Charting the Course for Public Engagement at Code for America Summit

Public Engagement Roadmap
Caption: Roadmap: a playful illustration of the participatory process, courtesy of the Engagement Lab.

Last week I participated at Code for America’s 2016 Summit where I co-facilitated a workshop, Charting the Course for Public Engagement. As always it was great to see old friends, make new ones, and learn about the important work so many are leading in the civic technology space. Between the glossy keynotes on human centered design – like Virginia Hamilton’s and Mollie Ruskin and Ryan Burke’s– and our public engagement workshop, it got me musing on the connections between what we call “user experience research” or “design research” in the technology world versus “participatory planning” and “community engagement” in the urban planning world.

The workshop, Charting the Course for Public Engagement, guided participants through a process to create a strategic roadmap for public engagement. This approach was based on findings from the Living Cities’ City Accelerator 2 facilitated by the Engagement Lab @ Emerson College and Living Cities. I got a chance to put my urban planning hat back on and throw back to my former role as managing director for the lab. My colleague, Becky Michelson, shared the City Accelerator 2 findings plus a nifty bonus game that came out of it called Chart the Course. By the end of the session, our participants identified potential communication channels and barriers, strategic partnerships, feedback loops, and milestones.

But back to the urban planning – UX/UI metaphor! At the heart of it all is a deep respect and understanding that the people who will use your product know what they need. They know what they need better than anyone and can tell you if you ask the right questions. This means sourcing direct feedback, and then incorporating it, from the people who are going to use your intervention – whether that’s a government website, or a redesigned intersection in downtown. The designers that translate community feedback into designs are “user interface designers” (tech world) or “urban designers” and “landscape architects” (urban planning world). A successful product depends on many cycles of an iterative approach (design > research > feedback > incorporate > design) until it works seamlessly for your community.

I can’t stress how important incorporating feedback, and demonstrating listening, is in this process. Listening builds trust. Communicating listening, even if it is “Thank you – this will take us weeks/months/years for us to address” demonstrates there is a person behind the black box. In the business world, it is sometimes called operational transparency. Communication feedback loops help to mitigate “engagement fatigue” from communities – especially those that work with government—and build trust.

As our cities become more integrated with digital services, and our communities more dependent on the digital for every day needs, we need products that work for us, the people. Developing a common language around engagement becomes even more important to help us understand each other and the process.

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