Author Archives: DaveO

Dialogues on Development: Making Big Changes

Earlier this week we looked at ways to improve urban spaces by starting small and engaging the public. Yet there are times when more formal planning processes are needed. If, for instance, zoning codes need to be updated or changing economic conditions demand attention, small changes won’t keep your city running at peak performance. In this context, thinking systematically and carefully analyzing public understanding of and readiness for change is critical to ensuring a planning process where conflict is minimized and the conditions required for wise and sustainable decisions are optimized.

Our workbook will help you think through the obstacles you are likely to encounter and the resources you will need to support productive engagement with your public. Laying good plans for engagement, particularly with complex issues at stake, is at least as important as the engineering and other analyses that typically go into planning for development. You can find additional resources on ICMA’s Knowledge Network, which includes a planning topic area with extensive stories, plans, ideas, and experiences.

If you would like help thinking about how to minimize or navigate conflict in you planning processes, contact us at bdinfo@buildingdialouge.com.

Dialogues on Development: Starting Small

Urban development is often a difficult process that can create new conflicts and exacerbate old ones, particularly when larger plans are “announced” by community leaders to a public that has not been actively engaged in the planning process and does not understand its goals. In this post, we look at how starting small and working with the public can lead to the positive and sustainable changes cities need to thrive.

Although most of us think about big changes to cities when we hear about urban development, even the small things can change your city forever. For example, consider the traveling booksellers who set up outdoor shops on the streets of Paris in the 1500’s. Although these shops were temporarily banned 1649, public demand brought their return. In 2007 the various sites along the Seine where books and other wares have been sold for some 400 years became UN world heritage sites.  More recently we have seen a small city experience a boost in recycling due to an Eagle Scout who made it his project to design and place recycling bins throughout downtown.

Whether you want to re-purpose central city streets for pedestrian plazas as New York and Kansas City have done, temporarily claim parking spaces for parklets, or simply put some chairs outside, local governments can play a key role in encouraging experimentation and change by inviting individuals and citizen groups to identify and propose solutions on space issues, providing a platform for interested groups to connect, publicizing ongoing activities, and providing  incentives such as “seed money” or “partnership funds” for community supported actions. This approach can cost less and result in more immediate and sustainable change than large scale projects.

If you are interested in learning more about starting small and engaging the public, you can find a variety of useful stories, experiences, and ideas in Tactical Urbanism, Vol 2. If you would like help thinking about how to integrate these more experimental approaches into your development processes, send an email with your question to info@buildingdialogue.com.

Navigating Our Blog

Welcome to the official blog of The Communications Center, Inc.

Read about our new workbook!

Read about how to approach dialogues on gun violence and download our article funded by the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

On this blog we link you up with stories and resources to help you navigate difficult issues and plan for effective dialogue.  You can find answers to frequently asked questions like:

  1. What is dialogue and why use it?
  2. Where and how do I start?
  3. What do I do if the public is not interested?
  4. What else can I do to build trust in the process?
  5. How can I manage the media?
  6. How do you start a dialogue when people hate each other?
  7. Do you have any guidelines for effective public engagement?

And there is more.  You can also find

Finally, here are 5 of the most popular posts on our blog.

We are here to help you.  If you have questions, would like to discuss resources, or need help working through problems in your own dialogues, send us an email at info@buildingdialogue.com.

Engaging With The Media – A Case Study

This week we continue our discussion on working with the media during a public engagement process by providing an example of how the wrong message can create unneeded conflict.  This example occurred a few years ago while we were working as facilitators in the Imagine Columbia’s Future visioning process.

After the participants in the process had been working together for nearly a year to create a set of vision statements, goals, and action plans, the overall process consultant at the time (not us!) organized a workshop to get public feedback on emerging plans.  During this workshop, those who had not been participating in the visioning process more generally were to be given the opportunity to review what the groups had come up with and put “dots”  on what they considered to be the best ideas.  The overall purpose of the workshop was to create a snapshot of community concerns that could be used alongside other information being generated through the working groups in putting together the final plans.

Although this workshop was intended to be an interim check-in and not a decision-making point, it was titled  “Community Choices”, and was reported in the media as if community members’ votes would result in a ranking of ideas and priorities, through which certain ideas would “win” or “lose”.  As a result, the local Chamber of Commerce reached out to its members and further exacerbated the situation by asking members to turn out and sure their priorities won the day.  When a local group which was concerned about the pace of development found out the Chamber was organizing its members to vote, it sent out a similar message to its members.

