Art of Public Engagement: Public engagement gone wrong

 To have genuine public engagement in planning or any community process, we must honor a commitment to fidelity, to at least report,
if not actually incorporate what people have to say.

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

I often end this column by recommending something to read. I’m going to begin with a recommendation this time. I suspect that some readers already know about the Center for Western Priorities and its daily news clipping service: LOOK WEST Daily Clips. If you don’t, this is a free service you should consider signing on to. The center is a nonpartisan conservation and advocacy organization that serves as a source of accurate information, promotes responsible policies and practices, and ensures accountability at all levels to protect land, water, and communities. My thoughts here stem from a February 25 Moab Sun-Times story that was clipped in LOOK WEST recently.

It seems that the Grand County, Utah Council (unlike most Western counties, Grand County has an elected council, more similar to a municipal form of government) was trying to understand Utah Congressman Rob Bishop’s promise of a grassroots process to build his Public Lands Initiative. Bishop’s draft did not incorporate many of the county’s recommendations. One council member was quoted as saying that she didn’t think the local recommendation was treated with much respect.

We need not follow the Grand County story any further here. I use it because it points out an essential commitment that we must honor if we are to have a genuine public engagement in planning (or any community process). That commitment is fidelity, a commitment to at least report, if not actually incorporate, what people have to say. And if you don’t incorporate what people have to say, then you need to explain why.

It’s tempting to go partisan here, but the point applies to us all. If we are going to ask people for their opinion, if we are going to ask a busy county council to spend a great deal of time and energy providing input, we must at least show respect for what they have to say, like it or not. It’s not something one can quantify, but how much of the polarization we see growing almost daily could have been avoided if decision-makers – federal, state, or local – followed this one rule?

I welcome stories about how your community or agency completes the loop and helps people understand what impact their input had on the process. I look forward to seeing you all at the 2016 WP/MAP conference in Great Falls in August!

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974. Contact him at
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