By Maureen Tobin & Kit Cole
Evaluation is hard in any field that is qualitative, and public engagement is no exception. How can you evaluate the effectiveness of a conversation or a passionate group discussion about an issue in your community? We want folks who are impacted by projects to have a say in those projects. So how do we know if our public participation (P2) efforts have been successful?
Over the last 30+ years of P2-focused work, we’ve found that while there is no “one size fits all” formula for evaluation, the key is feedback. In order to evaluate P2 efforts, feedback mechanisms need to be built into your organization and processes. Here are our favorite “feedback-focused” evaluation strategies.
Surveys are a great way to get feedback, and when surveys are done well - they work great! It's critical to write your survey questions so they give you the information you
need and are accessible to community members. Equally as important is survey language and the framing of your questions. We like to send out surveys with context so that community members understand what we are asking about and how the results of the survey might be used. When we’ve sent out surveys without context, we always have a low response rate. A friendly reminder at the beginning of the meeting that you are going to send out a survey after the meeting is helpful. A follow up email with an easily accessible link to your survey is a great idea, and you can post QR codes in visible spots in the room and near the exits as people are leaving.
Even better, we love to have community members fill out surveys while they are still at the meeting and we work with our facilitation and follow-up teams to ensure they talk about the survey when they’re visiting with community members. We also recommend having your survey available in multiple formats (pencil and paper, as well as electronically) and in as many languages as necessary. While online surveys are great, some folks don’t have interest in using an online link and some don’t have access to them.
Face-to-face conversations are always good opportunities to gather feedback and meaningfully engage with community members, and these conversations are especially significant as we come out of a two-year pandemic in which almost all P2 was online. Just be aware that face-to-face conversations can often go far longer than you had planned - and can go far afield from the intended subject matter. If you’re planning in-person conversations to get feedback from the community, we recommend you do so in a structured way.
We’ve seen city leaders set up “Coffee Chats” where they pick a local coffee shop and hold (monthly or weekly) office hours for the community. Residents can stop by and speak to the city leader about anything they’d like, but only for a specific amount of time. Another option is to have residents sign up for these office hours and share in advance the subject of what they’d like to discuss. This pre-survey could also include a place for the resident to list any pressing questions they have. Structure and preparation will help you to keep the conversation on topic, on time, and ensure the feedback loop is working properly.
Finally, when thinking about the best method for evaluation, consider your specific community and what might work best for them, but also consider your needs. Will it help to have quantitative data? Qualitative data? How much detail do you want/need in the responses? We also encourage you to think about how any data will be used and stored. What happens after evaluation with your feedback is just as important as getting feedback in the first place.
We have greatly enjoyed putting together this five-part series for you and encourage you to explore P2 strategies and best practices through the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership and The P2Club. You can view the previous installments on P2 below.
Top 5 Mistakes You’re Making with Public Participation
How to Get Other People to do P2 With You
5 Questions to Ask Before Starting the P2 Process
Top 3 Ways to Take Care of Yourself in the Face of Angry Neighbors
By Maureen Tobin & Kit Cole