Author Archives: Dave L Overfelt

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.

Engagement and The Media

As we have previously indicated in our post on Structuring Engagement, the news media has a critical role to play in educating and engaging citizens about local political processes.  Last year, the National League of Cities released this research brief indicating that only 12% of municipal officials think that local media contribute constructively to the discussion of public policy issues.   A much larger number, 30%,  reported that the media serves as an obstacle to greater public engagement.  In order to make good decisions, the public needs good information.  However, there are several widespread media practices that interfere with public understanding of available information.  These include the practice of reporting on political processes as if they were sports events,  picking “winners” and “losers”, failure to report on relevant context, and reporting “opinions” or “feelings” offered by various commentators on an equal level with factual information.  Knowing that these are common practices, you need a plan for engaging with the media from the outset of your engagement process.  How to go about this will be the subject of our next few posts.

Collaboration and Coordination

This month’s Public Management magazine has a great article about collaboration and coordination among municipalities in public engagement efforts.  Although much of the focus is on saving money by creating shared services agreements across multiple organizations or municipalities, several of the observations are applicable to any engagement process.

As the author notes in Steps for a Successful Collaboration, collaboration across multiple municipalities can be quite difficult and coordination can take quite some time.  As we have discussed over the last few weeks in our series on guidelines for engagement, careful planning and developing a clear structure to guide the process will help you move forward.  Although engaging city officials and staff from different jurisdictions as stakeholders, rather than citizens, the same general process of engagement will work.  You have to to make sure that your goals for the shared services agreement are feasible, you need to lay out a specific plan for engaging all of the relevant parties, you need to keep all parties informed about and connected with each step in the process, and you need to follow up afterward to inform them about implementation and next steps.  If you think this process will be contentious, you may consider hiring a professional facilitator to manage the dialogue and resolve conflict as it arises.

The author also notes that an important factor in controlling costs in shared services agreements is identifying opportunities for standardization.  Although this is of particular value in a shared services environment, standardization of the steps in other public engagement efforts can also save both time and money, as well as provide the benefit of helping citizens feel comfortable and safe as they learn what to expect.  This sense of comfort can help move your community up through the Stages of Community Life.

The author also notes the importance of piloting and evaluation and points to several recent projects undertaken by the North Central Texas Council of Governments.  The author points out that the goals of the more successful projects were customer driven.  This has been a lesson learned in many citizen engagement processes — the more effective ones are citizen driven in defining goals and outcomes, and allow flexibility for citizens to make adaptations in the overall process.

The final three points of the article are good reminders for anyone involved in engagement:  (i) underpromise and overdeliver, (ii) begin with the end in mind, and (iii) start small while constantly evaluating and refining your approach.  We recommend that you read the full article for further insights on how government stakeholders can be brought together to jointly create processes that bring greater value to all.

Guidelines for Engagement – Following Through

This week we continue our series on guidelines for engagement with a discussion of following through after the actual dialogue between participants is completed.  Note that you can download a check list version of our dialogue guidelines from our resources page.

The citizens who participate in a dialogue are always interested in knowing how their input affected policy or other decisions.  By reporting on how that input is considered and applied you not only have the opportunity to strengthen your relationship with those who participated, you are also confirming for others the legitimacy of your decision- making processes and encouraging more citizens to become involved in future engagement efforts.  When reporting that you were able to directly implement a citizen-developed idea, it is worth emphasizing both the source of the idea and its path to implementation.  If adjustments were needed, or an idea could not be implemented, it is a good idea to explain why, and whether other steps are being taken to address the underlying need or interest.   This type of explanation helps you avoid accusations that you ‘ignored what the public wants.’   Remember, if you fail to explain why you were unable to implement citizen ideas, citizens will create their own explanations!    It is better to proactively to educate the public on what is or isn’t possible and why.  Citizens often have an unrealistic time frame as to how soon a particular idea can be implemented.  Again, reporting can serve an educational purpose.  In Columbia, MO we used a simple form to help report on both the priorities set by the City Council following a citizen-led visioning effort, and also on progress being made.  You can review that accountability tracker here.  

Even before reporting outcomes, there are things you can do to ensure citizens that their input is being taken seriously.  Also in Columbia,  the City Council approved the use of  Vision Impact Notes (similar in concept to fiscal notes).  These are required on all bills sent to the council in order to inform the council on whether or not visioning goals are affected by the bill.  The use of these notes also allows for tracking of which goals have been acted on.  There are other processes, such as e-mail updates, on-line surveys, and supplemental dialogues that can be used to  integrate ongoing citizen input into a reporting and evaluation plan.  There are a number of benefits to such integration. By keeping citizens connected to your implementation processes and keeping them abreast of progress or challenges, you can better keep them involved and excited.  Further, those who participated in a given engagement process often have the knowledge and experiences to provide useful critiques and suggestions.  Building ongoing partnerships between citizens and government can strengthen both mutual understanding and trust, and promote the development of policies that are both sound and sustainable.  Overall, “following through” can add significant value to your engagement process.