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Six steps to help government agencies plan for successful community meetings

May 30, 2017

Over the past two years, CRE has had the opportunity to partner with government agencies in New York City to design and facilitate community meetings. Part of what makes this work interesting — and why we value working with these agencies as a very worthwhile opportunity — is that government agencies are not always rooted in the communities they serve, which can make community engagement challenging. They may have satellite locations or even large campuses located in the many different neighborhoods being served, but headquarters are often more removed. This distance can make regular community engagement feel difficult, and sometimes unappealing. But community engagement is a chance to benefit tremendously from the insights, accountability, and support that meaningful input from the community can provide.

After helping to facilitate dozens of community meetings in the last two years, we have seen some patterns emerge around the best way for large government agencies to more effectively engage the communities that they exist to serve.  The two most important things a government agency can do when designing a community meeting is to be thoughtful about how and why it approaches community engagement, and to make it as collaborative as possible. Here’s how to do both when planning a community meeting.

  1. Think about why you’re doing it. It is important for a government agency to know what it wants and needs out of a community meeting when starting to plan. Just as important though, is also thinking through what value the meeting will provide to the community. A good question to ask yourself is, why would a community member give up their Tuesday night for this, what benefit are they getting? The desire to engage the community has to come from a genuine place — coming prepared to take the community input on board and into practice creates a feedback and accountability cycle that ensures both parties continue to contribute thoughtfully.
  2. Be thoughtful about room setup. Avoid auditoriums with their elevated stages and rows of seats bolted to the floor. Find a flexible open space that can be arranged with seats around small tables or in small circles instead. Putting the representatives of the agency up on a stage and the members of the community down below symbolizes a power imbalance. It may feel “safer,” but it only exacerbates the feeling of distance between the agency and the people.
  3. Make space for conversation, not just presentation. Meetings that start with a presentation and then go to question and answer with one mic make everyone feel like they are speaking at one another rather than with one another. Design the meeting to have a mix of presentation, small group discussions, and large group discussions. Seat agency members and community members around tables together discussing the challenge of the day — as collaborator.
  4. Commit to more than one meeting. If the community feels that it only has one shot to voice its point of view, then it will make sure that it does and it won’t feel much like listening. Make sure that meetings between the agency and the community happen regularly and that the next one is on the calendar so that people can plan for the next time they’ll get to connect with the agency.
  5. Remember it is called engagement for a reason. In order to effectively engage the community, agency staffers who come to these meetings need to come ready to not only mingle, but to join in the conversation and hear community concerns, regardless of if they are in a community relations role or not. Greet community members as they come in and make sure your team isn’t standing in the corner talking to one another. By engaging with community members you will know where people are coming from: what are they feeling, what priorities do they have, and why did they give up their Tuesday evening to come to this meeting?
  6. Come with curiosity and guard against defensiveness. When sitting with people who represent the folks your agency serves, it is natural to want to explain why your agency does what it does (or doesn’t do). If you hear a community member complaining about a bad experience, don’t defend the agency or point fingers elsewhere — both of which can be tempting and sometimes valid. Instead, ask questions and be curious about why the community member feels the way they do. What led them to have this experience? Are they alone or is this evidence of a broader trend? What are the implications? You don’t need to promise anything or have answers when you don’t. If someone asks a pointed question, you can respond honestly with something like “That’s a great question. We are grappling with that question as well. What do you think? What could we do differently to address that from your perspective?”
  7. Keep in mind that ultimately you are both on the same team. This is probably the most important insight I’ve gained from the past few years of doing this work. While it may not always feel this way, both parties are actually on the same side. Those who serve in government tend to be pretty committed to the mission of their agency — whether it is to provide health care, affordable housing, or public safety — and the communities being served want the agencies to go on providing those services, and if possible, more of them and of as high a quality as possible. Rather than looking at challenges from opposite sides of the table, the agency can use this chance to invite the community to sit on the same side of the table and solve the problem together.

This approach to community engagement is not easy. It takes time, resources, and commitment. It also requires the agency to be sincere in its interest and steady in its belief that community engagement is worth the effort. Working together is the only way to ensure a wise outcome, one that is informed by the agency’s technical expertise in its service area and by the community’s expertise in their neighborhood and how they are experiencing the services the agency is providing. There may be some conflict along the way, but there is nothing better for building trust between a government agency and the community it serves than problems or conflict resolved together.

By Senior Consultant Brad Luckhardt