It is by listening that we begin to feel empathy for someone experiencing a problem. For local leaders, listening to the needs, concerns, worries, ideas, and fears of their citizens not only builds empathy, but it also lays the foundation for leaders to deliver on their promise of helping others and enables the collaboration needed to co-create impactful futures.
Governing is about decision-making, but it’s about informed decision-making. The democratic foundation of our nation means that local leaders do not just make choices and govern on behalf of their citizens blindly. It means they enact laws and initiate projects in the best interests of their citizens, as informed by their citizens. Local governments that aim to co-design their community’s future must invite their citizens into the design process, ask questions, and make participants feel that they were invited and heard.
If your community could benefit from a reinvigoration of its citizen engagement model, or you are embarking on an initiative for which it will be crucial to have citizen enthusiasm and buy-in, then you will need to leverage active listening and learning modalities to orchestrate a synergistic design planning experience.
Why Listening Early is Critical
When engaging citizens in policy-shaping dialog, initiate conversations early in the process. Change is always easier and less expensive if it happens earlier on in the process, and further, it can affect a more polished solution. Think about it. If you are in the process of planning a dog park in your community and are going to be surprised by the fact that residents in the immediate area do not want a dog park in their neighborhood, wouldn’t you prefer to be surprised in the early planning phases of the project instead of after you obtain funding, purchase materials, and break ground on the project?
With this proactive engagement framework in mind, ensure that if you are asking questions of your citizenry and that you genuinely want to hear their feedback. If the discussion surrounds a passion project, ask yourself honestly if you can accept hearing feedback that will change the project’s course, and if you will then be willing to pivot and adjust your plan. Leaders must always be prepared to hear what is difficult to learn, so know that listening and engagement activities may not always reaffirm your plans. Sometimes they will derail and reshape what you believe you know.
Types of Engagement Mechanisms
To determine which engagement mechanism is appropriate for your information-gathering needs, consider the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation. Developed by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2), it clarifies the role that the public plays in planning and decision-making, and the level of influence they will expert in the process.
According to IAP2, there are five levels of public participation or community engagement in the Spectrum.
The further to the right one progresses, the more significant the impact the public has in the decision-making process. The levels, from left to right, are as follows:
- Inform – Government leaders provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities, and solutions. This level reflects a one-way flow of information from government to citizens and is not truly a form of engagement.
- Consult – Government leaders obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives, or decisions. Leaders inform the public of their plans and listen to and acknowledge concerns and address how the public’s prior input influenced their decision. The consult level reflects a low level of community engagement as it is fundamentally based on listening and acknowledging.
- Involve – Local leaders work directly with the public during the decision-making process to ensure that citizens’ concerns and hopes are understood and considered at every step. At this level, local leaders not only listen to their citizens’ concerns and feedback, but they also work to ensure those worries are addressed and demonstrate how citizens’ input shaped the outcome.
- Collaborate – At this level, local leaders partner with their citizens through the planning process, including developing alternative outcomes before collaborating on the final, mutually-agreeable solution. This level represents the highest level of community-government engagement.
- Empower – Here, final decision-making is placed solidly in the hands of the people. Local leaders implement plans shaped and decided on by their citizens. The empower level does not necessarily represent the highest level of community engagement, as the community could make decisions on policies with little interaction with their municipal administration.
Choosing the Appropriate Engagement Mechanism for Your Needs
If applying the IAP2 Spectrum to your engagement planning process, step back and ask yourself what type of engagement you genuinely want and need. Also, be sure to apply the selected mechanism appropriately. If you choose to collaborate with your citizens, for example, be prepared to fully use the information that comes out of the sessions to build policies and programs.
The survey modalities you use to engage your community are crucial. You must choose mechanisms and formats that not only gather data but foster feelings of inclusion. To listen to your citizens effectively, you cannot tokenize the listening experience. Citizens will see through a listening process that does not result in a genuine change or actionable impact.
If you successfully engage your citizens, listen to their opinions, and collaborate on ideas for your community, the outcome will be policies that shape your community for years to come or plans that provide long-term leadership and direction.