The Role of Public Engagement

Understanding the Role of Public Engagement


Public hearings are the most common venue for the public to participate in local decisions regarding affordable housing projects and other land use proposals. Public hearings are required by law and each local agency likely has experience organizing and running them. 

But the fact that public hearings are required does not necessarily mean they will always be effective at resolving community concerns. Additionally, public hearings may happen later in the entitlement and approval process when community members have already developed their own views and opinions. The goal of this toolkit is to help local agencies incorporate public engagement into their housing planning process – both when housing development projects are proposed and when long-range planning and implementation is occurring with particular emphasis on early engagement and  making the dialogue more productive for all parties involved. Early engagement in the planning process is critical as it can help alleviate the pre-conceived notions and concerns that arise further down the road  when an individual development project is proposed. Early engagement with the public can help reduce the time it takes to get through the approval process and issues that may come up, because many concerns are addressed during the planning process. 

Many public engagement guides or tip sheets suggest local governments use a list of tools or best practices. While those elements are included here, ILG’s TIERS Public Engagement Framework (which stands for: Think, Initiate, Engage, Review, Shift) is adaptable, producing tailored approaches based on how the questions are answered. The most important aspect of the TIERS Framework is the emphasis on intentionality and trust building. Before any engagement process begins, it is important to think through the goal and match it with the engagement technique(s) most likely to achieve that goal.

What is Public Engagement?

There are many terms that describe the involvement of the public in civic and political life. This is important because understanding how they differ will help local agencies find the best approach (or approaches) to support land use and housing planning.

  • Civic Engagement: This includes the many ways that residents involve themselves in the civic and political life of their community. Activities like volunteering as a local Little League coach, attending neighborhood or community-wide meetings, helping to build a community playground– and much more fall into this category.
  • Public Consultation: Instances where local officials ask for the individual views or recommendations of residents about public actions and decisions, but where there is generally little or no discussion to add additional knowledge and insight and promote an exchange of viewpoints.
  • Public Information/Outreach: One-way local government communication to residents to inform them about a public problem, issue or policy matter.
  • Public Engagement: This is a general term for a range of methods through which members of the public become more informed about and/or influence public decisions.
  • Public Participation/Deliberation: Processes through which participants receive new information on the topic at hand and through discussion and deliberation jointly prioritize or agree on ideas and/or recommendations intended to inform the decisions of local officials.
  • Sustained Public Problem Solving: This engagement typically takes place through the work of place-based committees or task forces, often with multi-sector membership, that over an extended period address public problems through collaborative planning, implementation, monitoring and/or assessment.

“Authentic” public engagement is inclusive, deliberate, dialogue based and culturally competent. When authentic public engagement occurs, local government leadership better understands where the public stands and give residents the opportunity to contribute to solutions through their input, ideas and actions. Culturally competent engagement shows respect and awareness of different cultural traditions, communication, food preferences and viewpoints. 

SB 1000 now requires cities and counties with disadvantaged communities to incorporate environmental justice policies into their General Plans. All jurisdictions are now required to identify lower-income communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution and other environmental justice issues. Once these communities have been identified, jurisdictions are now required to create goals, policies, and objectives to address a minimum of seven EJ-related issues – one of which is “civil” engagement (“community engagement”).

In addition to being required in certain circumstances, community engagement strategies can contribute to improving local housing policy and the planning process by:

  • Helping communities develop an informed understanding of housing laws, regulations and growth implications.
  • Maximizing opportunities for residents to contribute to public debate.
  • Informing the development and implementation of local land use planning projects. 
  • Encouraging social innovation and skill sharing. 
  • Broadening and deepening input into government policymaking processes. 
  • Strengthening public support for affordable housing. 
  • Empowering the community to meaningfully weigh in on planning decisions.

Addressing Community Concerns

Authentic public engagement can not only help quell some of these concerns, but it can create a number of additional benefits including better identification of the public’s values, ideas and recommendations, more community buy-in and support for land use planning related activities, and more.


Common Community Concerns

Learn about common community concerns such as: design and density, safety and security, gentrification and displacement, traffic, environmental quality, and public facilities and services.