Art of Engagement: Who’s For? Who’s Against?

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Great Falls, Montana

Engagement should make a difference

Let’s continue through the Principles for Public Engagement published by the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD). We’re up to #6, the penultimate.

#6 Impact and Action – Ensure each participatory effort has real potential to make a difference, and that participants are aware of that potential.

Everyone reading this knows that the law requires us to take public comment on trivial matters, simple single-lot subdivisions, the vacation of streets that have never been used, and so on. I think we can safely say those are not what NCDD has in mind as “participatory efforts.”

Political reality butts heads with this principle, however, when we hold hearings where something is at stake, but the conclusion is not in doubt. Occasionally, this situation is a function of the law. People may not like seeing “CASINO” signs, but where casinos are lawful and other businesses have signs, the Constitution intervenes against public opinion. We cannot regulate signs based on content.

More often foregone conclusions are a function of politics. Whether what people have to say makes a difference or not depends on the decision makers. Most of us have been at hearings where the majority testified for (or against) a project or plan and, yet, the decision was the opposite. That can be a good thing. We elect people to lead. We also know, however, that people who don’t believe they’re being heard will drop out of civic involvement or become radicalized, or both. So, how do we honor this principle and everyone who takes time to be involved even when their input may not be influential?

One way planners can acknowledge peoples’ participation is by formally following-up. I have a collection of documents that were produced to summarize the results of major public participation events. At the least, these efforts let people who came know we recorded what they said. At the best decision makers read these documents and respond. It happens.

Another question

Following up is more difficult in the daily grind of current planning than when we’re working on new plans. I am thinking about how to do a better job, though, so I ask readers: What, if anything, does your community do to keep people who commented on current planning cases in the loop? Suppose public comment leads to a condition of approval that makes a project better? Do people even know what influence they had? Please share your ideas and experience.


Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974. Today he is the Deputy Director of the Planning & Community Development Department for the City of Great Falls, MT.


Published in the July/August 2014 Issue

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