How To

Engage the Public


The Challenging Art of Public Engagement

The Halifax Library Public Engagement Process

The Challenging Art of Public Engagement

Public or community engagement is set apart from having a meeting with a few interested friends because the subject matter involves a much wider set of interests and affects many. How can the input from a large group with different ideas be solicited so that the best ideas come forth, and at the same time the process builds a good feeling about the project among the public?

Geoff Wilson is currently the Director of Public Engagement and Community Health Board Support for the Nova Scotia Health Authority and served four years on the board of directors of the International Association for Public Participation, including two years as international president. He is a steward of Wayside.

I set out to write a quick, Buzzfeed-style list for you that would reveal the secrets about how to engage the public. As I thought more about it, it struck me that this would be doing both you and the topic a grave disservice.

A quick Google search of the words “public engagement” will return over 26 million references (“community engagement” has over 33 million). Clearly, many individuals, organizations, companies, governments and academics have something to say about public and community engagement.

First things first: Engagement has become a bit of buzzword in recent times, so let me be clear on what I mean by public or community engagement.

1.     Engagement is a two-way process. A problem is presented, or an issue is posed. Questions are asked. Information is shared or exchanged. A conversation ensues.

2.     It has a goal or a purpose. There is a clear reason why you are reaching out to your community.

3.     Engagement opens up a conversation because there is a decision that needs to be informed or made, and the public or the community can or should influence that decision.

4.     Public or community engagement is set apart from just having a meeting with a few interested friends because the subject matter involves a much wider set of interests and affects many.

There are probably a few other definitional concepts that others might put forward at this point but these give us enough to get started.

Some of the basic theory underpinning public engagement is also useful to know when you’re considering whether or not to take on a public engagement effort. Generally speaking, people want to be involved in decisions or actions that will directly affect them. Also, people are more likely to support an idea or a decision that they have had a hand in shaping in some way. The flip side of this is that people are less likely to actively oppose something they have helped create, even if they do not entirely agree with it.

So how do you engage the public? You’re probably hoping for the eight steps, the twelve tips, and the 25 “do’s and don’ts” that will give you the keys to the engagement kingdom. Indeed, many of the Google searches on public or community engagement will give you lots of this.

Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. There is a universe of variations, adaptations and alternate approaches. Thousands of organizations in every conceivable sector have published frameworks, guides, toolkits and approaches to engaging the public. There are books, academic journals, blogs, workshops, retreats, university programs, and on and on.

To engage the public you need to

identify a compelling question or issue that resonates with and energizes others – your community or stakeholders need to care enough about the subject to connect with it through your effort
be able to have an impact on the issue or question you have identified – there should be a realistic prospect that your efforts will be influential and lead to a tangible result; and here I need to emphasize that if your engagement initiative involves a decision that has already been made, it’s safe to say you may want to rethink your topic.
be able to provide a depth of information on the topic – you must be able to work with others to gather the facts and figures underlying your subject, and it’s important to note that people need information if they are going to participate in a meaningful way
be prepared to welcome a wide range of diverse views – ideally, you are not creating an echo chamber for like-minded people to come together, rather you are openly exploring all aspects of your topic and embracing difference of opinion with an open mind
be able and prepared to bring willing and unwilling people together in a planned fashion, and keep them together through some challenging moments – you must be committed to ensuring that all of the voices are heard, even those who may not feel they have a stake or interest in your subject
create collective meaning and understanding through conversation and occasionally  conflict – bringing diverse views to the table is not intended to create chaos, it is intended to expose all sides of an issue so that we may seek common ground
create direction and action towards a goal or decision – bringing people together to address your topic needs to create momentum, build interest and agreement, and stimulate a desire for change rally a committed group of like-minded people who are willing to help you plan, envision all the moving pieces, anticipate the disparate needs, and host welcoming and productive meetings and events – you won’t be able to do this alone so you will need the help of others to do the necessary organizing to make this a success achieve your objective as a result of all this hard work – there should be a real outcome from all this dialogue and hard work that you can report on to the people who took part in your process and events

Finally, I would point you back to the beginning of this article where I advanced a few points to define what I meant by engagement – that it’s a conversational process with a purpose. A lot of people use the term engagement to mean communication or marketing. If you are wanting to simply share information or persuade your community there are other more appropriate ways to undertake these tasks rather than a community engagement initiative. And, you will gain trust with people if you are genuine and honest with them; if you are clear about your intent and purpose.

Community engagement is not a checklist or a formulaic process that guarantees success. There may be millions of suggested ways to tackle community engagement, and some may even provide a checklist to guide what you need to do in steps. However, why you are engaging your community, what you are engaging them about, and how you show up in this work are critically important to understand before you take any action to bring your community together. Public or community engagement requires inclusive, inquiry-based leadership; it demands openness, transparency, courage, and compromise. It is a dynamic process that starts with the belief that our conversations matter, and that through those conversations, we can change our world for the better.

