How to Incorporate a Civic Engagement Process into Decision-Making

March 26, 2013 | Civic Engagement, Stakeholder Engagement

After reading Why Civic Engagement is So Important, perhaps you are interested in incorporating more community voices in your organization or agency’s decision-making. And what an exciting journey that is!

Including more stakeholders is challenging. Like a performer juggling fire batons, you will be handling delicate objects that need to be treated with respect. These are people’s ideas, hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles. You must be focused, attentive, comfortable being vulnerable, and able to improvise.

So how can you take on this challenge? Start small – it does not have to be a billion dollar project to warrant discussion, and civic engagement does not just mean formal town hall meetings (more on that in the next post!). It is simply asking and listening with a purpose.

Developing an Engagement Process
No matter what scale your process, following these steps before you begin will help you avoid typical pitfalls and help build your rapport and reputation with stakeholders. This part can take five minutes or five months, but it is critical! Start by using it on projects you are already working on, and that might just look like talking to neighbors of the park that is scheduled for renovation, or asking the local merchants association what the biggest challenge is for small businesses.

Step 1 – Listen: This is the key to any engagement process. Listen before you begin your process. Listen to all your stakeholders – other organizations, department heads, community members, and learn about each perspective before you begin to design the process. Listening builds trust, mutual respect and understanding, all of which are important pieces of creative problem solving.

This is the most important piece. Stay at this step for as long as you need, it may be years, before you have built up the relationships needed to launch a full-scale process.

Step 2 – Define your goals: what do you want to get out of the process? We have all been to meetings where the purpose is not clearly defined, and have left feeling frustrated. Avoid this by developing a very clear and focused purpose for your engagement process. What is it that you are asking of people? What is the level that each stakeholder should be involved? Think about where your project falls in the three major categories of engagement:

  • Information Gathering and Sharing – Find out how people feel, or maybe share some data about a topic. You are seeking input or feedback.
  • Discussion and Dialogue – Dig deeper into a topic and discover multiple perspectives. You are seeking some new ideas and are ready to navigate conflict.
  • Collaboration and Creation – Co-create the solution. You are seeking the highest level of involvement and are willing to share responsibility and power with stakeholders.

Step 3 – Plan and Design:  Come up with a strategy, and try to anticipate any challenges or tricky situations that might occur. Imagine what controversies could come up and how you can use that energy constructively. Having a solid framework will also make it easier to be flexible and adaptive as you move through the process.

The purpose of your process will inform what tools you use in your design. It can be really tempting to just jump into this part, but that is like trying to pick out your ingredients before you have a recipe. First decide if you are making chili or macaroni and cheese, and you will have a much less confusing time at the grocery store!

Step 4 – Refine: Repeat steps 1 through 3. This is an iterative, evolving process.  As you develop your design and look to choose your tools, continue to listen to your stakeholders and try to further define the scope of the problem you are trying to address together.

That’s it! Start by using this informally on small topics, and then as people see how powerful asking and listening are, support will grow for larger initiatives.

Next up we’ll talk more about the tools, methods and approaches that can help you collect, organize, share and mobilize community voices – both in person and online.