When we contemplate how to gather public feedback, the first place everyone looks is to surveys. Other more mainstream ways of gathering public input include open houses, workshops, and focus groups. All are very good ways to involve people, but to start, let’s talk about your stakeholders.
Stakeholders represent any group or organization that largely shares with you a mission or ambition and/or whose behavior, advocacy, or activities influence or have the potential of influencing your community. The most common stakeholder groups in a community are other governmental bodies such as the school district, the city, the county, or neighboring cities and towns. You will also want to include business groups, parent/teacher organizations, seniors, local government employees, and elected officials. Sometimes it’s easy to forget some of the less obvious stakeholder groups such as children and youth, athletic organizations, arts councils, your legislative delegation, public safety organizations, community volunteer groups, healthcare providers, service clubs, and faith-based organizations. All are critically important to involve in strategic planning processes and community initiatives, and they can be of great assistance to you in gathering feedback and encouraging participation.
Just as doing some foundational work is critically important to any initiative, so it is with gathering public feedback. Leaders who simply project themselves out to the community and expect that people will flock to their open houses and other public meetings are most times disappointed.
Once you have identified the critical stakeholder groups in your community, it will be important for you to extend a personal invitation to the organization’s leader to participate in planning the future of your community. Our experience is that these types of community organizations generally embrace the opportunity to participate. Most immediately recognize the critical nature of planning the future of their community and easily see the nexus between such an activity and the health and future of their own organizations. As you approach each leader, tell them that you recognize and appreciate the important service that they provide and the valuable role they play in your community. Communicate your perspective regarding the importance of this initiative and invite either that person or an individual they designate to participate in perhaps two or three meetings to help develop the strategies for gathering citizen feedback. Finally, let them know that you would appreciate access to their membership as a means of ensuring that the strategic planning process is as inclusive as possible.
Spend some time getting each stakeholder group up to speed with the process of strategic planning, the timeline, and expected results. Also, take some time to make sure each organization feels your enthusiasm for the initiative and its importance to your community. From there, allow the group to discuss in a brainstorming format how to best involve members of the community in the process. You may be very surprised at the kinds of ideas that surface.