1. Expanding Reach

Engaging residents in the public feedback process

An effective engagement strategy reaches constituents who don’t usually take part in public feedback. It pays attention to the people and communities who will be most affected by the policies and processes that result. This allows you to get a fuller understanding of what your community needs, and create programs and policies that meet those needs.

Expanding the reach of your engagement means:

  • Understanding who is currently participating
  • Identifying who is not currently participating
  • Setting clear goals around the people who need to be reached
  • Making a plan to reach those goals
  • Checking often to make sure those goals are being met

Understanding how you engage the public

1. Understand who makes up your community

The goal of your engagement strategy is to reach a representative sample of your community. You can use data from the Census Bureau to understand the demographic makeup of your community and identify who you need to be reaching. Free tools like Census Reporter make it easy to find and understand this information.

2. Measure your effectiveness

If you've collected data about who is taking part in your process so far, compare these figures against Census data to understand who isn’t participating yet. Use Census data to set a baseline and check whether your results are over or under that figure. This will show which groups are currently under- or overrepresented. For example, if 65% of your community is under 40 but only 20% of your participation is from people under 40, that group is underrepresented and should be a priority for future outreach.

If you aren't measuring the reach of your engagement efforts yet, here's a few simple ways to find out who is taking part in existing forums and channels:

  • Sticky dot exercise. During a public meeting, label poster boards with categories for key demographics you are interested in such as age ranges, education levels, or gender. Have dot stickers available for people to place on the boards to show the groups they identify with.
  • Paper surveys. At the end of a public meeting, conduct an attendee satisfaction survey that asks participants to provide basic demographic information and feedback on the quality and effectiveness of the meeting. This creates an important feedback loop and helps you measure who you are reaching.
  • Online surveys. Online surveys are a quick and easy way to reach new audiences. Be sure to include questions that collect demographic information so you can understand who your survey is reaching. When designing your survey, use a tool that supports mobile-responsive surveys such as Typeform or SurveyGizmo. Many residents now rely on phones or tablets to access the web.
  • “Clicker” surveys. Handheld electronic polling devices, known as “clickers,” can be distributed to audience members and used to gather responses to questions. The meeting leader asks a question of the group, audience members key in their response using the clicker, and the answers can then be instantly displayed to the group. Ask demographic questions to find out who is in the audience at the beginning of the meeting. Ask for reactions to a particular issue before and after the meeting to track how opinions have changed.
Example: clicker surveys in the City of Boulder

The City of Boulder hosted a panel to learn from other communities’ experiences with affordable housing issues. Audience members were given clickers to provide feedback throughout the event. The moderator explained how to use the equipment and started with a fun question to get people comfortable using the device, then moved into basic demographic questions.

All questions were displayed as part of a PowerPoint presentation. The moderator read the question out loud, pause for responses, let people know when the poll was closing, then displayed the results immediately. The moderator provided commentary to help the audience understand the results, identifying when the group had general consensus or a wide range of perspectives. Watch the video of the session to see how the moderator did this.

Before the panel began, the moderator posed several questions focused on housing affordability issues and shared the results. After the panel, the same polling questions were asked to understand how opinions had changed.

Here is an example of where the group’s opinions were spread out:

Increased density will increase housing affordability. 1st Poll
Strongly agree 15.13%
Agree 22.69%
Neutral 14.29%
Disagree 21.85%
Strongly disagree 26.05%

Here is an example of where the group’s opinions were in consensus:

I am willing to support changes in my neighborhood - if it makes housing more affordable and the impacts are fully considered. 1st Poll
Strongly agree 42.02%
Agree 31.09%
Neutral 5.88%
Disagree 11.76%
Strongly disagree 9.24%

The last question asked if the event was a good use of time. 76.34% strongly agreed or agreed that it was.

Lesson: Clicker surveys used during an event can be an effective way to understand how an audience’s opinions are changing in real time, and helps to surface everyone’s voice, not just those who step up to the microphone.

3. Set clear goals

Once you understand who you’re reaching, set concrete goals about how you would like to expand your reach. Communities that are underrepresented in your efforts to date should become priority groups for your future work. Focus on your biggest gaps first.

Well-defined goals state who you want to reach, how much you want to increase participation, and by when. Setting goals like this will allow you to clearly measure your success.

Examples of good goals include:

  • By the end of July 2015, increase participation among the targeted constituent group by 50%.
  • Achieve representation from people under 40 in at least three city-hosted events by June 2015.
  • Before the proposal goes before Council, hold neighborhood meetings in three underrepresented neighborhoods with at least 50 people attending each event.

4. Build relationships with key groups in the community

Regardless of tactics and technology, an effective engagement strategy is built upon a strong foundation of relationships. When trying to engage historically underrepresented residents, creating partnerships and working with other groups who already work with those residents is an important step. For example, if you have a goal to engage more residents under age 40, consider working with student organizations or young professional associations.

Take the time to personally meet community leaders, attend their group’s meetings, and show genuine interest in their respective needs. Doing this will help you build a coalition of community groups that will share information and invite their members to participate in your work.

5. Regularly measure your progress

Throughout your process, regularly measure your progress against your goals and the baselines you set at the beginning. If you’re trying new tactics or approaches but not getting the participation you were expecting or need for your goal, be ready to adjust your strategy. Keep track of all your data in one place and make notes about what worked and what didn’t for future projects.
Example: demographics in the City of Boulder

The City of Boulder used the free Census Reporter tool to understand the people who make up its community, understand how well their current outreach was working, and set goals for future outreach. But when measuring their progress, they collected demographic data using different categories than what they had used to set a baseline — so it was difficult to make comparisons and understand if they were meeting their goals.

Census data showed that 65% of Boulder’s population was under 40 years old, and the City wanted their public participation demographics to reflect this. Census Reporter provides a breakdown of ages into five year increments. Boulder collected data using a different set of age ranges.

Census Boulder
Under 20 Under 18
20 to 39 18 to 36
40 to 54 37 to 55
55 to 74 56 to 74
Over 74 Over 74

When the City of Boulder wanted to see how well they were meeting the goal of 65% of participants under the age of 40, they didn’t have the right information to answer the question accurately. Without exact numbers, they were unable to definitively say if they were meeting their goals or not. The ages of people taking part can sometimes be a tricky issue, so making sure there is clear data on age is important.

Lesson: Use a consistent method to measure demographics of your audience so that you can make comparisons between your baseline, current, and future status.

Signs of success

When your outreach strategy is successful:

  • Your participants (both online and in-person) are representative of your community’s geographic, ethnic, age, income and other demographic distributions.
  • You’ve made demographic data collection part of every engagement tactic (public meetings, online surveys, social media, etc.).
  • You’re building relationships with local community groups that represent some of your harder to reach demographics.
  • You are regularly measuring and checking who you are reaching, and taking steps to improve your reach.