Meeting People Where They Are

Lowering barriers to participation helps reach beyond the loudest voices in the community

ARTICLE | Sep 1, 2019

By Jay Dawkins

Today, more organizations are prioritizing community engagement as a pathway for building public trust and improving the quality of life for all residents. Yet most organizations we speak with share a common sentiment: we’re spending more time than ever communicating, yet somehow we’re still only hearing from the same handful of residents.

This problem is approaching crisis levels in some communities: Only hearing from a handful of loud and/or organized voices puts critical projects at risk, while hamstringing our ability to make decisions that reflect the needs of the broader community.

So how are organizations leveling the playing field to more easily engage the broader community, and doing so in a way that doesn’t require giant marketing budgets or overworked staff?

The key is shifting the way we think about engagement from one-off efforts to a cohesive, consistent process. You are probably familiar with these one-off efforts: posting a link on social media, press releases, a newspaper ad about a public meeting, posting an announcement on the website.

From there, we let the outcomes be what they may. Even if executed well, the current state of public engagement often leaves us without knowing important insights like who we are reaching and if we’re hearing from a representative set of voices. Meanwhile, feedback may not be useful or consists primarily of the “frequent flyers” at public hearings.

The most successful organizations we’ve worked with approach community engagement less as a checklist, and more like an integrated process with steps that compound to build and sustain engagement. Figure 1 demonstrates a way of visualizing those steps.

We often reference this pyramid as a framework for building public trust. It is important to note that while this process is broken down into steps, those steps are integrated: simply reaching residents isn’t sufficient if we don’t engage in a meaningful way. Furthermore, if input from all outreach methods can’t be captured in one place like a public participation database, it’s difficult to see the big picture and ultimately align decision-making with community needs and priorities.

Ultimately, public engagement success hinges largely on the last, critical step—closing the feedback loop—to make a measurable impact on public trust. Research by the World Bank has pointed to this act of closing the loop as being a critical predictor of trust.1

But for the purposes of increasing equity from the onset of a project, let’s focus on the foundational step: reaching beyond a handful of self-selectors.

How do we reach underrepresented groups and actually get them to provide input?

1. Apply mixed-mode surveying

The widely publicized decline of telephone surveying has hinted at a much broader problem: conducting outreach and surveying using only one communications channel almost guarantees biased results. Researchers have long heralded “mixed-mode” surveying, the practice of using multiple methods to reach people and ask questions, as a best practice. Today, forward-thinking organizations are applying this strategy to get a more representative sample while avoiding built-in bias.

For example, only collecting input via an online survey is likely to yield a high degree of selection bias—especially if it requires a resident to already be engaged with an organization. However, if we can pair an online presence with in-person collection, text message surveys, and targeted social advertising, an organization has a much better chance at informing and engaging a broad, representative set of residents.

What this amounts to is using all the outreach methods at our disposal, traditional and virtual, to provide more residents an opportunity to engage—no matter where they are. This increased access, when scaled through technology that lowers barriers to participation, sums up the new paradigm of engagement: Meet people where they are.

2. Create on-the-ground community relationships

Simply hosting meetings, creating a survey or website, and expecting residents to respond can be a non-starter. Instead of expecting residents to come to us, we need to meet them where they are. By building relationships with community centers, houses of worship, and nonprofits— while also attending public events like farmer’s markets or festivals—we can increase equity and start building public trust from the onset of any project.

For example, Raleigh Parks received national media attention for hosting pop-up dog parks, where staff handed out business cards with a website address so participants could participate on their phones.2 Others opted to weigh in on a tablet, participating in real time. Staff would go on to conduct outreach at four other community events in areas that could be potentially impacted by the project, garnering feedback from over 1,500 residents.

3. Increase access by lowering the barriers to participation

Getting residents to engage means removing hurdles to participation and meeting them where they are in the virtual sense. Engagement increases when we use easy-to-understand formats, especially for someone on the go, and create two-way communication. Likewise, these formats should create equitable participation—meaning that someone who participates virtually should be able to have the same opportunity to provide dynamic feedback as someone who attends a public meeting.

Key Tactics for Lowering the Barriers to Participation

Keeping the barrier to participation low means being able to instantly engage: no usernames or passwords, no creating an account. This also means asking ourselves questions like, “Are we requiring residents to have to learn a new or unfamiliar interface in order to engage?” Rather, participation should be easy and intuitive, folding into the everyday life of residents in formats they are already familiar with. With a little bit of strategy, we can use these formats to increase equity.