Appendix: A note about two widely used approaches

At this point, if you’re still reading, we can get down to the business of how you do it. Remember all those Google search hits I mentioned? Guaranteed that many of these hits on Google are guides, tip sheets, how-to’s, frameworks, methods and best practices. A word of caution: While there are many useful resources online, some are oversimplified to the point that they make public engagement sound simple and straightforward. Beware of these.

If you are looking for more robust approaches that are time-tested and widely used, allow me to share a bit of information about two popular approaches used all over the world.

Art of Hosting

The Art of Hosting is more than a methodology for engaging communities. It is really a philosophy and a practice for bringing people together in conversation to make change, meet challenges and solve problems. This approach to public engagement inspires, empowers and energizes communities through meaningful conversation towards action.

The foundation of Art of Hosting is the powerful question that launches deep and meaningful dialogue and lays out pathways of possibility. This approach draws upon a range of different dialogic techniques, such as circle conversations, World Café, Open Space Technology and Appreciative Inquiry.

Art of Hosting processes are often associated with a conversation design process known as the “chaordic path” or sometimes referred to as “chaordic stepping stones. The chaordic path is the space we travel between chaos and order when the direction seems unclear or the future uncertain. It enables us to apply just enough structure to a problem or a question to enable generative creativity, and allowing new ideas and new ways of doing things to emerge. The steps along the chaordic path provide an approach to planning and help uncover what is most important about the problem or question at the core of the inquiry. The chaordic stepping stones are: need, purpose, principles, people, concept, limiting beliefs, structure, practice and harvest.

Each of the steps poses a series of questions which allow groups to build towards a collective response to a challenge or issue.

Training in Art of Hosting practice and the chaordic path is available, and there are many great online resources through

International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)

The International Association for Public Participation is an international professional association for public engagement practitioners. The association has been around since the early 1990’s and has several thousand members worldwide, with the largest memberships in Australia-New Zealand and North America. IAP2’s approach to public engagement is a philosophy grounded in theory, informed by practical experiences of those working in the field, and built upon a step-wise planning process. This approach to public engagement appeals to governments, firms and organizations as it follows a familiar and widely used project management style of planning – which is not to say that the IAP2 approach cannot be used in more informal or grassroots situations as well.

The IAP2 methodology consists of three foundations.

First, public participation is values-based, and all parties bring their values to the process and conversation. It recognizes that the internal standards that govern our lives, perspectives and beliefs will shape the way people perceive and engage with problems, opportunities and solutions.
Second, public participation is decision-oriented and the IAP2 method focuses on identifying and defining the ways in which the public can influence or give input into decisions that affect them.
Lastly, public participation is goal-driven. Important decisions that involve public discourse are driven by goals and objectives, and provide different opportunities for the public to take part in the decision-making process.

There are three main tools comprising the IAP2 methodology: the Spectrum of Public Participation; the IAP2 Core Values for the practice of public participation; and, the Code of Ethics for Practitioners. The IAP2 Spectrum is a widely cited, frequently adapted instrument for helping to design participatory processes. It outlines five points along a spectrum of increasing public impact: inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower. Under each point along the Spectrum there is an associated public participation goal and a “promise to the public” that very clearly informs the public’s role and expectations of the process.

The Core Values and the Code of Ethics are a combination of underlying public involvement theory and public participation best practice. Together these two documents help shape the rationale and planning approach, and define the ethical grounding and accountability of the public engagement practitioner in how they must approach process design.

Finally, the IAP2 process involves five planning steps:

1.     Gaining internal commitment about the decision and how to approach the process of public participation.

2.     Learning from the public about their perceptions of the decision or problem.

3.     Selecting an appropriate level of participation that ensures the public has the resources and ability to participate in a decision.

4.     Defining the decision process and the objectives for the public’s participation in it.

5.     Designing the public participation plan.

Like Art of Hosting, IAP2 offers comprehensive training in their methodology that includes foundational knowledge, how to select appropriate techniques for engaging people and how to structure communication approaches to support public participation. Visit to find out more about the organization, it’s tools and training.

The Halifax Library Public Engagement Process

The new Halifax Library is a great architectural and social success that has been recognized far beyond Nova Scotia. Some of the signature elements of the library, including the beautiful top floor public spaces, were not in the original plan but came out of the public engagement process. Tim Merry, who led it, takes us through how it worked.

Tim Merry has extensive experience in supporting diverse stakeholders to come together to launch, sustain and grow innovative initiatives. His clients range from major international businesses and government agencies to local communities and regional collaboratives. He is one of the co-founders of The Art of Hosting and a core team member of NOW Lunenburg County.