Your Best (and Worst) Public Engagement Experiences

by Susan Hopkins, AICP
​​A few days ago, I had a chance to unravel the pile of sticky notes we collected during a Cardstorming exercise we facilitated at the Upstate APA Conference last month. Andre, Christopher, and I asked a group of about 70 planning professionals to share short descriptions of both bad and good public engagement experiences they had. More about that process here. A quick summary of what we heard is below…


I think we all know the bad, so I won’t dwell on it here. But I believe we learn as much from the bad as we do from the good. From experiences with “belligerent attorneys” to “dumb engagement exercises” to situations that became physically violent and/or which the police had to be called, some themes emerged during this exercise:


  • Grandstanding
  • Outrage
  • Angry and aggressive behavior
  • Lack of diversity at meetings
  • Racism
  • Lack of participation
  • Bias
  • Defensive speakers
  • Stonewalling / misleading meeting leaders
  • Decision already made

These experiences are unpleasant for anyone involved—whether you are managing a public engagement process or participating in it. Bad experiences like those above can ruin relationships with stakeholders and damage trust in government institutions. But in most cases, I believe these outcomes are avoidable.


Now for the good. One thing is clear, people like to have fun, make connections, and participate in something energizing. Why do we ignore this when designing most of our meetings? (I have some theories, but that is for another blog post.)

Other themes that describe “good engagement” included the following:

  • Interactive
  • Informative
  • Meeting rules were explained and enforced
  • Laughter
  • Diverse participation
  • Respectful
  • Inclusive
  • Great visuals

I was particularly struck by one concept I saw on many post-it notes during his exercise because it is actually one of Highland Planning’s Core Values: listen.

It’s true that listening—and proving that you listened—is one of the most important aspects of any engagement process.

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