Lead With Engagement

by Susan Hopkins and Tanya Zwahlen

Before we became focused on community engagement, we were planners working on transportation, economic development, and community revitalization projects. We’ve done our fair share of hand wringing about how to address a member of the public that criticizes our process, our project or our client. We’ve also been involved in our fair share of public relations disasters. We’ve been at meetings that were hijacked by outraged neighbors. Those experiences led us to our practice today and our philosophy to lead with engagement.

When we say we ‘lead with engagement,’ the first question that comes to my mind is, “what do we usually lead with?” Here is a list of the things planners usually do before we engage the community:

  • Define the problem
  • Decide the scope of the project
  • Determine the timeline for completion
  • Decide who we want to engage in the community as well as and when, where, and how to engage
  • Review and analyze previous plans
  • Gather data about the past
  • Gather data about the present
  • Prepare preliminary alternatives/designs/drawings
  • Develop evaluation criteria

We do some or possibly ALL of that before we talk to a single community member. In some rare cases, we make a decision or select a final recommendation for a project before talking to stakeholders. This usually leads to the need to defend our decision.  We have experienced countless examples in which the usual approach has cost communities time, money, and social capital.

What happens when we flip the process upside down? If we look at the steps outlined above and reframe each of those activities as an opportunity to engage stakeholders, we will create better outcomes and develop sustained community buy-in.  Leading with engagement means talking to stakeholders comes first. It means we first ask stakeholders and community members what’s important about a project, what the key issues are, and who we should involve. We listen first and use their feedback as a guide for the rest of the project. We engage before we draw maps, analyze, evaluate, or solve. We start talking about why a project, a place, a building is important before we start determining its future.

We believe that all of our activities are a series of small decisions that add up to bigger decisions. And we believe that as inconvenient, chaotic and disruptive as their input can be (#truth), the public not only deserves to be part of our process, but we need their input to make our project successful.

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