearing from people who aren’t negative.
Who is it that usually shows up to community workshops? People that are extremely motivated, enough to go out of their way to voice their concerns. These people are by and large the ones that have a negative opinion about a project. Nobody ever takes the day off to take to the streets in a march of support for a recent decision by the local government – that’s generally reserved for protestors, not supporters. This is likely the most important reason why public workshops seem to be so filled with naysayers.
The average person isn’t so negative or angry about a project that they’re willing to give up their evening in order to go and have their voice heard at a public forum. For these less motivated people it’s critical to create an easy and fast way for them to express their opinions. If you do, you’ll likely be very pleased at how positive and constructive people can be.
2. Learning something that you didn’t know before.
As mentioned above, you rarely get to hear from the open-minded moderates in your community. What do they think? It’s a mystery.
You might have a perceived notion of what you think the public really wants, but you might be surprised what the broader public actually thinks. The answer is probably a lot more progressive than you’d guess.
During a recent project that we did with the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization in Florida, our client assumed that the majority of their local community were in favor of the current state of things – urban sprawl with no major density downtown where most people commuted. This assumption was based on what they were used to hearing from the “public” at traditional workshops and meetings.
However, after doing an online survey using MetroQuest and getting 6,000 responses from a broad demographic, they were shocked to see that over 80% were actually in favor of a much more densely populated downtown core with extensive public transportation options and support for cyclists. This result was all the more impactful because MetroQuest presented both the benefits and trade-offs of each alternative before collecting their opinions. That meant that people supported this smart growth direction knowing full well that along with the benefits come some tough trade-offs.
Bonus Benefit – Crowdsourced Knowledge
Another benefit is that better engagement from more people and a more diverse audience also leads to the creation of a crowdsourced knowledgebase of your community, by your community. This is incredibly useful information for any planning department.
Say you have a 50-mile corridor, and through engaging the public in that area you collect 10,000 markers on the map of the most important issues for those constituents. You may think you know everything about the area, but then you see that 400 people point out the same bad crosswalk over and over again and you get a better idea of where the problem areas really lie.
Those people might never have spoken up or been able to give their opinions and insights to you without more accessible engagement opportunities.
3. Saving money and time on plan approvals and implementation.
By getting more informed and meaningful input from a larger portion of the community, including the often hard to reach segments, projects will have much greater community acceptance. With more community support and better data, these projects will then get final approval for plans with less effort and less cost.
Paul Kraehling, a planner with the City of Guelph, is familiar with facing opposition when it comes to planning projects. His department used to have to deal with many costly appeals during major planning proposals, but after using MetroQuest for a project they had much better engagement – and because they collected robust, informed opinions from a wider audience they avoided this issue and for the first time in their history there were no appeals to the Municipal Board.
Better engagement also leads to an increase in the speed and efficiency for getting plans implemented. After completing their survey that I mentioned previously, the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization received unanimous approval for their plan and moved to the implementation phase immediately. In the months following the approval they implemented a bike sharing program and a series of other smart growth programs without resistance.
Overall message: earn community support through better engagement at the planning phase to save time and money on implementation.
4. Avoiding false starts and failed plans.
The harsh reality is that some projects just outright fail. The plans may be approved but somewhere between approval and implementation, it gets overturned or stopped by some kind of community resistance. A city might spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars creating a plan, only for the plan to fail for lack of community or political support.
With better engagement, a planning exercise will figure out whatever hidden issues might exist beforehand and build real community support before moving forward. Not only is a plan that is doomed to fail a huge waste of taxpayers’ funds, it’s also very costly in terms of political “capital”. Which brings us to our final observation…
5. Building trust for the agencies.
A benefit of engaging a wider audience and informing more of your community is that this leads to a greater level of trust between the public and the agencies. Time and time again you can read reports about public agencies that suffer from poor reputations in their communities. These bad relationships between the agencies and the public make it more difficult to get projects done.
An example of an agency that is suffering from a lack of trust is Translink, the Corporation that runs the regional transit network in Vancouver, BC. Translink is criticized for lack of transparency and weak public engagement. The animosity that has built up could derail the current bid for a half percent sales tax hike to support increased transit. The major question in the referendum has not been if the region should invest in transit. It’s been about whether or not Translink deserves the right to manage it. If, as it now appears, they lose the referendum it will cost Translink billions in revenues. One can’t help but think about the massive return on investment that better engagement could have brought about for Translink.
As we always tell clients, better engagement leads to getting a better view of public opinion and gaining community acceptance of proposed plans. Who doesn’t want that?