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October 24, 2018

Putting Engagement Data to Use: How to Get the Most Out of Public Input

In previous blogs, we have discussed engagement strategies and the importance of ensuring a diverse group of stakeholders. In this one, we divulge what happens after those public meetings. Here, we’re sharing how Landworks Studio engages with the public, synthesizes their responses, and uses them to shape planning and design efforts. 

Some of the needs for public input include:

Depending on the desired outcome, the information we collect from stakeholders is used in a variety of ways.

Support:  
Sometimes a client has an idea for a project and wants to know if the public will view the changes as a benefit. In this case, the purpose of the engagement is to learn from the potential beneficiaries. Essentially, cities and counties are asking, “If funding for the project was developed, would the project be supported and valued?” 

In this case, recording the number of participants engaged in the activity or the meeting is important. It’s also helpful to collect any specific comments relative to the proposed improvements. This data can simply be gathered using a sign-in sheet, taking a headcount, or distributing dots on boards or plans. The information is then calculated and presented graphically or numerically and shared with our client.

Perception vs. Reality:
Stakeholders often have the most intimate knowledge of how a site is used and the activities relative to needs. Their perspective is valuable for a design team to have in the early stages of a project. It is important to know which questions to ask and how to receive the stakeholders’ information. 

Often, a survey is the best way to capture these details. In addition, we can collect these impressions through one-on-one dialogues or written notes. Sometimes, we can even gather information through diagrams or sketches that are offered during public meetings. Documenting and sharing this feedback with the client is critical, as it is used throughout the design process. Answers to survey questions can be consolidated into graphs and charts that clearly illustrate the issues and desires for a project. 

Design/Planning Direction:
As design/planning consultants, we use our knowledge, talents, skills, and expertise to drive a design or plan for our clients. In addition, at the onset of each project, we establish guiding principles that are used throughout the design process. This ensures all parties know the desired outcomes. If they are followed and accomplished, then the project is deemed successful. 

These guiding principles are sometimes developed directly by the client, but can also be crafted through the engagement process. This provides the design team with early input for the overall direction of the project. We do this by asking stakeholders specific and direct questions about what the goals are for the project improvements, listing out responses, and requesting a vote on the most popular responses. We typically give one to five options. In the end, the stakeholders have developed the project’s Guiding Principles. 

Additionally, engagement data can be used to determine design direction for the project. When multiple concepts are developed and all are viable solutions that meet the guiding principles, the stakeholders can be engaged again. This time, the goal is to determine which option is preferred. This can be done in multiple ways; however, the key is to ensure a blind vote. This means stakeholders cannot see what others are selecting, but are voting on their preference - minimizing external influence. Often, there are benefits from each of the concepts, so any notes collected about preferences can be used to modify the top-voted design to capture the best of each concept.

Prioritization:
Another value to stakeholder participation is the ability to determine priorities. When design improvements exceed the available funding, it is important to understand which amenities stakeholders value most in the project. This is an opportunity to educate stakeholders on what is necessary versus what is desired. It also allows input to be given on the desired improvements and helps the design team more easily rank them based on which are most urgent. This input can be collected in a visual format or through a survey. 

No matter how public engagement occurs it is important to let stakeholders know the information is utilized to inform design decisions and determine the best solutions moving forward. To that end, a presentation or the communication of the results, as well as offering next steps, is critical to ensure stakeholders continue to support the project and stay engaged. This can positively impact not only the current project, but also future efforts.