Public Engagement Tips for Local Government

It’s no secret there’s been a tectonic shift in public outreach. Notices and meetings no longer cut it. Governments are now expected to engage stakeholders in more inclusive, meaningful ways. And elected officials expect to see how that input shaped a decision.

So, how does government staff rise to the occasion? Here are our tips to help you go above and beyond:

Pro Tip 1: Start with a Test

Public engagement is unfortunately not black and white, but often shades of gray.

Before you launch your plan, think about how the public will perceive your project. Specifically, ask yourself if it could affect:

  • Community character/values

  • Property values

  • Livelihood or business success

  • Moral/ideological values

  • Community aesthetics

  • Noise, lights, traffic, dust impacts

  • Money (taxes, fees, etc.)

  • Culture or history

  • Environmental health

  • Sense of equity/fairness

If your answer is yes to these questions, it’s time to develop a public engagement plan.

Pro Tip 2: Get Clear on Your Goal

When designing a public engagement plan, your goal for involving the public must be crystal clear.

For example, perhaps your goal is to get the project approved by the Board or City Council; or to see positive sentiment about a project on social media; or to gauge the community’s ideas and values around a project.

Ask these questions within your agency and project team to mine for this information before starting:

  • What is our goal?

  • What is our purpose?

  • What are we trying to achieve by engaging the public?

  • What does success look like?

  • What input do we need from them?

  • How can we integrate public input into decisions that need to be made?

  • Will that input influence the decision?

It helps to use a tool like the IAP2 Spectrum to determine your goals and the public’s role in the process. Getting this right can make or break your public engagement plan success.

Pro Tip 3: Right Message-Right Audience-Right Time

Once your team is clear on the goal and the public’s role, it’s time to think about your audiences and the tools or tactics you’ll use to reach them.

Warning: when you ask staff who they want to reach, they may say “the general public.” If that happens, dig deeper. We need to get more specific in order to effectively reach our audiences. Some questions that help:

  • Who are we trying to reach?

  • Who might care?

  • Who won’t care?

  • Internal and external audiences

  • Segmentation: Developing segmented audiences allows you to target messages and information to your audiences based on their interests, issues they care most about, location, etc. Segmented audiences allow us to effectively deliver information to the right people at the right time.

Pro Tip 4: Tactics and Tools Support Your Goal

Once you’ve figured out who our audiences are, think about the tools you’ll use to engage them. It (almost) goes without saying that different tools and tactics will be needed to reach different audiences.

For example, if you want to reach Spanish speakers, think beyond translated materials. Look for partnerships with community organizations, schools and churches that can reach this audience. Some questions to think about when selecting tools and tactics should be:

  • How will you engage with participants?

  • What tactics will you use?

  • Do I own these tools?

  • If I don’t own these tools, is there a cost involved?

  • When will you engage with participants?

  • How can you ensure that you’re engaging throughout the entire process?

Pro Tip #5: Be Consistent

Engaging stakeholders is a chance to build public trust—or, break it.

If people take the time and energy to give you input, it is critical that you close the loop and show them how their input mattered. That will build their trust in the process and encourage them to participate again.

Whatever you do, don’t just get input from the public and then go into hibernation. Sending even a “non-update update” is helpful to build trust with the public and establish you as the most credible source of information about the project.

These are just a few tips to get you started in the development of your public engagement plan. If you’ve hit a roadblock—or need help getting started—JPW is now offering public engagement training as part of our core services. For more information, please email Vice President Susanne Bankhead at

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