Facing Contention: 21 Tips to Detox Public Engagement

Forces are aligning to increase polarization and tension in public dialog, and planners are increasingly caught in the middle. A recent workshop with 100 engagement experts resulted in a free eBook to help planners detox their public involvement.

March 8, 2018, 5:00 AM PST

By Dave Biggs @MetroQuest


Kyla Duhamel / Flickr

If you feel like you’re facing increasing tensions in your public engagement processes, you are not alone. Across the country, the climate of public discourse has been shifting dramatically. Planners and public engagement practitioners, particularly those working for government agencies, increasingly find themselves on the front lines of highly polarized debates. Thankfully there are proven ways to detoxify public engagement and designing public participation processes to find common ground.

In the fall of 2017, MetroQuest conducted a workshop at the International Association for Public Participation Annual Conference to identify strategies and best practices when designing public engagement processes for projects facing contention. The results of this workshop, which brought together 100 public engagement practitioners, are now available as a free eBook: Facing Contention: 21 Tips to Detox Public Engagement.

The Changing Public Engagement Landscape 

Public discourse in recent years has shifted dramatically for reasons that include:
  • The biasing and organizational impacts of social media,
  • The growing divide between income groups,
  • The polarizing political tensions, and
  • The dehumanization of the opposition.

While all these trends can play a significant role (and there are undoubtedly others), perhaps the most dramatic has been the influence of social media on public opinion and the mobilization of opposition. We have reached a point where even the CEO’s of social media firms are admitting responsibility. Most recently Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, announced measures to address his firm’s role in poisoning democracy.

Imagine if ten years ago you were told that by 2018 the majority of news and information people see would be curated specifically for them based on their current views and interests. Moreover, conflicting information would be made more difficult to find. This process of curation—which describes your Facebook news feed, your customized search engine results, and other social media streams—is driven in part by a desire to keep your attention and thus, in crude terms, expose you to more advertising. It’s well-known that people tend to navigate away more frequently if exposed to conflicting information. The result of this curation is a dramatic increase in polarization as people become increasingly convinced about their views. 

The polarizing effect of this curation is only one part of social media’s influence on public discourse. Social media has also provided the public with easy access to tools to mobilize like-minded people to influence almost any cause or project.

Key Success Factors for Public Participation

Aware of increasing tensions, I organized a workshop at the International Association for Public Participation Annual Conference in the fall of 2017 to tap into the wealth of experience in the association’s membership.

The workshop drew together 100 of most skilled and talented public engagement practitioners in a working session. Together, we compiled a set of key success factors and strategies that planners and public engagement teams can use to detoxify public engagement. 

Hopefully you will find these insights valuable and will join the growing list of practitioners contributing to the dialog about how to improve community engagement. Download a free copy of the eBook, Facing Contention: 21 Tips to Detox Public Engagement.

Dave Biggs

Dave Biggs is the Chief Engagement Officer at MetroQuest Community Engagement Software and a passionate public engagement strategist focused on best practices in community engagement for planners.

A image of the World's Columbian Exposition overlayed with a picture of Keanu Reeves in the rain from the movie Point Break.

Keanu Reeves Set to Play Daniel Burnham in ‘The Devil in the White City’

Planning is going to get a new level of star power as a limited series adaptation of The Devil in the White City gets ready for television screens in 2024.

August 8, 2022 - Reel Chicago

View from middle of street in downtown Telluride, Colorado with mountains in background

Marrying Urban Identity and Economic Prosperity

A new book posits that truly successful communities have a strong economic base and a firmly rooted sense of place.

August 5, 2022 - Governing

Los Angeles Downtown Historic Core

Surveying the Rising Trend of Office-to-Residential Conversions

With office vacancies climbing and a stubborn supply crunch driving up the cost of housing, some downtowns have emerged at the forefront of a new wave of adaptive reuse.

August 2, 2022 - CoStar Group News

U.S> Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg delivers a speech in front of a bridge in Washington, D.C. The podium where he stands has a sign that reads: "Building a Better America."

$2.2 Billion in RAISE Grant Funding Announced for Transportation Projects

The Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) competitive grant program, supersized by the federal infrastructure bill in 2021, just announced a new round of funding.

August 11 - U.S. Department Of Transportation

Aerial view of Salida, Colorado with mountains in background

Colorado Workers Squeezed by Housing Crisis

In Colorado’s booming resort towns, even sleeping in your car has become an unaffordable luxury.

August 11 - Denver Post

An aerial view of Los Angeles at dawn, with Westlake and MacArthur Park in the foreground and Downtown Los Angeles in the background.

Did L.A.’s Supportive Housing Bond Fail?

Six years after Prop HHH was passed, the fund appears to be delivering on its housing construction goals in the 10-year timeline. But the measure is being routinely criticized on all sides.

August 11 - Shelterforce Magazine

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.