The team at Highland Planning has been voraciously discussing two articles from Strong Towns entitled “Most Public Engagement is Worthless” and “Most Public Engagement Is Worse Than Worthless.” These articles, and our discussions around them, inspired me to write this post.
Let’s start with the point of agreement:
1.The author says that we shouldn't ask questions about issues the public can’t influence.
The article describes a situation where the public was asked to indicate on a map where bike lanes should be built. In reality, the criteria for bike lanes -- traffic volumes, street widths, and maintenance schedules -- would determine where bike lanes would be placed—not public opinion. That engagement scenario was admittedly worthless. Making the Scope of Influence clear to the public is something we always consider. When you don’t, it erodes the trust the public has in your process, and calls everything you do into question.
Now let’s get to what I don’t agree with:
2.The author implies that we shouldn’t ask questions of the public about issues they aren’t formally trained in.
The article describes a situation where the public was asked to provide ideas to improve a city’s sustainability. Participants said they wanted solar panels, an idea the author decried as insulting to experts who know that weather stripping and insulation are more cost effective ways to reduce energy use than solar panels.
But “Install solar panels” is a great answer to “How can we make the city more sustainable”! If the author wanted more nuanced answers he should have provided more education and context to the participants. This is something we consider a lot when we design engagement processes. We work hard to provide context and identify constraints directly in the questions we ask. For example, when we designed the survey for the City of Rochester’s Comprehensive Access & Mobility Plan, we included an introduction to the constraints of street design and the possible effects of certain street design elements just before the questions about street design.
You don’t need a degree to give your input, you just need some context.
3.The author implies that we shouldn’t ask the public for ideas.
The article states, “lack of ideas is almost never the problem….Even if we did need more ideas, consultation doesn’t work to generate them.” This is the most incorrect idea in this article. The idea that planners know everything there is to know about a subject, or that those without special training in a subject can’t have valuable and innovative ideas, is a dangerous trap. Not only does it cut you off from a possible source of innovation, the implicit disrespect of the public can and will be felt by the public. I've asked the public for ideas on many occasions and I've received some that I never would have considered! Not all of them were feasible or realistic, but many were, and those that were not gave me an opportunity to see things from a new point of view.
"Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets."
- W. Edwards Deming (probably)
And here is its corollary:
"If your public engagement is worthless, then your engagement design was worthless."
- M. André Primus (Me)
If you want to learn more about better public engagement design, consider taking our four-hour course, which you can learn about here.