What Is Public Engagement?
Public engagement, according to the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), is "any process that involves the public in problem solving or decision-making and uses public input to make sustainable decisions."
In short, it is when we, as the City of Manitou Springs, consult, involve, or collaborate with interested and affected parties when making a decision. One easy way to tell if something is public engagement is to ask yourself "who is asking the questions." If you are asking city officials questions, chances are you are seeking information. If city officials are asking you questions, chances are we are looking for your feedback on a decision, and therefore engaging you.
There are a multitude of ways to conduct public engagement, ranging from questionnaires and surveys, to public comment at public hearings or community discussions. The technique in which the City engages with interested and affected parties varies from topic to topic and the level of involvement the public has.
How Is Input From Public Engagement Used in Decision-Making?
The Sustainable Decision framework provides City staff, decision makers and the broader community with a consistent and easy to understand approach to decision-making. The framework helps staff to organize information and prepare recommendations for decision makers in a consistent and repeatable manner. It allows the public to know ahead of time what decision makers will consider and encourages those providing comment or engaging in the process to consider their own perspectives through these lenses. Lastly, it provides a methodical way for decision makers to organize the information, data, and public input that comes to them through staff and interested and affected parties.
Simply put, a Sustainable Decision is a decision that is both in balance and expected to last. The Sustainable Decision framework provides decision makers with a set of lenses to organize and evaluate the information and public input received for a specific project or outcome in a predictable way. The lenses are:
- Economically Viable: Is it in the budget? Can we afford it? Is one option more or less expensive than other options?
- Technically Feasible: Can we actually do this? Is it legally allowed? Is it dependent on cooperation from other agencies? Is one option less complicated than the other options?
- Environmentally Compatible: Is there an obvious environmental impact? Can the impact be avoided with modification? Is one option less impactful than other options?
- Community Benefit: Who does this decision affect positively? Who does this decision affect negatively? How does this decision align with our guiding plans (e.g. Plan Manitou, Transportation and Mobility Master Plan, etc?) Does one option address or ease existing disparities more than other options? Community benefit is more than just the results of a public engagement process; it is the sum total of all the long-term factors that affect the outcome for the community.
Planning For Public Engagement
In 2023, Manitou Springs City Council unanimously approved Resolution 1023, therefore approving a Public Engagement Plan. The purpose of the plan is to establish an approach to engagement that will be applied to a specific project or project phase. The plan is created before a project starts to ensure the role, interest, and influence of the public on a decision or outcome is understood.
High level information of each step of public engagement planning is outlined below. For a more in-depth look at the process of planning for public engagement, please view the Public Engagement Plan.
Document the Basics
Documenting the project basics orients City staff, public officials, and the community to the overall project and gives context for engagement opportunities throughout the process. Careful planning and preparation ensures a complete understanding of the project, including the purpose, timeline, decision or outcome, how the final decision will be made and by whom. Documenting basics also prepares us all to be clear, open, and accurate with the community from the very beginning of the project.
Determine the Level of Engagement
The level of engagement establishes the role of the public in the decision or outcome and ensures that City staff, public officials, and the community have a common understanding of the public’s ability to influence the outcome.
The Spectrum of Public Participation serves as the primary tool for identifying the appropriate level of engagement. This spectrum is not meant to entail to more engagement (or the further right on the spectrum), the better.
If input from the public cannot influence the decision or will not be used by the decision-makers, it is not appropriate to implement public participation activities. It is more appropriate to disseminate information.
Determine the Decision Process
Public participation must follow a logical and transparent process that allows the public to understand how and why the decision was made. The best way to achieve this is to integrate public participation into the decision process itself. The public, like the decision-maker, must gain an increasing understanding of the decision as information, assumptions, and choices are made.
Identify Interested and Affected Parties
Interested and affected party refers to anyone who has a stake or interest in a project. The phrase “interested and affected party” is interchangeable with the word “stakeholder”. While the general public is considered interested and affected parties in a broad sense of the term, this section focuses on identifying the distinct set of people, businesses, and organizations that need to be strategically engaged.
The extent to which an individual or group perceives their distance from the impact of a decision or tangible outcome often determines their willingness to engage. Some people will be extremely engaged, others will comment occasionally from afar, and some will simply wish to be informed.
Select Engagement Techniques
Different techniques are employed throughout a project and are selected based on the appropriate level of engagement – from “inform” to “empower” – as well as who the project seeks to engage, what resources are available, and the project timeline and budget.
The City of Manitou Springs selects techniques based on:
- Level of engagement
- Engagement objective
- Interested and affected parties
- Budget, staff resources, and schedule
Implement, Assess, & Adapt
After planning for engagement, the City will then implement the engagement techniques, assess how they are working, what can be improved, and the effectiveness of the public process. The City will then adapt the engagement approach and techniques as necessary.
Summarize the engagement efforts. Compile the input collected and analyze the results. Evaluate trends observed in the public’s opinions, thoughts, and ideas. Assess if trends vary by interested and affected party groups. Document if any interested and affected parties are underrepresented in the results to alert decision makers. When possible, summarize public input with the Sustainable Decisions framework in mind.