Why reach out and engage your local community?
Healthy communities have an active and engaged citizenry. There are many ways to engage. Civic engagement is a broad term used for the many ways community members are involved in civic life, from volunteering on a town committee to coaching youth hockey, taking care of local trails, or joining the garden club. All of these activities add to the health of the community and create strong social connections or social capital. Public engagement is involvement in local decision-making – decisions that have an impact on the whole community.
Most people associate public engagement with local governance. New Hampshire has a strong tradition of local governance and citizen participation. Most towns generally operate with the town meeting form of government, where the registered voters in the town act as the town legislature, and a board of selectmen acts as the executive of the town. The community is invited to gather and decisions are made at the annual town meeting.
Communities also deliberate and make decisions about community issues such as planning for a new development project, school-related topics, and local budgets outside of the annual town meeting. Community members must have an opportunity to participate in the discussion and decision-making, and community leaders have a responsibility to reach out and engage their citizens. Residents often have personal knowledge or experience with a community issue; ideas, alternate plans, or solutions not previously considered; suggestions for resources; or offers to lend their skills to projects and tasks. Community interest, understanding, and support for an issue, project or program will increase with engagement of citizens.
What is outreach?
Outreach and engagement are two distinct ways to connect with your community. Outreach is one-way communication that tells community members about an issue, problem, opportunity, or decision. Outreach can be postcards sent to homeowners, fliers placed throughout a community, website postings, and meeting announcements, for example. Community leaders inform the public of an upcoming discussion and invite them in to comment or participate. Many communities require this important step in working closely with residents, and outreach can be essential when the public senses that the topic is not controversial or interesting and would likely not attend.
What is engagement?
Community leaders often look for ways to broaden public participation. Public engagement can lead to broader participation and wider community input in decision-making. Through deliberate, well planned public engagement, community members become informed about, participate in, and influence public decisions. Community members go beyond just knowing about a pending decision to participating in the decision-making process—they become a part of the community change. The engagement process includes listening, discussion, deliberation, and decision-making. Successful community engagement builds relationships in the community which, ultimately, strengthens the community’s social fabric and develops new leaders.
Ways to engage
Engagement should be neutral – it is not advocacy work or advocating for a certain view. It opens up the discussion and encourages broad participation. Consider the format for engagement—the methods you choose should reflect your purposes and engagement goals. Do you want your community to dive deeply into a complex issue or just gauge their reaction to a pending change, issue, or idea? Do you seek a solution to a community problem or help in creating a vision for the next 20 years? Be sure to fit the process to your participants and your goal. Engagement processes abound: visioning session, forums, charettes, issues open houses, world cafés, web-based and online tools, and asset mapping, to name a few. All foster broad public participation but each has a unique format and purpose. All, however, require planning, knowledge of the format, and usually, a leader or facilitator.
All methods have value as long as they help you build relationships and allow the public to share their thoughts. In some cases you may use a number of engagement tools – like a facilitated vision session and social media to gather ideas for the future.
Identifying your public
Inviting the public to community discussion and decision-making can be challenging because, ideally, you should include everyone. So, where do you start to engage everyone in your community? Consider who may be affected by or interested in your issue. Think about all of the civic infrastructure that makes up your community such as schools, businesses, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, civic groups, service organizations, senior center, faith-based organizations, library, town boards, boy and girl scouts, 4-H, recreation organizations, and others. Invite a contact from each organization to the discussion. Also ask them to encourage their respective networks to participate. Your outreach and engagement effort should reach out to all of these groups but remember to reach out (send postcard, flier etc.) and engage (ask them directly) for the greatest success.
How Can Underrepresented Populations be brought into Decision-Making?
Some community members may have never participated in community discussions before and may be underrepresented in decision-making. Underrepresented community members may include youth, seniors, minorities, veterans, limited income populations, and residents with disabilities. The list may be different in your community. Make a special effort to include all community members. Often the location, time, language, format, or topic may be challenging for underrepresented groups. Make an effort to go to them to talk at a time and location convenient and comfortable for them. An organization or leader with experience connecting with the community may be your best first contact, as you may find a greater level of trust. Take the time and do the planning to build these important new relationships. Underrepresented populations have ideas, concerns, and insights of great value.
How to handle disagreements or conflict in community engagement
Your engagement process should encourage a range of views, plan for disagreement, and prepare to manage it. Some level of conflict or disagreement is acceptable and constructive—allow thoughts and ideas to flow and manage the tension. Above all, respect every participant no matter their view. A strong engagement process will incorporate time and space for everyone to participate while limiting unproductive conflict and pre-empting individuals from taking over the discussion. A good facilitator will allow disagreements to be shared and recorded but will help keep the discussion on track. Set ground rules at the beginning of an engagement session. These may include taking turns talking, acting respectful, not making personal statements, and staying on topic. The participants should review and approve the ground rules and can even suggest new ones. This will encourage the whole group to follow the rules and provides support to the facilitator. Make your process open and work for everyone.