Last week we mentioned a successful engagement project in Shoreline, Washington. As we noted, one reason that engagement process worked was because of the careful planning that preceded it. Over the next few weeks we would like to step back and look at some of the practical aspects of planning a dialogue. These posts reflect a set of guidelines that we developed while working with the City of Columbia. The City had adopted a citizen-developed vision for its future which included proposals for ongoing collaboration between citizens and boards and commissions in the development of various policies. The guidelines were included in an implementation plan, and have been attached to ordinances. They provide questions for boards and commissions to use in making decisions on how to best convene, manage, and coordinate dialogues. A set of the guidelines is available on our resources page.
Although the first step in a citizen engagement process is convening, prior to convening, you need to determine whether it is the right time for dialogue. There are many factors that affect the success of a dialogue process and these include having adequate information, time, resources, and interest. If information is inadequate, the dialogue may not be useful, and could even confirm biases or misinformation, making future efforts at dialogue even harder. If an immediate action is needed, it may be better to make an interim decision before convening a dialogue. As we have previously noted, it is critical to building the trust needed for successful public engagement that the purpose of any engagement process and how it will intersect with other processes, particularly decision-making processes, be clear before a dialogue starts. Finally, without adequate resources, interest, or willingness to engage, a meaningful dialogue may simply not be feasible.
Once you have decided to convene a dialogue, there are many practical issues to think through before the dialogue can move forward. These include the number of meetings you will have, the use of large or small groups or both, and the type and sequence of different meeting structures. For example, you might want to use both a citizen working group and one of the Cafe Conversations to obtain broader and different types on input. Space availability and accessibility will also affect the type of dialogue planned for. Finally, you will need to determine what kinds of recruitment can be used to help ensure adequate and diverse participation. If you have not considered these questions at the outset, you may encounter surprises that can derail your entire process. With better planning, the process (once begun) is more likely to stay on track.
You can download a check list version of our dialogue guidelines from our resources page.