How Planning Consultants Win Clients with Exceptional Public Engagement

Man and woman excited by report results

Consultants competing for urban and transportation planning projects with government agencies are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves with a competitive edge. As firms and government agencies alike struggle with engaging constituents at public meetings, increasingly, leading firms are using online public engagement prowess to win projects and increase client loyalty.

To learn more about this trend and what leading consulting teams are doing to enhance their public engagement offerings, we interviewed a range of firms, from the largest planning and engineering firms to smaller boutique public engagement firms. They agreed on three things:

  1. Planning projects present unique public engagement goals,
  2. The benefits for creating leading edge public engagement capabilities have never been greater, and
  3. When used skillfully, today’s public engagement toolbox can deliver game-changing results.

The detailed results of this research are presented in a recent webinar recording: How to Optimize Public Engagement to Wow Clients on Every Project. Here’s a summary for quick reference.

We found 4 unique goals for public engagement to support urban and transportation planning projects.

#1. Increase public participation

Agencies cite increasing participation as their top challenge, nationwide. With dwindling attendance at public meetings, now averaging nine people per meeting, increasing the number of people engaged to inform and support planning efforts is top of mind for government agencies. Planning projects represent major investments of public funds and require major public participation. Firms with case studies that can demonstrate large scale public engagement stand out.

#2. Broaden demographics

Environmental justice and other directives require agencies to demonstrate diversity in their public outreach. Several key demographics continue to be difficult to reach with traditional methods increasing the urgency to hire a team with a track record and a plan to broaden the diversity of participation well beyond the usual suspects.

#3. Inform and educate

Planning projects deal with complex topics and any meaningful engagement must demonstrate to decision makers that the public input was informed. Planning decisions involve constraints, trade-offs, visual-preferences, and other complexities that need to be embedded skillfully into the engagement process to gather trustworthy community preferences. Teams with a plan for weaving education into their outreach process instill confidence with agency representatives.

#4. Quantify public input

Anyone who’s had the ‘pleasure’ of summarizing hundreds or thousands of community comments can appreciate the benefit of collecting quantifiable public input. Agency planning professionals must summarize public input in a clear and easily digestible format for decision makers. Consulting proposals that demonstrate a concrete plan for collecting data on public preferences in well-structured ways will generate confidence. Today, public input must support data-driving planning.

We’re always impressed with our friends at the national planning and design consulting firm, Kimley-Horn, who have consistently delivered great public engagement. To date, they’ve engaged over 68,000 people with online surveys and collected over 1.5 million data points to support both urban and transportation planning projects. That’s exceptional value for their clients! Stephen Stansbury, Vice President at Kimley-Horn, described the advantage of great online public engagement,

“Thousands of data points have just become a customary result … that increased volume of participation increases confidence in the results and makes our planning process go that much more smoothly. It’s adding value to the communities that we’re working with.”

We uncovered 8 benefits of leading-edge public engagement specific to planning consultants.

Another leading firm that needs no introduction is Michael Baker International. Our friend Kenneth Mobley, Associate Vice President and Planning Manager, described the struggles facing so many consulting firms during our interview,

“A lot of our meetings were having low attendance, and so, we were looking for something that was creative, that was online, and that we could use as an alternative to traditional meetings. We really needed to have something to distinguish ourselves from engagement firms that are small and very specialized. We needed a platform to get to a large number of people in a cost-effective way.”

Kenneth turned to online public engagement surveys years ago to solve these challenges. Michael Baker International was among many firms that were interviewed, which cited the following eight benefits of going beyond the traditional methods and delivering best in class public engagement services for their planning projects:

  1. Impress clients with increased participation,
  2. Champion data-driven plans,
  3. Build public support and foster trust,
  4. Reduce risk of public backlash,
  5. Foster confidence with elected officials,
  6. Get innovative plans approved,
  7. Cultivate customer loyalty, and
  8. Gain a lasting competitive edge!

Kenneth’s colleague, Lorna Parkins, Vice President of Transportation Planning at Michael Baker International described the impact of great online pubic engagement in serving her clients,

“We’re able to go to decision makers and show them ‘we got this much input, and these were the findings.’ This gives them more confidence to tell us that they’re ready to move forward. They feel that what they’ve heard from the public is reliable.”

In the webinar, we shared 12 keys success factors used by leading firms to optimize public engagement in planning projects.

The webinar outlines 12 key success factors in detail that leading consulting teams are using to meet the unique challenges of public engagement for planning clients. To pique your curiosity, each team is doing these three things incredibly well.

#1. Firms are dramatically lowering the barriers to engagement by using online tools.

These consulting teams are focussed on using fast and visually appealing online surveys as a primary source of public input. These tools help to engage larger numbers of people on every project and reach a broader demographic than more traditional techniques.

#2. They are weaving education into interactive online surveys to ensure that the public input they collect is informed.

In order to ensure that the public input is informed, rather than providing documentation that is seldom read or detailed presentations that are poorly attended, leading teams rely on gamified and interactive tools that embed education into the survey process. The most successful teams have experience translating planning complexities into compelling questions and images that highlight trade-offs, limitations, visual-preferences, and other planning issues.

#3. Leveraging social media and other cost-effective techniques to promote participation.

A wide range of tools and strategies are available to agencies for promoting participation and targeting difficult to reach populations. To say that most agencies are overwhelmed by the options and unclear about which ones to use for which purposes would be an understatement. Consultants with experience and a track record for promoting participation have a significant advantage. Using boosted Facebook posts to promote their online surveys is one way that firms are repeatably able to engage thousands and impress clients.

The most effective strategies for these areas and each of the 12 key success factors are described in the webinar video using case studies and feedback from our consultant interviews. We’d like to congratulate all the firms nationwide on their outstanding public engagement success! Thank you for the opportunity to share your stories.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.