When public consultations & comments go awry


Regular public consultation is a well-established practice for government in the U.S. at all levels. Technology has changed how governments collect feedback online and by providing a more open forum for participation to solicit feedback and integrate the public in the policymaking process. But, even when done with the best intentions, public consultations can provide mixed results.

Sunlight has published  guidance on participatory approaches to open data in several forms. But we recognize that as a method, it has serious short-comings. For example, while the federal comment process for regulations has shifted to being online, it has also been subject to fraudulent practices and manipulation by interest groups. In our work with cities, stakeholders and residents tell us that while they are encouraged when cities consult them, too-often engagements became exhausting, especially when they felt that nothing changed as a result of their efforts.  

These issues can undermine the effect of community input and trust in engagement efforts erodes. So what can cities do to ensure their consultations with the public are meaningful for all parties? 

Be responsive  

Cities have the advantage of being close to the people they serve, with city staff personally interacting with residents on a regular basis. When consulting the public, particularly online, staff should attempt to respond to comments made by residents, and explicitly state what is being done as a result of the comment. Even if nothing is being done, residents often feel comforted that someone is listening on the other side, and their comments are taken seriously. 

During our work drafting their open data policies, the cities of Memphis and Colorado Springs, responded directed to comments from the public when they posted the drafts online. The interaction between residents and staff, not only helped find suggestions that improved their open data programs but created an audience who Find an example of posting a summary of comments?]   

Target outreach 

If the outreach for a public consultation is too broad it becomes more difficult for cities to respond thoughtfully and demonstrate actual follow up on the feedback they receive. Focusing engagement efforts on specific stakeholders gives cities the ability to listen better and respond with more tactical solutions. With the City of Norfolk, we used Tactical Data Engagement methods to create personas for potential users of City data related to flooding. Norfolk would target the researchers/experts group and hosted a roundtable with them that resulted in the City prioritizing datasets specifically for their use cases and designing an API that will data directly to a local research institute. Our resources provide various strategies cities can use to segment stakeholders in ways that can target your efforts for impactful outreach. 

Transparency matters 

One important component of effective public consultation is the ability to demonstrate that suggestions are not only taken seriously, but informing real action on the City’s behalf. When taking public comments into account, cities shouldn’t be shy about how ideas originated, and make use of opportunities to demonstrate how decision makers chose to pursue specific solutions. If a City Council used public comments to make a decision, celebrate this, and publish evidence of the comments. This is a great way to use transparency to build trust and confirm residents are being heard. 

Don’t just consult, co-design 

Residents are a valuable resource when it comes to developing solutions for the problems facing their own communities. Residents are experts in their own lives. Cities should also include residents when implementing solutions that will shape their communities by co-designing with them, as opposed to just collecting feedback in an open forum. For example, one light touch way to co-design with residents could be through user testing solutions and then using the feedback to improve upon it before and after its full deployment. Deeper co-design efforts may just look like formalized, meaningful collaboration between community members who demonstrate an interest in a particular challenge, and their public servants.  

Commit to regular engagement

A quick way to ensure consultations fail is to consider them a one-time affair, where you hear from residents once and never again. When consulting residents to develop solutions, cities should keep channels of communication open and establish mechanisms for continuous feedback loops in what they design. Governments should expect that resident expect not just one successful engagement but rather an on-going culture of engagement. This means using all of the strategies above repeatedly over time to demonstrate a true commitment to openness.

For cities to be truly democratic, they need to consult with residents not just during elections or when they have City Council meetings, but consistently, and continuously over time. Cities can make the most of their public engagement through these and other strategies on the Roadmap to Informed Communities.