Trying to resolve a neighborhood or community dispute? Here are three simple rules to ensure positive public engagement
By Brenda Morrison
As of late, we’ve seen several high-profile disputes between neighborhood groups and the City of Denver over various projects such as the City Park Loop and the Lawrence Street Community Center, a homeless day shelter in lower downtown.
In the case of the City Park Loop, strong opposition from surrounding neighborhood organizations persuaded staff to seek another location for a proposed multi-generational play area. In the case of the Lawrence Street Community Center, City Council and Mayor Hancock acknowledged the concerns, but green lighted the project.
The circumstances around these two examples differ, but there is one common theme shared by both scenarios: neighborhood groups claim there was inadequate community engagement. City officials disagree, asserting that there were plenty of opportunities for residents to weigh in, and that people did not engage until the end of the process.
What may be at the crux of the disagreement is that the term “public engagement” can be interpreted very broadly. Is a simple survey public engagement? What about an evening meeting held at 6:00 pm? A meet-and-greet at a coffee shop?
This conflict could be eliminated if neighborhood organizations, municipalities, and other governmental entities implemented three simple rules that would ensure a positive public engagement experience for both parties:
1. Work together to determine and agree on definitions and what types of activities qualify as “adequate” public engagement before there is a major conflict. Ideally, these “agreements” should be created prior to the public engagement process.
2. Emphasize the QUALITY and VARIETY of public engagement opportunities, not necessarily the QUANTITY. For some communities, an engagement might be convening a working group of diverse local residents, a series of well-designed public meetings an on-line survey or crowd sourcing tool, or both.
3. Decision makers (i.e. the elected, city officials etc.) need to be clear as to the purpose of the public engagement. Is it just to inform the public of a decision that has already been made or are they honestly looking for input? Residents appreciate a direct approach, even if they don’t like the message.
There will always be disagreements between neighborhood organizations and local governments, but shared agreements, combined with quality public engagement opportunities and clear communication from decision makers can ensure that the focus of the discussion is on salient issues.
It’s difficult to adequately resolve a dispute any other way.
27 May 2014