When working on projects that are guaranteed to create controversy within the community, it’s easy to see the value in finding support from residents. There is no specific amount of time that will guarantee approval, but allowing enough time to complete the public engagement process will result in the community’s understanding of the project and will enable you to obtain the maximum level of support. This article will explain the general time constraints for various types of engagement efforts within your communities.

Educate – Providing information to the community is the fastest form of public engagement. Still, it takes on-average two to four months to create materials and get them in the right hands. Often referred to as outreach, this form of education focuses on informing residents about an event or initiative, and it’s always the first phase of any engagement effort. It is often the only engagement tool used when time is tight. This type of communication is low on the engagement spectrum as it typically involves one-way communication from the agency to the community. While often appreciated and helpful in building trust, outreach is not generally useful in making long-lasting relationships with community members because the information is only shared one way.

Involve – Moving community members to participate in a process by sharing information can be a daunting task, however rewarding. Once outreach efforts have educated your community about the issue, the focus changes to collecting useful input from the community. Gathering feedback is a valuable type of public engagement. The right tools will allow you to understand the root of why opinions form and will let you help participants find common ground. Without common ground, there is no path to the next steps of the public engagement process, and at this point, at least three to six months into engagement, the efforts may end.

Collaborate – Multiple perspectives in the decision-making process often allow for exceptional outcomes. Collaboration allows for dialogue between those who create policy and those the policy is intended to serve. A significant investment of time may be necessary to come to a solution. But remember, participants do not need to admit that the answer is the best solution for them individually, but rather the best overall solution for the community. Collaboration is the most rewarding step in the public engagement process and offers the most significant opportunity for building trusting relationships. Collaboration with the community should become second nature to public agencies.

Successful agencies include an evaluation of the public engagement process at the beginning of every major project. Efforts that require true collaboration from a broad demographic of the community will need at least 6-12 months to succeed. Selecting the correct type of public engagement and allowing enough time to complete the process will result in the community’s highest level of support.