At the actual event, facilitators who were there to help community members engage with and understand the ideas, concepts, and connections that were being identified in the working groups, instead spent much of their time explaining that the workshop would not result in a “win/lose ranking”.  Despite this effort, several participants used all of their dots for a single strategy or goal in an effort to make sure that goal “won”, while others followed instructions to use one per idea.  Efforts were made after the workshop to explain to the media that no ideas had won or lost, and that, given the different approaches on placing dots, the “vote totals” were not very useful data.  The media still reported on the vote totals, although the post workshop efforts did mitigate to some extent how they were reported.

At the most basic level, providing an opportunity for broader community input was a good idea.  The event was successful at generating interest and attendance. However, the failure to clearly communicate the purpose of the workshop and how the data would be used in advance led to unnecessary confusion and rekindled existing animosities between community groups. This confusion could likely have been avoided entirely with an appropriate and clearly organized message delivered consistently to the public and to the key groups likely to participate.   This case study illustrates the need to review, both when planning for an overall process and for individual events, the possible conflicts that could arise and the potential for  misunderstanding regarding the purpose of a process.  It also illustrates the importance of explaining how the data generated will be evaluated and used, and how participant are expected to interact.   This community workshop would have been more fun for the community and more valuable to the overall process, if there had been a clearer articulation of its purpose and a clear statement that the  data generated would be folded into a longer dialogue.  Providing the media with an explanation of how dialogue differs from traditional win/lose processes could have helped as well.

Engaging With The Media – After Your Process

Today we continue our discussion on working with the media, focusing on what you can do after the “meeting” part of an engagement process has ended to help ensure that progress is made and that the work done during the process is not ignored.  Here are some steps to consider.

  • Release a report that summarizes the work done and connects it with other actions, events, or ongoing processes in your community.  For example, if the City Council must vote on a recommendation, state how that recommendation will be put before them and when it will be considered.  As another example, if recommendations affect something like an existing plan, explain the process for amending that plan.  Planning for and explaining how recommendations will be integrated into critical processes like budgeting helps to place progress on the recently completed engagement within the context of other ongoing government actions.
  • All of this can be worked into a transition plan that lays out the details of the implementation process.  Establishing priorities with consideration given to limited resources and stating expected time lines can be very useful in helping the media form reasonable expectations.
  • Make sure information is readily accessible to the media so that it can be referred to as reporters are working on related issues.  For example, you could have a web portal where key documents can be reviewed and downloaded.  You can also provide summary updates online as your time line unfolds using a simple form like the visioning Accountability Tracker used in Columbia, MO.
  • You need to be proactive in ensuring that the media appropriately places decisions made or actions taken in the long term context of your engagement process and plan.  You can of course prepare press releases that place those actions within the context of the engagement process.  If possible, you should also brief new reporters on the history of your engagement process and plans and periodically check in with others on emerging issues and how they relate back to recommendations made or to guiding principles that were established through your process.  This makes it more likely that media reports will place actions taken in an appropriate context that helps to educate the public.
  • Continue to inform and involve those who took part in your engagement process.  The participants from an engagement process will generally have at least a passing interest in seeing how their ideas move toward implementation and can become valuable assets for tough problems.  You can, for instance, create a listserv and encourage participants to sign up and stay in touch.  If kept informed, these citizens will often correct misinformation on media related blogs or write letters to the editor that promote ongoing productive dialogue.  If you have a media partner, it may be possible to link requests for input and comment with media reports and share both the blogging platform and the data received.
  • As with other phases of engagement, it is worth thinking about how the media works, laying out “themes” that help you respond when issues arise.  Since media reports are often written to suggest controversy where none exists, project “failure” of government to be efficient or responsive, or illustrate government “rejection” of citizen “demands”, you might, starting with your final report, lay out mitigating themes.  One such theme would be that “government can’t do it all (or do it alone)”.  Emphasize that the implementation of recommendations is an ongoing and evolving process and that decisions on how and when to move forward on a recommendation will factor in realities such as budgets and limits on staff available.  Invite help from the community in establishing priorities between competing demands and procuring additional resources needed.  Referring back to these themes as issues arise will help both the media and the public better understand the interrelationships and trade-offs between issues and the rationale behind decisions made.

Engaging With The Media – During Your Process

Today we continue our discussion on engaging with the media, focusing on working with the media to inform the public during an engagement process.  Here are some steps you can take during an engagement process to effectively work with the media and communicate with the public.

