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Effective Public Engagement Requires a Lot More Than a Public Hearing

May 13, 2021 by admin
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This article does not necessarily reflect the attitudes or opinions of APAUT or the APAUT Executive Committee.

Public hearings are the core way cities engage their residents before making decisions. At some level, they’re intended to promote local democracy and deliberative, representative decision-making, but that’s not how it typically plays out. We’ve all seen it too many times: a parade of people taking their turn to speak for three minutes into a microphone, usually to protest some proposed action.

What’s wrong with that method of engaging the public? Nothing’s wrong with it, and it’s even legally required, but there are a variety of reasons it shouldn’t be the only or primary method a city uses. First, only a small slice of the community participates, and they generally aren’t representative of everybody else. In a recent Envision Utah survey, almost 60% of respondents said they’d never attended a city council meeting, and only about a third said they knew when, where, or how to provide input. Those who were generally opposed to growth in their city were far more likely to say they’d attended a meeting or weighed in on a particular project. In other words, large portions of the community—especially those who may be supportive or neutral about a proposed development—do not attend or speak at public hearings.

Second, public hearings are not conducive to constructive dialogue. There is no back-and-forth discussion—indeed, an attempt to engage in this way would likely descend into chaos—and emotions are high because there’s a concrete project or decision that’s being considered. Instead of asking residents to grapple with how to accommodate growth and share how they would solve problems, public hearings encourage people to express support or opposition (typically opposition).

Third, public hearings focus decisions on the short term and on a small geography. The local impacts of a single project become the crux of the matter, without any consideration of regional growth patterns or impacts. It’s nearly impossible in a public hearing to ask where the growth will go if it doesn’t go in that particular spot and whether the impacts might actually be worse, or what would happen if every neighboring city made similar decisions. And—perhaps most important—it’s difficult to consider each decision as part of a holistic plan that will bring the best results for everyone.

Fortunately, there are better ways to engage the public. Ways that gather representative input, lead to plans and policies with broad public support, improve understanding, and generate respectful, civil, and constructive conversations. The first key is to put significant time and effort into having a robust citywide conversation at the vision or general plan level. If enough people participate in that discussion and buy into the overall vision, it’s easier to stick to the plan when individual projects come forward without having a shouting match each time.

When engaging in that visioning conversation, cities should always begin the discussion with the regional growth realities. Growth doesn’t disappear if a city council doesn’t zone for it—the growth just goes somewhere else, even if that somewhere else is a parent’s basement. And the impacts of growth don’t end at city boundaries, so every planning process should look at the regional context. A good way to do this is by developing a series of growth scenarios in which the total future population remains constant; if the growth doesn’t happen in your city, it goes to nearby cities, and everyone still feels the impacts.

Another key to a robust visioning discussion is widespread, inclusive, and representative engagement. A group of key stakeholders can help advise and oversee the process, and multiple engagement methods should be used, including both qualitative and quantitative techniques, as well as both in-person and online. Make sure loud voices don’t dominate the conversation, and give people multiple touch points where they can engage with low barriers to participation. Above all, invest enough time and expense to maximize participation by really getting the word out. Think about asking prominent community members to share links, spending significant amounts on digital advertising, and even using incentives like prize drawings for those who participate.

Once you’ve had this robust, constructive conversation, you can confidently say that you have a city vision that represents the desires of your residents and enjoys widespread buy-in. That will allow you to stick to your vision and not rehash the debate with every project that comes forward.

For more information about how to effectively engage the public in growth conversations, take a look at the new Wasatch Choice Public Engagement Guidebook.

Ari Bruening

CEO

Envision Utah

 

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