We’ve all heard the cynical responses to public outreach:

  • “They’ve already made their decision.  This outreach is just for show.”
  • “They’re not answering our questions.”
  • “Why are the meetings way over there, at a time when I can’t get to them?”
  • “I don’t like any of these alternatives!”

Still, great planning can’t move forward without effective engagement with the public and stakeholders.  Key players who have major influence over a project must feel involved in a way that respects their influence.  Meanwhile, the largest possible public must be engaged in substantive, two-way conversation.

Great outreach isn’t a public meeting where everyone testifies for five minutes and then goes home, or writes online comments and gets nothing back but an automated thank-you.  It’s a two-way engagement in which the participants are heard but also educated about the real choices that are before the community, and encouraged to think about different perspectives on the question, not just the one they came in with.

Jarrett Walker has been innovating on public outreach for over a decade, designing distinctive outreach approaches for each problem while pioneering new techniques.   His theatre background also makes him attentive to crucial issues of room layout, furnishing, lighting, and so on, which can have profound impacts on the proceedings.

The keys to his approach are to:

  • Encourage citizens to discuss the issue with each other, not just with officials.  Citizens at round tables talking with each other can explore their disagreements in intimate discussion, and come away better understanding the range of views that the agency is hearing.  They can also begin probing, on their own, possible paths to consensus.
  • Engage participants in solving the real problem.  Avoid presenting the issue as “Here is our proposal, what do you think?”  Instead, construct interactive exercises in which the participants can work on the problem themselves, testing their own ideas.  Jarrett is especially engaged in the development of online tools of this type, as well as meeting techniques.
  • Present multiple alternatives designed to illustrate the real issue.  When doing network designs and similar transit plans, Jarrett often recommends developing multiple alternatives that are carefully sculpted to draw public discussion to a difficult policy issue and build understanding of it.

An example of the last item is the tradeoff between planning for ridership and planning for coverage or social service outcomes, the subject of Chapter 10 of Human Transit and of his Journal of Transport Geography paper, “Purpose driven public transport: creating a clear conversation about public transport goals.”

Ridership goals (“maximize ridership” or “minimize subsidy/passenger”) are inevitably in tension with Coverage goals (“respond to social service needs,” or “ensure that __% of population/jobs are within __m walk of a transit stop”).   Few policymakers, and even fewer citizens, have been asked to think clearly about the choice.  Jarrett often recommends developing multiple network scenarios — even if not credibly proposed for implementation — simply for the purpose of illustrating this tradeoff and building understanding of it.  He has used this technique in a range of workshops for elected officials, and also as part of transit plans in:

One key form on interactive outreach, ideal for stakeholders, is the planning game.  Stakeholders are gathered in groups of six around a map of their study area, and given the tools to lay out their own network ideas and immediately grasp what they cost.  Jarrett Walker introduced this idea at Vancouver, Canada’s transit agency TransLink in 2006, as part of the very contentious South of Fraser Area Transit Plan.  Here’s what the agency’s head of communications said of the event:

TransLink’s South of Fraser Area Transit Plan (incorporating 5 separate cities) needed to be different.  Traditionally TransLink had developed a 5-Year strategy and taken it out to the public and stakeholders for approval with a few opportunities for consultation.  This time we were talking about creating a 30-Year Vision and the implementation strategies to get there and we wanted the decision-makers, stakeholders and eventually the public to buy-in and help set the direction for their communities.

But how to engage these people in a meaningful process?  We needed something that would showcase the challenges that TransLink and the cities faced, e.g. land-use patterns (employment and residential), transportation corridors, different types of modes, changing transportation patterns, budgets, etc.  But we only had a day to educate and involve them in developing outcomes.  

We wanted an interactive session, one that encouraged individuals to think broadly, respecting a regional approach and not just “my back yard” – so people needed to have the time to discuss, challenge, and move on.  Many of these individuals were used to complaining about the lack of service and the need to do more; now we were asking them to help us – it was critical that we were able to show that we were listening.  Knowing what we wanted we turned to Jarrett Walker and asked him to help us in designing the appropriate process.

Jarrett designed a workshop that surpassed all expectations. Participants left the workshop understanding the challenges but also seeing the possibilities.  Everyone felt as though their voices were heard and they had the opportunity to immediately see how their contributions might work or not.  We still continue to hear about these events and that TransLink listens.  Now we need to implement these suggestions – having the support of these communities will make it easier to do.