Growing Public Participation

Posted on September 20, 2018


Billy Trakas

Bang the Table Engagement Specialist Billy Trakas shares strategies to increase your agency’s public participation by implementing inclusive engagement strategies.

Inclusive Engagement – Why Knowing Your Audience Matters

Ask any public speaker the first thing they do when preparing a presentation and they’ll tell you “figure out who the audience is.” Only then can they develop relevant messaging that speaks to the hearts and minds of the people in the audience.

Knowing your audience is equally important, perhaps more so, for local governments. It’s likely not all residents will have access to a computer, but they may use a cell phone to access the internet. And limiting official communications to English only creates a language barrier and the perception that certain audiences need not participate. By recognizing and including diverse groups in the discussion, officials can serve all members of the community.

Inclusive public engagement is not only the right thing to do, it’s what builds strong, sustainable relationships and helps capture a complete range of values and perspectives. Getting diversified public feedback ultimately leads to better decision making and policy discussions. Gaining a full range of perspectives also increases the likelihood of successful implementation of public programming because the entire community takes ownership.

Studies Find Inclusion and Diversity Lead to Better Outcomes

The topic of diversity’s benefits is not new. An article published in Scientific American had the headline: “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter – Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.”

In the article, Professor Phillips concludes (after an extensive multidisciplinary study of current and past research):

Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior … diversity works [by] promoting hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives even before any interpersonal interaction takes place.

Other studies have pointed to the importance and benefits of inclusivity. One by McKinsey, which looked at 180 companies across four countries over a period of two years, found that diverse boards generated returns on equity that were 53% higher, on average, than companies with less diverse boards. The more diverse businesses also generated 14% higher earnings before interest and tax, on average.

A recent study of 566 real business decisions made by 184 business teams found that the most diverse teams made better decisions 87% of the time, which lead to better business performance and a competitive advantage.

Local governments would be wise to take a cue from the private sector by instituting diversity-based outreach and initiatives and encouraging participation from all groups. Yes, gaining a good representation from across the general public can be a bit challenging but the results of inclusive engagement are well worth the effort.

Inclusive Engagement Strategies

Effective community engagement requires thoughtful planning, consideration and understanding of what makes a community a community. Public officials should strive to engage, as best as possible, the entire demographics of the community in regard to age, race, income and gender identity.

Many of our clients come to us with a similar question: How do we create a space for dialogue and bring everyone to the table to share their views? Underserved communities are far more likely to engage when you take steps to build relationships.

Here are some strategies to promote equity and community dialogue among your residents:

Embrace ChangeLion King clip

In order for community engagement to flourish, officials must be open to change and willing to invite all groups to the table to participate. Before any outreach efforts, take some time to foster a culture of diversity within your agencies. In time, these changes will drive new decision-making processes that are more inclusive and transparent.

Do Your Homework

If you haven’t done so already, you will need to gather information to find out exactly who makes up your community and learn their history. Observe and ask about the characteristics that define the group and distinguish them from others. These could be things like cultural tradition and ethnicity, socioeconomic class, employment categories, and/or religion.

Do these groups have their own social organizations, networks and institutions? Do they hold events? By participating in these events, you can gain insights into what the group values and how they may be struggling.

Meet with Influential Leaders

Consider surveying these diverse groups to find out who their influential leaders are, then convene a community council comprised of these leaders to begin building relationships. Meetings should uncover cultural resources and assets as well as needs.

Tip: Engage leaders early in your planning process. Bringing them on board in the beginning will allow them to give you input to the way you engage the public.

Create a Welcoming Atmosphere

Welcoming community members through inclusive language and imagery is one thing, welcoming them through action is altogether different. Are your processes inviting? Do the venues you choose invite participation and encourage engagement from all community members?

Make it a priority to hire staff that is representative of the communities you serve, reflecting all racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Choose gathering spaces that are accessible and comfortable for the public.

According to a report released by the Center for Immigration Studies, 21% of U.S. residents have English as a second language. Recognize that some of your residents may not yet be fluent in English and consider having a translator or bilingual materials present at meetings.

TIP: To help ESL community members acclimate and assimilate, consider hosting adult ESL classes and conversation groups or tap into staff resources to host a public meeting in Spanish.

Increase Accessibility

Beyond ensuring your meeting locations are wheelchair accessible, are there any other issues or barriers that may impede participation? Think time, transportation, childcare, food, power dynamics. How can you decrease barriers to attendance while increasing the level of input from the public? How can you select the most effective communication methods to encourage engagement?

Develop Alternative Methods for Engagement

Are you currently using non-traditional methods of outreach to get your entire community involved? Do you provide alternate opportunities for social interaction and relationship building? Do you offer multiple ways for the public to contribute input and offer feedback?

Today’s audiences are digitally-connected 24/7, 365. They expect to be able to do everything from buy groceries to schedule a dentist appointment to book a hotel room online. Regardless of race, nationality, or economic status, as communicators we need to meet people where they are.

At Bang the Table, our mission is to give everyone a voice on issues that matter to them. We’ve developed the EngagementHQ platform to make it incredibly easy to reach, inform and involve all residents in policy development and decisions, helping local leaders bring inclusivity to the forefront of their engagement strategy.

Public leaders have become increasingly aware that a top-down approach to social change doesn’t work. Achieving cohesion, where all groups are acknowledged and invited to the table, requires deep commitment to hearing all voices and valuing diverse perspectives. Without inclusive engagement, even the best programs and initiatives cannot succeed.

This month’s webinar, co-hosted by Bang the Table and ELGL, will dive into using online engagement to reach and get feedback from your diverse community stakeholders. You can register here.

I’m an extroverted introvert exploring the Bay Area and finding my way in the local government field. I love analyzing processes, eating ice cream, showing how fun local government is, and learning about different cultures through culinary experiences. Also, I’m a crazy cat-mom.

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