This is part II of a two-part series on strategies for community engagement in a new era. Part I is here. This conversation is the third in our series that addresses planning challenges for local governments in a post-pandemic future. The two previous topics can be found here Here and Here.
Jennifer Hurley is President & CEO of Hurley-Franks & Associates, a planning consultancy, and PhD student in human and organizational development at Fielding Graduate University. She is a current or former board member of a number of professional associations, including the Congress for New Urbanism, the National Charrette Institute, and the Form Code-Based Steering Committee.
Ben Brown: In Part I of this conversation, we stopped with your point of view that even in ideal situations, it is almost impossible to close gaps in reach by simply holding more meetings.
Jennifer Hurley: Law. We know both from our own ad hoc experience and from statistical studies that the people who speak at public meetings do not represent everyone. For local political activities, such as the type of public gatherings we hold for planning projects, only 22% of the people in the lowest quintile of socioeconomic status participate, while 65% of the people in the highest quintile participate.
JH: People who speak and comment at public meetings are older, have lived longer in their current place of residence, are more male, vote more often, and are more likely to be homeowners than people who do not comment.
BB: And then, in times like these, where there are personal constraints due to the pandemic, the usual barriers increase. The standard answer is to move everything online. What makes this approach difficult?
JH: The first question, I think, is who is left out? Typical government meetings skip most people who are not the “bourgeois” “frequent flyers” – young people, people with children or other evening responsibilities, people with mobility problems, people with multiple jobs, people who are poor, people, they are very old, people who do not speak English, people with visual or hearing impairments – all who have limited time, limited mobility or limited access to information about when the meetings take place.
BB: What if we try to put everything online?
JH: Online tools omit some of the same people as well as some other people. They leave out people with no access or comfort with broadband – people who are poor, people who are very old, people who do not speak English, people with reading disabilities, people with visual impairments. If we have to rely on online materials and mailers, we have to think about it nine percent by US citizens over five years of age with limited English skills; the 19 percent of adults in the United States whose reading ability is too poor to read a newspaper; and the 4.5 percent of the U.S. population who are color blind and are likely to have difficulty interpreting charts and other graphics. More people have access to a smartphone than to a computer, but may have significant restrictions on downloading / uploading data. Text-based tools are more accessible, but still require English skills.
BB: Where is that
JH: We just need to be more careful about how we use the online tools. If you look at everyone who is not considered in traditional face-to-face meetings compared to those who are left out with online tools, I think the online tools actually offer more access for more people. The difference is that if we have enough time and money, using community organization techniques, we can expand personal reach with small group and one-on-one conversations to connect with people who are normally underrepresented, but it is much more difficult Find ways to overcome some of the access barriers to online tools.
BB: These problems seem huge enough to solve. But you’ve also thought about some limitations to online engagement, even for those who are already familiar with computers and the Internet.
JF: Consider the time. Everyone is used to thinking about digital tools so quickly, including the speed of misinformation and protesters organizing opposition actions. But I also think we have to start thinking about digital engagement as slow. It takes more time to build trust in a digital environment than personally. It takes time to build an audience for digital tools (websites, online surveys, etc.). It takes more rounds of feedback because some aspects of communication are more difficult when you have “thin” or “thick” communication and when there are so many possibilities for misunderstandings.
BB: Declare “thin” against “thick”.
JH: Some communication channels are “thick” because you get information in different ways. Think of the differences between talking to someone on the phone and reading an email. When you speak to someone personally, you have their words, but you also get information about their meaning from their tone and body language. You lack body language on the phone, but you still get the tone. And when you email, you only have the words themselves. This is one of the reasons why social media discussions can go sideways so easily.
BB: So what should we think about when we go online?
JH: Everything online must be able to stand on its own. When I’m standing next to a presentation board at a public meeting, I can explain confusing things. But online, people have to be able to understand it themselves without someone explaining it to them. What does that mean for language and graphics? That means we have to work a lot harder on this piece. Most of us who are planners, architects, and engineers grew up loving maps and drawings, but that makes us a little weird and it means that we don’t always see how difficult it is for other people to get our graphics interpret.
BB: Are there any built-in advantages with the technology?
JH: Online environments can transfer information well and collect information fairly well, at least for specific questions. But aside from like-minded social / professional groups or communities of practice, I still haven’t seen online environments support the back and forth interaction very well.
BB: Where is that, especially given the limitations of most group meetings at this stage of the pandemic?
JH: Well, we have to use the online tools. It is now required because of COVID. But that only pushes us for a transition that is necessary anyway for all the reasons for access we’ve talked about. The key is not what shiny gizmo we use, but how we use it. I think this means that our longstanding focus on engaging key stakeholders through community organization tactics is more important than ever.
BB: Sketch this approach for us.
JH: It goes back to our question of who our stakeholders are, who is likely to be missing and how we can reach them. I have another group activity that I like to do with project teams when we do engagement planning: we rethink all stakeholders we can imagine who might be affected by a project or who might influence the outcome of a project. Everyone we can think of makes a note so we can hang it on the wall and move it, and then we think about it: first, how important this stakeholder is for this particular project; How committed are you then? We end up with four quadrants that tell us something about how we need to get in touch with different categories of stakeholders.
BB: Accompany us through the quadrants.
JH: The group that is most important is the group “very important, not committed”. These are the people who add the wide range of opinions we are looking for, but they will generally not appear with the announcement of an ordinary meeting. We need to reach these people directly and connect with them through people they already know and trust. This stakeholder engagement approach works for personal meetings and also for online engagement. The “very important, already committed people” are probably committed without direct contact. However, if they disappear during the process, you want to find out if they quit because they trust the process and no longer need to be a watchdog, or if they get out because they’re crazy about something (or maybe the engagement process is just too boring ). The “less critical, already engaged” people are often lawyers who come to every meeting to talk about the same thing. You can add very important details and nuances to a specific topic. However, if not enough “very important, not committed” people are involved in the process, the “less decisive, already committed” people can really unfairly influence the way. The “less critical, not engaged” people make up the general public – most of them do not have time to participate in planning processes, but it is important that we conduct our processes openly and transparently so that people can decide when to participate you can easily find out how.
BB: When we can rely on personal engagement strategies, we usually plan large group meetings to provide feedback on ongoing work. This gives us the opportunity to demonstrate in real time that we are listening and responding to what people are saying. It is a great advantage to recognize points of friction and to address them personally. However, we lose this advantage if we lose the possibility of large personal meetings.
JH: Yes, the piece that is really different online is the interactive piece. If we only work online, we cannot rely on one big meeting. We need to use more engagements with fewer numbers. You can get a good interaction on an eight-person video call, but not much on a 100-person webinar. So if you really need interaction and discussion, instead of a 100-person meeting, you need ten 10-person meetings. And because in these smaller, separate meetings we can’t achieve the same kind of mix between stakeholder groups that we can get in a larger meeting, you may need to add more feedback loops to your planning process, listening and then feeding back what you heard and then listen again.
JH: This is a scary time for many people. And it’s stressful to turn all of our usual ways of working upside down overnight. For planners, however, we have a real opportunity to make our way of working more effective and fair.
– Ben Brown
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