Meaningful public engagement is a core component of how the city of San Luis Obispo provides services to its residents. Keeping up with the multiple ways in which the public receives information and new outreach strategies can be a challenge. Digital tools, in particular, offer ways to transform the public engagement process. San Luis Obispo created the Public Engagement and Noticing (PEN) manual to help the city enhance its efforts following an in internal assessment identified a need for a consistent approach when engaging the public and created the Public Engagement and Noticing (PEN) manual to support this effort.

Resident groups and other stakeholders all identified the need for greater clarity, noticing and outreach regarding development projects and policy initiatives. Some expressed concern about inconsistency of outreach and tools used between departments, and how that affected early and effective public engagement. Staff decided that it needed a unified approach to public engagement to ensure that the community could receive information and provide feedback on key issues.

The PEN manual was drafted to provide a concise and easy-to-read guide for city staff to use when engaging the community on various types of city projects and policy initiatives. It also serves as a document to help inform city council and community expectations about how and when the city engages the public.

Collaboratively produced with city staff and a local consultant, comprises four major components:

  1. The Action Plan Matrix helps identify the level of public engagement staff is expected to use based on the type of project. Levels of public engagement are divided into three communication objectives: inform, consult, and collaborate. These communications objectives were modeled after work done by the International Association of Public Participation. Objectives are listed horizontally across the top of the matrix. Types of projects are divided into four levels of complexity (i.e. decision-making process) and listed vertically on the left hand side of the matrix: staff level, department head/city manager, advisory bodies, and city council.

To use the matrix, the level of complexity of the project is determined, and then staff identifies what communication objectives are expected based on that level. For example:

  • Completing a paving project is considered a staff level service delivery, and the expected communication objective is to inform the community about the project.
  • Developing a new policy document, like a Climate Action Plan, requires city council approval, and the expected communication objective is to collaborate with the public to develop recommendations.
  1. Identification of outreach tools makes it clear how staff can achieve effective and meaningful public engagement. Outreach tools are listed for each communication objective in two categories: what is expected, and what can be done to go above and beyond. For example, it is expected that staff will do official noticing, use the website to electronically notify interested parties, post information on the city website and contact key community liaisons when informing the public is the communication objective.

If an issue is designated as needing consultation or collaboration with the public additional tools are required such as surveys, focus groups, workshops, neighborhood meetings and the use of online public comment forum tools like Open Town Hall from Peak Democracy. After a successful pilot, the city began using this program (branded as Open City Hall) as a required part of all projects which require collaboration with the public. This tool has allowed the city to engage with a new segment of the community who were not previously aware of how to be involved or were unable to for a variety of reasons.

  1. Where and when. This is one of the most important aspects of public The PEN manual includes a sample list of established community organizations and interest groups, media contacts, and venues with capacity and address information.
  2. Best practices are identified and described for each communication tools, which will help gather meaningful public input and formalize expectations for community members about what will take place.

Templates are included for outreach tools such as e-notification, fact sheets, flyers, advertisements, postcards and signage. This helps to standardize the city’s outreach materials.

The city’s PEN manual is a tool to help staff determine how to maximize engagement tools at their disposal to achieve meaningful engagement with the public and result in policy informed by a broader section of the community.

Results indicate:

  • Over 400 community member participated in a community forum to help identify goals and priorities for the upcoming fiscal year. Another 751 people participated through Open City Hall and mailed surveys.
  • The city currently has a 92 percent approval rating from users of the Open City Hall engagement tool with 1,779 individual visitors and 1,281 comments posted. This is the equivalent of 64 hours of public testimony. The use of this tool, through the implementation of the PEN manual, has made the process for collecting feedback much more efficient saving both staff time and resources.

The San Luis Obispo City Council officially endorsed the manual in August 2015 and the Action Plan Matrix has been used during meetings to provide clear direction to staff from the city council as to the desired level of engagement for a given item. The PEN manual has also been featured as a model for other cities to replicate by the National Research Center.

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Originally posted at the League of CA Cities.