The Public Engagement Roadmap

Notes from the Field

Earlier this year, The Engagement Lab launched an implementation guide, toolkit, and game to support public engagement called the Public Engagement Roadmap.

The Roadmap is based on practical findings summarized in Accelerating Public Engagement, a report written by Eric Gordon, Executive Director of the Engagement Lab and Associate Professor at Emerson College, about real-life examples from public engagement during the second cohort of the City Accelerator program by Living Cities and the Citi Foundation.

Read on to learn about why we need better planning and design for public engagement and how we’re using the Public Engagement Roadmap.

Why Strategic Planning Matters

In the 21st century, city governments have vastly improved the delivery of their services. From developing apps that help people apply for food stamps or sharing real-time public transit updates and alerts, city governments are adopting new technologies to improve the lives of their citizens. Unfortunately, service delivery can be viewed as largely transactional and one-sided. Making progress on more meaningful and often complicated issues of public life, however, needs to be bidirectional and relational — more of a dialogue than monologue — among both decision-makers and their constituents. For instance, a complex issue such as decreasing food deserts should not be approached using the same methods one would use for a more straightforward project like that of building a transit app.

To address the importance of improving the quality, not just the availability of public needs, municipal and governmental teams are creating public engagement processes for topics spanning urban planning, public health campaigns, climate adaptation and other important issues.

Civic technology alone will not create the trust necessary for co-production, or the instances where communities and government leaders equally create or influence processes or project outcomes. The technology used by city governments is a means and not an ends to a relevant, useful, and robust engagement process with its citizenry. Relationships, not apps, are the fuel for meaningful engagement.

Relationship-building between civil servants and the public must match expectations for iterative, communicative, and digitally-supported process development around civic issues. Civil institutions need more space to strategize public engagement approaches and evaluate their effectiveness for increased involvement and feedback from their community members.

Using the Public Engagement Roadmap

After using the Public Engagement Roadmap, Leilalah Powell, Chief of Staff to Mayor Ivy Taylor in San Antonio, had this to say about the roadmap:

“It’s not just useful, it’s the most important document that I’ve come across. This idea of being a co-producer is a really helpful frame for me because this CTDC work and other work is all about relationships.”

The Roadmap balances digital and in-person strategies to help practitioners navigate the ever-shifting landscape of engagement in the 21st Century. It has been tested by leaders both locally in Boston as well as by government officials from the Middle East. During a recent visit by a group of Israeli governmental delegates, we played our public engagement planning board game Chart the Course to practice strategizing public engagement processes. Participants shareded the top public engagement issues they encountered, which included: access to higher education, public transportation, crime reduction, and land-use planning. The most popular topic that we selected as the prompt for the game addressed engaging populations that do not have access to technology or use it infrequently.

Municipal Israeli leaders playing the public engagement game Chart the Course.

Next, we applied the Public Engagement Roadmap with BuildBPS: a 10 year educational and facilities master plan for Boston Public Schools. In March 2017, the initiative released a written report and data dashboard that includes planning principles, updated data on school capacity and demographics, a financial plan, and a vision for deeper community engagement to guide the BuildBPS implementation process.

We met with Build BPS to begin strategizing for an in-depth community collaboration process to guide its capital investment priorities. The ultimate goal of the workshop was to determine a meaningful, cohesive, and participatory public engagement process for collecting, responding to, and implementing stakeholder input for Boston Public School’s facilities investments. The three-hour workshop was an introduction to the philosophies, approaches, and planning activities contained within the roadmap.

The Build BPS team playing “Chart the Course” to warm up their empathy skills
The Build BPS synthesizing their project goals, outcomes, and milestones for public engagement.

Later this month, we’ll be introducing the engagement suite at the Summit on Government Performance & Innovation 2017 for elected officials and civic entrepreneurs. Our workshop, titled “We’re Engaged: Making the Big Commitment to Underrepresented Communities,” will provide tangible tools to help meaningfully involve harder-to-engage populations in making policy, improving service delivery and solving complex problems. We’ll present concrete engagement strategies that were used by cities across the country, including: Atlanta (low-income residents facing neighborhood redevelopment), Baltimore (citizens returning from prison), and New Orleans (residents without healthcare). From the interactive activities, participants will walk away having discussed implementing productive feedback loops and evaluation strategies for their public engagement processes.

If you would like to schedule a consultation about the Roadmap, please email

Stay tuned for updates about the public engagement workshop during this 3rd annual summit hosted by Governing and Living Cities!