Gaining Authentic Stakeholder Input

Bingo Night Takeovers and Other Innovative Techniques

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Stephen Sykes is public involvement manager at HDR, Inc., an architecture, engineering, and planning firm based in Omaha, Neb.

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Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 4:48 pm

Propose a sustainability initiative, ask for input, and you'll certainly hear from some people. But, how can you be sure you're hearing from all the “right” people?

People who want to change things may miss the opportunity to hear important voices, Stephen Sykes told attendees at the 6th annual Growing Sustainable Communities Conference held recently in Dubuque, Iowa. And two-way communication can lead to surprising changes on both sides of the table.

As public involvement manager at HDR, Inc., an architecture, engineering, and planning firm based in Omaha, Sykes has overseen a number of projects. And he says building in time at the beginning to solicit public comment – and really listen to it – bears fruit throughout the project process.

"Achieving broad stakeholder engagement ... requires a significant allocation of resources – staff time, financial resources – and commitment to the process. Within the project itself, there needs to be a commitment that this engagement function, this dialogue, is going to be given the time that is needed," Sykes said. "But it results in engaged stakeholders who have an appreciation of the project. ... Projects that incorporate authentic community dialogue have the potential to improve in their design phase through innovation. They end up more likely to receive political support, more likely to receive public support, and more likely to satisfy a larger segment of society."

But of course it's not easy to get input from every group that will be affected by a project. Traditional methods of soliciting comments tend to draw disproportionally from certain demographic groups – particularly those with ready access to time and transportation – while excluding others.

"The only opportunity to hear from the public can't be on a Tuesday evening from 6 to 7 at a public meeting," Sykes said.

And if members of the public find it a little challenging to get to the place where a project team is accepting comment, who will the team hear from? Mostly people who aren't happy about the project, because it's worth it to them to take the trouble. Sykes shared a triangle representing the people that typical methods bring in: at the top was a small group with a disproportionate voice, one that Sykes called "the Loud, Angry, and Directly Impacted.”

"These people are very important; it's important that we hear from them," he said. "They can help the project grow, they can challenge the concept or the approach of the project, their input and feedback can help create innovation. But just because someone has an opinion doesn't mean they represent the entire community."

He pointed out the largest group on the bottom of the triangle: "In Support, But Don't Show Up."

"I like to refer to them as the silent majority. They're too busy, or think they're too busy; their personal bandwidth for their day-to-day lives doesn't allow for extra engagement ... but in large part they're supportive of the goal of the project ... and the project team needs to hear from them so that the project doesn't get stalled in only hearing from the loud, angry, and directly impacted and thinking that's the community."

So project leaders need to be creative and flexible. And that's where the Bingo Night takeover comes in.

Sykes was part of a team working for a client that was developing a long-range project focusing on a community's changing demographics. The founders of the community – those who had built their houses there, developed the community, and worked in it – were aging; many of them lived in assisted living facilities and didn't find it easy to attend meetings. It would have been easy to leave them out of the planning, but a commitment to involving everyone with a stake in the outcome led to taking the meeting to them.

"We decided to go to them," Sykes said, "in the hour before their Bingo night. And what resulted was ... they ended up becoming project champions, attending all the rest of the scheduled meetings and even going to other senior centers, other places where they knew they could talk to their peers about this project. ... As a result of the staff time we invested here, we ended up gaining project champions."

"People care about what they put their time into," he added. "And people put their time into what they care about."

So how can project leaders get input – and, ideally, support – from a wide range of people and groups? By using a wide range of approaches. Sykes introduced a number of possibilities, some high-tech and others almost tech-free.

Community Workshops

Public open houses, a traditional method of introducing a project, have limitations. "Even if you hold them over the lunch hour, where we find more success than we do in the evenings, they are, in my opinion, fading in their effectiveness. ... The other thing is that these types of meetings are typically about pushing information out."

Instead, Sykes' teams have had more success breaking stakeholders into small groups, each one with a member of the project team, to discuss the issue at hand. "You get better information to enhance decision-making ... if you can do so by sitting at a table asking questions, providing opportunities for people to document their feedback," he said. "Ultimately these participants have an increased sense of ownership."

(See "A Model For Workshops" for a detailed description of one way to structure this sort of information-gathering.)

Grassroots Meetings

Like the Bingo Night Takeover, these meetings go to significant groups where they are. Of course, this means paying some attention to which groups you aren't hearing from and then figuring out where to find them.

Mobile Workshops

Simple tables on a sidewalk can be a place to gather information. Sykes has also worked with a public transportation organization that took buses to crowded summer locations and invited people in to participate in a mobile workshop on public transport, which worked even better because the summer was hot and the buses were air conditioned.

Project Area Tours

Bringing a group of stakeholders to the location where a project is planned can inspire them to give input. It can also give them a more direct understanding of some of the challenges a project faces. "Everyone's looking at this (location) together as we say, 'Here's the goal; here are the constraints. How would you do it?" Sykes said.

Online Surveys

You can't simply put a survey online and expect to get usable data, but a survey on a tablet or laptop can be an excellent icebreaker, Sykes said. In the early days of tablet use, one of his project teams gained the attention of key stakeholders by showing up with a survey on an iPad, which many of the people involved had never used before. "They got the support they needed," he said.

Digital Do-It-Yourself Toolkits

Sykes has had success by putting fliers and social media content on websites; if supporters wanted to share the information digitally, this gave them the tools to do so, while keeping the message in the hands of the project team.

Online Meetings

In a sense, an online meeting is simply a website, but redesigned "to simulate what people might experience at a project meeting," Sykes said. The key element is a short video, 10 to 15 seconds, introducing elements of the project. This approach to site design can keep people on a website longer (Sykes' research showed that the average website visit was about 30 seconds, while the average visitor stayed on an online meeting site for four and a half minutes).

Smarter Social Media Usage

"Social media is about amplification and accessibility," Sykes said, and that goes beyond simply posting. Paid advertising can be geographically targeted, and users can pay only when someone clicks the ad.

Another social-media strategy is to "follow your followers," Sykes said. "The dialog about the project isn't just happening on the social media sites that are project-driven and public-facing from the project. Some of the real dialog that you really want to hear happens when folks who visit the site and like or follow the tools that we're using go back to their communities and have their dialog. You want to be a part of that, so do the reverse: follow them, like them, and track that dialog."

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