1. Provide a mobile-friendly experience. Being mobile-minded is one of the best ways to increase engagement from underrepresented groups. According to Pew Research, reliance on smartphones for online access “is especially common among younger adults, non-whites, and lower-income Americans.”3 Meanwhile, low-income Americans are actually more likely to own a smartphone compared to the national average. Why? Because while low-income Americans may not be able to afford a monthly Internet bill and a laptop, they can afford installments on a smartphone and a monthly data plan.

2. Segment participants based on the text keyword or URL by which they reach you. With mobility in mind, formats such as text messaging and mobile-friendly websites can instantly put an engagement opportunity in the palm of someone’s hand. These text-in numbers and URLs can be disseminated in any number of traditional methods (physical signage, mailers, in-person meetings, fliers) or virtual methods (social media, e-newsletters, websites, online news articles about upcoming projects). Rather than asking more demographic questions, we can infer a great degree about a person automatically by creating unique text-in codes or URLs.

For example, King County’s transit team creates short URLs and text message keywords specific to bus stops. When a participant texts in or arrives at the custom URL, they arrive at the same content, but are identified with this particular stop. This is stored in their public participation database, where they can later segment responses by route or stop.

3. Lead with relevant questions. When thinking in terms of survey design—especially the first touch point or initial message—residents are more likely to engage when prompted first with a relevant, simple question. Messaging is also best when it shows the value that public input will have on the decision-making process. For example: “Your input will help set priorities for our 2040 Transportation Plan.”

Thinking in terms of both online and offline reach efforts, such a question can be used as the headline for a targeted social media ad or postcard, both pointing to the same engagement opportunity. An example of a relevant question might be: “How can we improve bicycle and pedestrian safety downtown?” While it may not seem intuitive, this is actually a question that is relevant to any resident who traverses downtown, including those who don’t typically bike or walk. In a recent study we conducted with a transportation planning organization in North Florida, bike and pedestrian safety was a top priority—despite over 93 percent of participants indicating they commuted solely by car.

4. Leverage existing communities online. Building relationships with community groups on-the-ground is important and impactful, so we should also build similar digital relationships. By cross-referencing existing offline relationships with their Facebook presence (i.e., Facebook Group), you can have a group administrator post a link to your project page or you can post a link yourself.

Not only can you scale up your efforts by reaching your existing community partner groups online, you can also find new ones that may only exist online. By creating partnerships with these groups, you are able to reach their audiences in a whole new way, meeting them where they are, build on the trust that they have in that organization or group, and parlay that into building trust with yours.

5. Become multilingual by default. All residents, especially those with Limited English Proficiency, should still be able to provide feedback in their native language to increase equity and inclusion. However, this is often prohibitively labor intensive when creating separate surveys and websites for each additional language. To avoid this, and the costs therein, combining a service like Google Translate with the review of a native-speaking contracted translator or bilingual volunteer creates a high-fidelity translation at a fraction of the cost.

Case Study: Targeted Social Media Advertising

While a “boots on the ground” approach does build relationships, it’s difficult to scale, especially given time and staff constraints. These in-person efforts can easily take on a life of their own without having a way to know if the time, budget, and effort is being spent wisely. For instance, are we spending too much time reaching out to one demographic or geography, and not enough somewhere else?

The solution could be to start with social media, using strategic targeting. San Diego Parks, a client of AECOM, was able to target residents in southern San Diego, home to a typically underrepresented community of low-income, Spanish-speaking residents. After initial bilingual social targeting, AECOM identified gaps in participation and focused their efforts not just online through retargeting gap areas, but also offline with pop-up style events at specific community centers. At these informational sessions, the City of San Diego educated residents on the master plan and directed them to a website where they could provide feedback.

Conclusion: Scaling Your Engagement Beyond the Loudest Voices—Without Breaking the Budget

While in-person efforts are valuable for creating relationships with residents, being able to allocate time and budget effectively is unrealistic without understanding where the gaps are and having a scalable way to reach people. Meanwhile, solely turning to online engagement independent of a cohesive process can also leave a number of questions unanswered. The best way to optimize engagement and increase equity is to combine traditional and online outreach into a cohesive process and build a public participation database so you can analyze input, report findings, and make strategic decisions.

Any well-designed tool will reduce the amount of effort you need to exert, but the right one will ensure that you are able to make the most of your efforts through integrating your process and public engagement methods. This means being able to house all your public input and communication in one place so you can quickly tell a clear story and close the feedback loop.

Robust and meaningful community engagement efforts can be efficient and effective, but only if we think outside the box and selectively leverage technology as part of a cohesive process.

 Jay Dawkins is CEO of      



Endnotes and Resources

1 “Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap?” The World Bank, (accessed August 13, 2019).

2 “Raleigh, North Carolina’s Dog Park Study,” Parks & Recreation, (accessed August 13, 2019).

3 “Mobile Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center, (accessed August 13, 2019).


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