Community Participation

Dear Management Doctor:

I am writing to pick your brain awhile. I am attempting to put together specific tools or strategies for building and improving community participation in community related projects. I am hoping that you might have some web sites I could look up that would educate me in this process or that you would have some of your own ideas you could share. Please let me know, I'd like to hear from you.

Thank you,

Dear Ray:

I'm not an expert in this field but hope a few of our web site users will email me and we'll post the responses to this page. A few ideas I've used in the past:

1. For a big kick-off meeting, have a well-known feature speaker. For example, I've used Allan Jacobs in the past.

2. For a Hispanic community, we went door-to-door and then had a local Mexican restaurant cater all of our meetings.

3. Go into each neighborhood: living rooms, churches, etc.

4. Have displays in a storefront or a booth in a mall.

5. Mail is good but expensive - build an email file and use it.

6. Get a symbolic project (i.e., plant a tree, paint a house, pull weeds), and include the press.

7. Most important, prove you are useful to them through some action.

Good luck!

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

There are TONS of resources available! In fact, since the ISTEA legislation (1991 federal transportation legislation, for anyone unfamiliar with the alphabet soup), it seems that "public involvement" has been a cottage industry.

Be very careful if you go looking for consultants - many are merely "public relations" firms that decided they had what it takes to run a good meeting! But it's not all about meetings!

One of my favorite resources is the Transportation Research Board's Committee on Public Involvement. Lots of resources, on-line: In particular, look at the Resources and Links.

The USDOT has put some good resources on line. Try this one for a full "tool kit"!

The National Civic League has a program, it used to be called "The Program for Community Problem Solving", that can offer technical assistance. See:

I've attached some bookmarks that I find useful. Perhaps you can use some of these?

In closing, I offer these bits of advice:

1. Think beyond the public meeting mentality. The old model is called "DAD" - Decide, Announce, Defend - and it describes how we've done projects for too long. Be creative. Be "upstream"! It will save you time and money in the long run.

2. Consciously design your public involvement process. The cobbler's children have no shoes - that means that planners have an amazing propensity for not "planning to plan". What I'm saying is this - be deliberate. Think about the many ways and places you can engage the public in discussion about projects. Think about how you involve the media and decision-makers. Think about who should be at the table. Remember, two people with a clipboard can stop anything - find out who they are and bring them on-board.

3. Read "Collaborative Leadership" by David Chrislip and Carl Larson. Better yet, give a copy to your Mayor [insert lead officials' titles here]. Remember, by involving the public in a "meaningful way" (i.e., they actually get to make some choices and decisions!), the elected officials are NOT giving away their rightful powers. The fact is, it was never really theirs to begin with! I hate to sound like I'm locked in the 60's, but the power really does belong to the people. If an elected official (or for that matter, a planner, business or corporation) wants to get the stuffing beat out of them in court, at the polls, or even in the court of "public opinion" (hint: Read "Dealing with an Angry Public" by Lawrence Susskind), then try to do the Robert Moses approach - DAD...

Gosh, that's a lot of stuff. Read "The Skilled Facilitator" by Roger Schwarz. Read "Getting to Yes" by Roger Fisher and William Ury. These will help give you some conceptual background. Good Luck!

David Boyd, AICP
FOCUS St. Louis

Take a look at the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) web site ( and the pubic participation desk reference page at Everything you want to know on the subject can be gleaned from the references cited there. The IAP2 bibliography is/was quite comprehensive.

John Henderson
Chicago, IL

I would add, following your seventh point:

8. Planners must be convinced that the citizen's view is important to the plan or project implementation.

9. Residents must be shown that their view is important to the plan or project implementation.

Danny Whittle

You might want to refer your correspondent to Sumner Sharpe. He has been doing quite a bit of facilitation work for the type of project Ray identified.

Michael A. Harper, AICP
Washoe County Community Development Department