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5 Pitfalls of Public Engagement

The City of Carlsbad is revamping the way we involve the public in project planning and decision making. The outcome of this new approach will mean increased community buy-in, fewer project delays and decisions that better reflect the needs, values and priorities of those we serve.

The city’s Communication Department has staff certified by the International Association of Public Participation and is here to help, starting with avoiding these five common pitfalls.

We’re the Experts

It's true, city staff have more technical knowledge than most members of the public. However, city residents are experts in one very important area – what it’s like to be a resident. That perspective is critical to making the very best decisions.

DAD Knows Best

The “decide, announce, defend” approach is the most common, and one of the worst! Sometimes it helps to show draft documents or project concepts, but it’s generally best to start our conversation with the public at an earlier stage in the process. When we understand the public’s needs, values and priorities, we can create a better project from the start.

SCID to the Finish Line

The “solicit, consider, ignore, decide” approach starts with asking for broad input, resulting in lots of ideas that can’t be used. It’s far better to limit input to topics and decisions where there is a real opportunity for influence. Otherwise, we damage our relationship with the public because people don’t feel their input mattered (and it really didn’t).

If a Tree Falls in the Woods …

Holding a poorly attended public meeting does not equal public involvement. Public meetings will always have their place, but today there are many more (and often better) ways to engage the public. We’ve had good success with online surveys (mobile friendly, please), popping up a canopy at the project site and even going door to door to talk to neighbors.

Engagement Fatigue

The city’s new approach to community engagement doesn’t mean that every project or every decision needs public input. Asking the public to weigh in too often creates fatigue, resulting in a LESS engaged community. The key is knowing when and how to involve the public.

So what’s the right way to involve our community? Ha. Trick question. There is no “right” way. Effective public involvement is tailored to each situation, based on careful consideration of several variables.

Here are some questions the Communication Department will ask to help develop the best public involvement strategy for your project:

  • What specific decision or decisions do you want input on?

  • What decisions have already been made?

  • Who is most likely to be interested in or affected by these decisions?

  • Does your project affect any of the common “outrage factors,” topics certain to raise concerns (community character, property values, etc.)?

  • How significant is the impact?

  • How will the public know how their input influenced the decision?

P.S. What’s in a name?

Public involvement, community engagement, public participation? What’s the difference? Well, it depends on who you ask. The City of Carlsbad is using these terms more or less interchangeably.

Technically, “community engagement” is a broader term that refers to all the ways a community member might feel connected to the city. This could include participating in a city program, being a volunteer, coming to a city event or even voting in an election. It also includes all the touch points a community member has with the city, like visiting the website to get an answer to a question or submitting a request for public records.

The Communication Department is generally using the term “public involvement” or “public participation” to refer to getting input from the community on city decisions.

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