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Three steps for engaging the public successfully

Key concept

Matching the right tool and process to your goal for public participation can provide for an experience and outcome that creates trust, buy-in and support for decisions.

How can we engage the public successfully?

Tip: Align the public participation strategy with the goal

Community members having a group discussion.

Public participation involves the public in solving problems or making decisions that affect them. There are several important reasons to engage the public. When you determine your goal for involving the public, and then intentionally use tools and processes that support that goal, you will build trust and support for decisions. Following you will learn:

  • What are some goals for engaging the public?
  • What tools and resources best align with goals?

Three steps to successful engagement

To have an effective and useful public participation experience for all involved, the leader must design the experience with intention. Be sure to:

  1. Identify and be clear about the reason, or goal for engaging with the public.

  2. Share the identified purpose with participants.

  3. Select the right tool and/or process that will meet the identified purpose.

Be clear on the goal for engaging the public

You know it will be helpful to engage the public in a decision or action. But you also recall times when you have been part of a public process, either as leader or participant that were not pleasant or helpful. To avoid using a process that is not helpful, clearly identify your purpose for engaging the public and share this identified purpose with participants. In work by Sherry Arnstein in 1969, and later by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2), levels of public engagement were identified. They are to:

  • Inform the public with objective and balanced information. This is a one-way flow of information.
  • Consult with the public by informing them and then requesting input.
  • Involve the public in the decision by accepting input and reflecting this input in the choice.
  • Collaborate by engaging with the public and sharing the decision-making with them.
  • Empower the public by putting the final decision in their hands.

Note that each level of engagement deepens the involvement of the public.

Align the tool or process with the goal you set

The process that is used implies a "promise" about the level of engagement being sought. For example, if a decision has already been made, and a public meeting is convened to inform the public, that meeting should not be publicized or constructed to gather input from the public. If the information that is gathered will not change the decision, the implied promise is broken. When the goal and the process are not aligned, negative feelings can result. Again, it is important to share with members of the public the purpose of engaging with them.

Following are some suggested tools that match the five levels of engagement:

  • To inform the public … hand out fact sheets or call meetings clearly described as informational.
  • To consult with the public … give the public chances to comment; convene focus groups; design public meetings that aim for dialogue rather than debate so that mutual learning can occur.
  • To involve the public … conduct workshops; place interested or affected members on decision-making boards or groups; conduct polls.
  • To collaborate with the public … create committees with members who have some decision-making authority; use agreement-building or participatory decision-making strategies.
  • To empower the public … create citizen juries; hand over decision-making to commissions, teams or committees.

Engaging the public can be an evolving process. It is possible to start at one level of engagement and then move to another as you learn from the input gathered. Skilled management is necessary to create winning processes for engaging the public.

Author: Barbara Radke, former Extension educator

How can Extension help

Extension leadership and civic engagement (LCE) educators work across the state of Minnesota. They provide educational programs and consultations that help communities solve problems and make decisions.

Contact an educator near you or program leader Holli Arp.

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