  • Once you have begun an engagement process, work to recruit and train a variety of “public ambassadors” who are active in the process.  These should be people with connections to the diverse audiences that exist in your community.  A good ambassador will bring up their involvement with the process as a normal part of conversation with members of the public and be available for media interviews.  These ambassadors can also bring back questions they are hearing from the public, and serve as an early alert system for misinformation.  Note that it isn’t the role of an ambassador to argue positions.  Instead, these ambassadors serve as advocates for the process itself by encouraging participation, explaining the schedule, and promoting dialogue.
  • The development of regular channels of communication should also be a primary focus early on in your engagement process.  To build channels of communication, you should regularly supply reporters with background information that provides context for emerging issues in addition to updates on the process.  Reporters who become experts on particular issues can be very helpful in promoting productive dialogue by highlighting the complexities and intersections among issues. Informed reporters are also less likely to be affected by those who seek to bypass or distort your process with information that is partisan or otherwise skewed.
  • Even though both ambassadors and reporters can help inform and involve the public, you should also be prepared to provide regular reports directly to the public.  You should be prepared to make regular reports directly the public through your website, e-mail alerts to those who have signed up, and newsletters that are sent out with utility bills or otherwise.  In your reports, in addition to providing information on the current stage of the process, you should summarize why you started the process, how you got to where you are now, and where you plan to go in the future.  By providing this detailed information you can help community members connect with ongoing actions, even if they haven’t previously been involved.
  • Information can also be made available to the community through faith groups, community hubs such as senior centers, barbershops, day care centers, or schools.  Providing information on an ongoing basis helps build consciousness and context.  This helps the public more effectively interpret and respond to media reports that are sporadic or sensational.

Engaging With The Media – Before Your Process

Today we continue our discussion on working with the media to help inform the public throughout a public engagement process. As noted in our prior post, the media can be a helpful partner, or it can be an obstacle in promoting productive discussion of policy issues.  There are a number of things you can do before an engagement process begins to help manage your interactions with the media.

  • You should, of course, plan for regular press releases or announcements.  When you announce the kick-off of the process it is helpful to have a basic timeline of key events, as well as a clear explanation of what you hope to accomplish with the process.  Let key members of the media know how and when you will be contacting them, and how they may contact you.  Offer to meet with members of the media about both the current and past processes (in your community and elsewhere) and how the media might work with you to ensure accurate, fair coverage.  Ask them what information they would like to receive.
  • Before starting, you should identify where the public is on  The Learning Curve, and what obstacles have been, or are likely to be, encountered in moving up the curve.  Identify some of the questions that will likely arise, and “hot issues” in the community that are likely to intersect with your process. If there has been a lack of or inaccurate information related to these issues in the past, discuss the new information that will be available or the types of data that will be developed and reviewed.
  • Identify possible resources who could provide useful information and input during the process.   Make connections with those resources and keep them informed as the process unfolds.  This will help you access those resources quickly if you need help down the road.
  • Identify and evaluate different media sources for their partnership potential.  Sources that are looking to develop, or are linked to, social media, and sources that try to cover subjects in depth and over time can be helpful partners.   For example, when Columbia’s visioning process was announced,  one local paper responded with an editorial stating “here we go again”, predicting that this was just another citizen engagement exercise that would result in  yet another report to sit on a shelf.  Not surprisingly, its coverage initially was sporadic and not very informative.  On the other hand, we developed a close working relationship with another paper which was launching a related electronic platform, The Missourian Watchword.  This platform included neighborhood e-news and a blog.  We were allowed to post surveys and drafts of the  Visioning Implementation Report on a dedicated page.   The reporters and editors had an understanding of what we were doing, why we were doing it, and what was coming next.  Some topics were covered in depth and related articles were linked.  This was a helpful resource for keeping the public informed.
  • Articulate some core “process” themes that will help protect your substantive messages.  Messages like “the process will be complex and will take time”, “all are welcome”, “we are focused on understanding”,  or “we are looking at ways to move forward as a community”,  apply to most engagement processes and help mitigate a premature media focus on “results” or “winners” and “losers”.  Stating that “participants should be prepared to share key concerns and interests and work with others”, will help you respond to and refocus future press reports that emphasize positions taken or demands made.   Other themes like, “each group has the responsibility over time to support their views with data and analyses”, or “we will evaluate the ideas provided and invite further comment on those evaluations,” will help make it clear that you will look at data and other facts in addition to opinions offered before decisions are made.  If there are core principles that will guide the process, they should also be identified and announced so that you can refer the press (and participants) back to them from time to time. If there are other boundaries to the discussion, such as controlling statutes or limited funds, it is helpful to identify those as well.
  • Finally, look at how your process will integrate with the rest of what local government is working on. You should be able to explain how citizen ideas and information generated during the process will (or won’t) connect with other work being done.   If, as is often the case, decisions will continue to be made on related issues while you are meeting with the public, acknowledge this upfront.  (“As we consider this issue, we know the City Council will continue to meet and make needed decisions on a case by case basis.   As our reports are completed, and recommendations made, they will be integrated into the decision-making process as follows {describe}. “)  This type of statement will help forestall reports as such decisions are made that citizens are being ignored, or that the process is useless.