Training as Therapy: Turning My Public Engagement Failures Into Career Gold

by Susan Hopkins

IAP2 Training in Toronto. 2017

I remember the first time I facilitated a public meeting at which people showed up angry. As a representative of a big box retailer, I was in charge of hosting a public meeting to discuss their plans to build a new store in a small town. Residents of the community came to the meeting in droves to express their outrage. Before the meeting even started, they had already called me every name in the book. The meeting was a total failure and public outcry eventually killed the project. I had wasted my client’s time and money and possibly damaged the community’s trust. The promise I made to myself and my client that night was: this will never happen again.

Public Meetings Gone Wrong 

Fast forward to 12 years later and I find myself in a hotel conference room in Toronto with 30 other planners, reviewing the foundational tenets of public engagement, with the help of the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2). We’re talking about why good public engagement is so important and why bad public engagement is so harmful. And I suddenly see how that terrible meeting years ago was actually one of the most important moments in my career.

It’s true that we learn the most from our failures. Let’s just say I’ve learned A LOT over the years. The IAP2 training, led by the excellent father/daughter duo Jess and Richard Delaney, took me on a three-day journey in which we dissected and picked apart that fateful meeting (and many others) and somehow stitched it all back together into a coherent doctrine of public engagement. Tanya has been practicing these key principles and innovating public engagement techniques for a decade–and her commitment to engagement is what drew me to Highland Planning. I’ve summarized my take on these principles below.

1. Engagement isn’t just an event. It’s an ongoing relationship with your stakeholders. Municipalities, public agencies, non-profit organizations, and companies all have stakeholders: individuals or groups with an interest in the outcome of a project or a decision. It is helpful to think of engagement as a journey, rather than a single event (like a public meeting). Implementing a long-term engagement process, across different projects and departments can help an organization build credibility and trust, which ultimately can help your organization make better decisions more efficiently.

2. If there is no opportunity for influence, there is no engagement. At its core, public engagement is a process that provides the opportunity for the public to influence a decision. The level and scale of shared influence is dictated by many factors. But if there is no opportunity for influence, we’re not actually engaging.  This is the difference between public relations and engagement. One is about managing a narrative, while the other is about building relationships by listening, and being transparent and accountable.

3. Good engagement can help make better decisions. A common misconception is that technical decisions should only be made by experts and trained professionals. It’s true that experts need to be involved. But decisions become much better and more durable in the long-term when we incorporate local knowledge and perspectives.

4. Good engagement creates an environment of no surprises. No one wants to get blindsided at a public meeting by upset community members sharing issues and concerns that haven’t been considered by the team. The solution is straight forward: Talk to people early on in the process. Before making any decisions. Before creating any plans (yes, even if those plans say “draft”). We call this the “pre-engagement” phase during which there is an opportunity to start building relationships with stakeholders and learn about their concerns before asking them to participate in tough decisions.

5. Don’t let techniques wag the dog. I’m often asked to list out when and where and how many public meetings I plan to host before I even begin working on a project. But a public meeting is not a one-size-fits-all approach—and in some cases it may not be as effective as other techniques. A public meeting is just one of over 140 different engagement techniques we use that range from one-way communication to group decision making. When we design an engagement process, specific techniques are the last thing we choose. It is essential to first determine the objectives of engagement, and then select techniques that best meet those objectives.

6. Engage people on values first, then positions.
 One of the most important things I’ve learned the hard way is this: If you provide technical information in response to stakeholders’ emotional concerns, you will create outrage and people will become more entrenched in their positions. If people feel their values are being undermined, there is no amount of evidence that will sway them. People will rarely compromise on their values, but they can be convinced to compromise on positions. For example, if a stakeholder says your road project stinks because his kids may get hit by a car, you may think he is just complaining, or that he is simply uninformed. But he is actually expressing a value based on his experience. That value is safety. If you can engage on the level of values, you may be able to convince him that safety is as important to you as it is to him. If you can convince him his values are being upheld,  you can move towards a more productive discussion.

7. Create a durable engagement process.
 This is probably the most important factor in successful engagement. Develop a solid framework for engagement and a step-by-step process that can be scaled to any size project. You will be rewarded with authentic stakeholder relationships, trust, increased capacity within your organization and resiliency to change.

​8. Have fun. Don’t forget that stakeholders are humans. Humans like to have fun.

​And finally, the term “Career Gold” is a phrase I use to describe how it feels when you find work that truly speaks to you, that gets you out of bed in the morning and gives you purpose in life. That is how I feel about public engagement and facilitation. At its essence, it’s about helping people understand each other. I love this work and look forward to doing more of it…failures and all.
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