Three Ways to Make Public Engagement Great During the COVID-19 Era

We need public engagement more than ever. But we have to completely rethink how we do it.

The act of gathering in groups to discuss issues and solve problems is one of the most fundamental aspects of being human. In our practice, we believe that in-person public engagement is the most efficient and effective way to promote dialogue and generate consensus. In the new COVID-19 era, our sudden loss of human expression has transformed the world and every facet of our lives. As planners and public engagement specialists, we’ve seen unique impacts to our profession. Involving the public in decision-making through public participation is a core feature of planning. But this public health crisis means we can’t gather in groups, large or small. We’ve lost our most effective engagement tools, which revolve around in-person gatherings: meetings, workshops, door-to-door outreach, pop-ups at festivals and events, interviews, and site tours.

Online Meeting Tools are Not the Whole Solution

We are fortunate that when many of us woke up to the new reality of COVID-19, we found there were already dozens of fabulous digital tools available that have allowed us to keep communicating and engaging. But these digital tools are not, in themselves, the solution to effective community engagement in our new reality. Many of us have learned already that trying to replicate in-person public meetings in digital space is a delicate endeavor: it can be less effective, less accessible, more expensive, and risky. Not everyone has access to the internet, laptops with cameras, or other devices. Many people do not feel comfortable using video conference tools, as a result many people talk less and are generally less engaged. The New York Times published an informative piece explaining why video conferencing is so exhausting and unfulfilling. For many reasons, video conference tools are not a simple replacement for in-person group dialogue.

We’re in this for the long haul. Over the next one to two years, we may see the virus follow a wave pattern, abating and then peaking again. We may see future periods of long-term quarantine, or we may see quarantine orders relaxed. But it may be longer after that before the general public feels comfortable walking into a room full of people for a public meeting. Effective public engagement over the next few years will require us to rethink everything. Our future with COVID will require that we completely transform the way we conceptualize public engagement and how it functions in time and across space.

Tip 1: Focus on objectives-based engagement

That means we can no longer have a public meeting simply because it’s in the grant application, scope, or budget. We have to know why we need to engage because the answer to that will allow us to pick the best process and the best tools. The IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation offers some guidance for how to identify objectives and corresponding techniques.

Questions to consider when determining your objectives:

  • What is the potential for the public to influence the decision-making process?
  • What do we need to know from stakeholders to move forward?
  • What does the public expect or need from engagement?
  • What is the potential for public outrage related to the project?
  • How does public participation align with the project decision-making process?


Tip 2: Unpack the entire engagement process

Unpack the process into its component parts and implement each one separately, sometimes sequentially, sometimes iteratively, with redundancies built in throughout. Before COVID, we may have decided to host a public meeting in order to get feedback on a proposed concept. Implementing that meeting included a few steps. Today, achieving the same objectives means we need to break up those steps into seven or eight in order to create multiple points of contact and redundancies. This is because people can’t gather in a room and talk to each other. We lose the efficiency of dialogue and therefore need to provide that iteration in other ways. If an in-person meeting is replaced with a Zoom meeting or webinar, more steps are required to make it effective.

Tip 3: Treat accessibility as an imperative, not a buzzword.

This refers to ways to engage people who don’t use email, don’t have internet, or don’t have access to computers or other devices. Many of these people were our core stakeholders (or “regulars”) in pre-COVID times. What they lacked in technology, they made up for in time and the ability travel to in-person events. But also consider that many people without digital access were stakeholders we struggled to engage even before COVID. Both groups include members of our society who are currently most vulnerable to the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. Many of these stakeholders may not be in a position to participate in public decisions for other reasons—they have lost jobs, or may be fearful of losing a job. They may be caring for children or sick relatives. They may be sick themselves or dealing with anxiety and depression. When designing engagement activities, think about how people want to and are able to spend their time: do they want to be stuck in front of a screen? Does someone need a hard copy of materials mailed to them so they can follow along on a virtual meeting? Would a one-on-one phone conversation work better for someone?

If we can help you think through your public engagement challenges, give us a call!


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