A Few Tips to Achieve Results

By: Jeff Ferber, ASLA, Principal

Most of us in the planning and design professions have attended or organized quite a few public workshops or community meetings.  Do you recall many of them being meaningful and worthwhile? How effectively did they accomplish the intended purpose or move the discussion in a constructive direction? Public workshops are conducted for many reasons including sharing and collecting information. But I think far too often the motivation is simply “because we have to hold one.”

The difference between an effective outreach effort and one that is undertaken purely to check a box and meet a requirement can be defined by how well the time is used at public meetings. There are a few steps you can take to make your public outreach effort and workshops more effective and more likely to achieve meaningful objectives and results.

Tip #1: Develop a Strategy

Most projects benefit greatly from more than just a single outreach effort. A public dialog takes time; try not to do too much in one session. Be careful about assuming one meeting will be sufficient, as you may very well realize after the meeting that you need to tier-off or expand on that effort. This will lead to a disjointed effort, sessions that don’t relate well to previous meetings, and missed opportunities. Worse yet, you might lose momentum or confuse the public, failing to generate the support you are looking for on your project. Plan the entire strategy for the project before you engage the public. Be flexible and adjust the strategy as necessary, but begin with a plan.

Tip #2: Increase Participation

If you really want to engage the public and find out what they’re thinking, you need to make a legitimate effort to increase participation in your outreach activities. Design your outreach strategy to include interaction outside of the typical weeknight evening meeting. Consider finding times and venues to include folks that do not regularly attend civic meetings. For example, reach out to service organizations or find a volunteer to host a meeting and venture into a neighborhood to meet with people where they are comfortable–take the show on the road.

Tip #3: Show the Public Their Input Matters

Never organize any public outreach activity just because “you have to” or in order to meet a requirement. Whether you have planned a one-on-one stakeholder interview, a site tour, or a public goal-setting session, make it clear to the attendees why the activity is important to the success of the project. Communicate what needs to be accomplished during the session and how you plan to use the input they provide. Thank them for their help and then carefully outline the upcoming steps. Don’t forget to get their contact information so they can be invited to the next exercise. Dangle the carrot that will entice them to return and help again.

The most important question you can ask yourself and your teammates while planning a public outreach event is: what do we want to achieve, and do our activities accomplish that goal? Watch for future installments on this topic for more ideas to make your outreach more effective.