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5 Creative Ways to Think Outside the Public Engagement Box

Blog, Public Engagement, Uncategorized | April 19, 2017

By: Nuala McKee, Consultant, Public Engagement Team

When it comes to public engagement, Town Halls just don’t cut it. Whether it’s a lack of

public turnout (likely due to a lack of public awareness about the event in the first place) or the usual suspects there to voice the same complaints regardless of the topic at hand, the old fashion town hall meetings aren’t attracting the level of public engagement needed to get meaningful feedback.

I only have time for one more question

Source: http://www.cagle.com/r-j-matson/2013/08/quiet-town-hall-summer

Town Halls can have a major turnout and result in lively and productive discussions, but they should not be utilized independently. The public expects more than a space to scream and shout. Companies and governments have been forced to start thinking of creative consultative methods that will a) attract more members of the public and b) provide more insightful and tangible feedback.

So in the spirit of creativity, I’ve highlighted 5 examples of public engagement strategies that others in a number of jurisdictions have initiated to push past the old Town Hall approach and pull citizens into the conversation. Some of these ideas have proven successes while with others are too new to measure the successes, but all help to open the mind to other options out there.


1)      Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil

Porto Alegre was the first city to launch a complete participatory budgeting (PB) process back in 1989. Since then, the city conducts annual PB assemblies that see a turnout of 50,000 residents (of a total 1.5 million in population) each year. Participants are given the power to decide how the city should spend as much as 20% of their annual budget. The PB process brings out the gamut of citizens— the poor, middle class, men and women from all across the political spectrum.

The process begins with assemblies across the city to determine budgeting priorities. After months of discussions, budget delegates deliver a participatory budget to the city for implementation.

The successes of this project have been staggering – back in 1989 when the PB process first launched, only 75% of homes had running water. Now, 99% have treated water. Housing assistance has gone from 1,700 families to 29,000 and the number of public schools has increased from 29 to 86. Porto Alegre is now rated one of the most livable cities in Brazil and the PB process has spread to cities all across Brazil and even surrounding countries.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a method of public engagement used across the world and has had remarkable successes, including in New York City and Newcastle UK.


2)      Chalkboard Walls in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Murfreesboro Chalk Board

Source: Murfreesboro, TN – Official Website

After purchasing the former First United Methodist Church property from Franklin Synergy Bank, the City of Murfreesboro reached out to members of the public to hear what they wanted to be done to the historical building. To get the publics feedback, the city set up a giant chalk board at the city’s core with the declaration “I want __ in my Downtown.” In addition to advice from developers and architects, the city used public comment from the chalkboard and other sources to inform the process of how best to preserve the historic structure. The chalkboard caught the attention of children and adults alike, though rain did wash away the first days’ worth of comments (hopefully not before city staffers took note of each suggestion!).

In addition to chalkboard walls, graffiti walls are a great space for capturing participants’ views quickly and graphically. All it requires is blank space (be it a white board, large sheets of paper, white wall, etc.) and writing instruments or post-it notes. The wall provides a visually appealing space where participants can see the views of the other participants. Graffiti walls can be used during an engagement session, or as a standalone initiative in public spaces.


3)      Cortez Heart & Soul Engagement Project in Cortez, Colorado

In 2012, Cortez, Colorado was preparing to update their city’s comprehensive plan and revise their land use code. Knowing this was not the kind of project likely to garner strong public attention, the city used a range of approaches to get strong community participation from all demographic groups represented in the small Colorado town. Some of the highlights of the Heart & Soul engagement project includes:

  • Engaging the Hispanic community through churches to initiate a connection and build trust
  • Distributing surveys in both English and Spanish at specific locations and by mail, receiving a higher response rate from seniors who were especially familiar with the format and more apt to return the survey by mail
  • Discussion forums held in community-centric spaces including coffee shops and the local food pantry
  • Block parties were hosted with input from community members regarding design and invitees
  • Residents were given disposable cameras to participate in a “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” photo exhibition

The city found that the public engagement conducted through the Cortez Heart & Soul project improved communication with members of the community, particularly minority groups, and increased youth involvement. Outcomes from the engagement project included: added seats to advisory boards to be filled by a youth representative; a graffiti wall in the skateboard park (which reduced graffiti tagging incidents in the city by 75%); the construction of a state highway; and an improved application process for new businesses.


4)      PARK(ing) Day in San Francisco

Park(ing) Day in Nashville, TN

Park(ing) Day in Nashville, TN

What began over 10 years ago with one park installation has turned into a global event with thousands of installations with the goal of encouraging conversation about enhancing public spaces. On PARK(ing) Day, parking stalls in San Francisco (and elsewhere across the world) get leased out and turned into public spaces for citizens to sit, interact and collaborate on ideas to re-imagine the possibilities of the urban landscape.




5)      Live Tweeting at MCYS Consultations across Ontario

GCI-led Twitter page for the Child and Family Service Act review consultations

GCI-led Twitter page for the Child and Family Service Act review consultations

In 2014, GCI worked with the Ministry of Child and Youth Services (MCYS) to support in the logistics and execution of 22 stakeholder and public consultation sessions across Ontario. The purpose of the consultations was to receive input on proposed changes to the Child and Family Services Act with a focus on improving outcomes for children and youth, as well as modernizing and clarifying the language of the Act.

Knowing that not all stake holders who should be a part of the important conversation would be able to attend an in-person session, our team utilized Twitter to reach out to as many stakeholders as possible by providing live-tweeting for all public consultation sessions. In the spirit of open government, the public engagement sessions used social media to increase participation, make information on the public sessions more accessible, and increase the geographic reach of the review. The live Twitter outreach for the engagement sessions was conducted in both English and French @CFSAReviewEN and @CFSAReviewFR.

Tweets were developed by GCI staff members in attendance at each session and were sent out through a government account created specifically for the consultation process. In total, 450 tweets were sent out to provide real-time comments and suggestions shared throughout the duration of the public sessions.


It wasn’t as easy as you would think to find examples of creative engagement practices. As citizens get more tired of mundane Town Hall-style meetings, more and more examples like these will start popping up. What’s needed is a little creativity and some outside the box thinking.