Top 5 Mistakes You’re Making with Public Participation

By Kit Cole & Maureen Tobin

While public outreach and engagement is difficult, it is absolutely necessary for local governments and residents - now, more than ever. Between housing mandates from the state and increasing pressure from local community groups on all kinds of issues, there’s never been a more urgent time to implement public participation (P2) in your community.

P2 has been our focus for decades and we’ve seen the same mistakes, over and over (and made many of them ourselves!). We have curated a list of the top five P2 mistakes to help shed some light on these common errors. It’s important to know where the pitfalls are so you can avoid them.

1. Thinking the goal of outreach is that everyone will love you/your city/your project

There’s no way everyone is going to love everything you’re doing. Unfortunately, some folks think that the goal of P2 is to win people over to support the project. Instead, think of the goal as making sure everyone has the right information to make an informed decision. Everyone has a right to their opinion. Your job is to make sure they get the facts and the context - and then let them make up their own mind.

2. Focusing on winning over the haters

See #1 - Not everyone will love your project (and it's not your job to make them!). Focusing on changing the haters’ minds doesn’t get you anywhere. Instead, focus on communicating with people who do not (yet) have an opinion on your project.

3. Hiding behind a screen in your (home) office

In the last two years we have learned the value of face-to-face interaction and the great impact it has on P2. Nobody got any information from you because you were typing furiously on your laptop in your home office. Yes, you can inform and engage the public via online tools, but even if you’re communicating via social media or another channel, there is no true substitute for (safe!) face-to-face interaction.

4. Appointing yourself as the “outreach czar” of your local government

You need other people’s help (both at City Hall and in the neighborhoods) and you need them to also speak up about the project. Taking it all on your shoulders will result in burn out, resentment, and frustration. It can also lead to a narrow view of who to engage. Different perspectives allow for better engagement planning. An outreach team working collaboratively will be far more effective than one individual trying to do it all.

5. Not keeping your City Manager and City Council in the loop on your outreach work

Your CM/CEO and elected officials are not going to be happy about getting ambushed at the local Starbucks by the folks who just happened to be there, organizing against your project. Whether you’re posting on social media or getting ready to have a small group meeting about your project, keep them in the loop!

If you’d like to master P2, we can help! We've got resources for you - the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership’s Professional Certificate in Public Engagement for Local Government training - a six week course where you’ll learn from the best and brightest on how to tackle the sticky P2 situations you’re up against. And The P2Club where you get ongoing group training and one-on-one help (from experts like us!) with your most urgent P2 problems –