Friday, March 7, 2014

If You Ask Them, They Will Come

By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager. 

In many of Market Street’s projects, one vital component of building a platform for success for the final action plan is public engagement. While we have a wide range of experiences in communities across the nation and access to economic and community development best practices, it is very important that we listen to each and every community we work in to understand what they see as their most difficult challenges, most attainable opportunities, and most valuable assets. We can never truly see a community the way those invested in their community do. Two of our biggest jobs as consultants are to build consensus across differing positions and to sew together the fabrics of our third-party, unbiased expert perspective of how to tackle problems while leveraging our client community’s assets and their passionate, involved expert perspective of how to make their home even better.

Fayette County, Georgia has done a tremendous job of finding effective ways to engage its citizenry. Leadership included the public in its selection process for the consultant to lead its Vision Process; there was very deliberate thought put into choosing each member of the Steering Committee, which has an array of constituencies represented; and there have been many arenas utilized to collect public opinions. In addition to creating a project website to keep the community updated on the process, Market Street hosted a community survey, which was taken by nearly 1,500 respondents. Currently, MindMixer is being utilized to gather reactions and ideas from citizens regarding the research we’ve conducted.

While we are leveraging technology to encourage public engagement, face-to-face meetings are still paramount, even in today’s internet-driven society. The Market Street team conducted 17 interviews and 10 focus groups. In addition, we have facilitated two public briefings—one to kick-off the process, and one to present our research findings to the public-at-large. On Wednesday evening, 160 people joined Market Street and the Visioning Initiative leadership at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia for a three-part public meeting: a presentation of research, a group question and answer segment, and an interactive breakout session. This meeting gave citizens the opportunity to ask questions as well as give us ideas on solutions to the issues they see affecting their community.

After a light reception catered by Brookabee Boxed Lunch and being greeted by Sandy Creek’s JROTC students, everyone gathered in the auditorium, and the Steering Committee co-chairmen Trey Ragsdale and Bob Ross re-introduced the process to the audience, reminding them how the process was initiated. Market Street presented research findings from the Competitive Assessment, which is posted in its entirety on the project website. Then there was a question and answer period, during which the audience were able to ask questions about those findings.

The highlight of Wednesday evening’s meeting was the interactive segment, which took place in the cafeteria. Fayette County Chamber of Commerce staff set up eight stations around the room with easels, on which there were boards that presented interesting tables and charts from the research and summarized the strategic implications of each section of the Competitive Assessment. Tables were set up at each station, and on each was a bucket and index cards so that people could write answers to the question posed at each station as well as any other thoughts they wanted to share. Technology was once again integrated, and Poll Everywhere was set up for each station so that citizens could text in their answers if they preferred. At each station, two Steering Committee members were available for questions, Chamber staff and the Market Street team floated around speaking with all attendees. This was an excellent way to ensure that the Fayette County citizens know that they’re important and that their opinions count. It was also a great way to provide a venue for citizens to ask us questions directly and for us to hear their ideas about what will make Fayette County continue to be a great place for their families.

This three-part meeting was a wonderful way to engage citizens during this specific visioning process, but it is also a great way for community leaders to engage citizens for other reasons, whether for town hall meetings or political issue forums. Even after Fayette County embarks on implementing their Vision Plan, we are confident that Fayette citizens will continue to be included and engaged. Communities with active, interested, and invested citizens can really use that fuel to go far.