Maintaining Utah’s Collaboration Culture in a Time of Social Distancing

May 04, 2020 | EDR Blog

By Mikala Jordan for

In Utah, collaboration is no mere buzzword: it is a culture. At the three dozen inter-agency meetings, workshops, or conferences I’ve attended in the last eleven months as an urban planner for a local government entity in Utah, speakers began by expressing gratitude for the teamwork that enabled a successful event or project. They voiced appreciation for peoples’ willingness to work through complex, political, and high-stakes processes. Mediators for panel discussions actively listened, asked each other intentional questions, focused on their shared interests, and emphasized gains instead of setbacks. This behavior invited others in the room to lean into the challenging discussions about air quality, equity, transportation, or suburban sprawl. The focus has always been on collaboration.

This collaborative atmosphere surrounding planning is vital to the continued and future success of Utah’s communities. So, when March 2020 brought with it COVID-19, I wondered if and how collaboration in planning could be possible in this restructured world of social distancing, overwhelming circumstances, and stretched-thin residents. When I heard about a webinar co-hosted by the National coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation and the National Civic League entitled, “Social Distancing Meets Public Engagement,” I jumped on the chance to gain ideas from experts Larry Scholer, Director of Consensus Building and Community Engagement at the CDNP and Wendy Willis, Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

Check out the webinar, posted on YouTube, here:

As an urban planner, I found Scholer’s and Willis’ information practical and actionable. Scholer’s advice to “build a balanced and blended strategy” stood out to me. As with traditional public engagement, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to socially distant public engagement. A blended strategy would use several virtual methods, including both offline and online technologies, to elicit feedback about the same issue. Since certain populations are more likely to respond to offline methods while others are more likely to prefer online methods, including both ensures a balanced participant group. Incorporating multiple methods that require various levels of technological access is thus likely the most equitable strategy.

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The webinar proposed three critical areas of consideration regarding public engagement at this time: ethical, emotional, and technical. This comprehensive framework guides any person planning a public engagement event to do so in a responsible, considerate, and appropriate way; thinking through the framework helps achieve a balanced and blended strategy. I found the discussion surrounding technical methods particularly helpful. Among the many technological options available in addition to videoconferencing, I am most excited to utilize the television and begin televising General Plan Open Houses.

Here’s a look at the emotional, ethical, and technical considerations regarding public engagement during this time:

  1. Emotional considerations:
  • Now more than ever, planners need to consider decision fatigue. Normally easy or automatic decisions, such as when to go grocery shopping, now require careful consideration. Planners need to discern the necessity of each of their requests for the public’s involvement.
  • Despite decision fatigue, people desire to be engaged (effectively) now more than ever, according to two expansive surveys from Public Poll and Hill + Knowlton Communications Firm. In a time of uncertainty, people appreciate open communication from their local governments and desire to provide input on their communities’ actions.
  1. Ethical considerations:
  • When seeking public input, consider the following questions: i) is it urgent? ii) is it important? iii) is it simple? iv) is it fair? and v) is it tone-deaf? Answers to these questions ensure that public engagement does what it ultimately aims to do – benefit the public – rather than become an additional burden. This is a time to prioritize.
  • Oftentimes, public participation remains in the “inform” end of the IAP2 Public Participation spectrum instead of the “collaborate” and “empower” end. For example, currently the public receives information about COVID-19 statistics and reopening policies, but have not been empowered to share their perspectives with decisionmakers. A more empowered approach could look like a citizen working group, a group of residents with various knowledge sets who brainstorm and problem-solve with local government officials, thereby co-developing a reopening plan.
  • Not everybody has internet access, and certain populations are more or less likely than others to be able to use the internet. How can virtual engagement be equitable when internet access varies?
  • Focus on lowering the barriers to entry to engaging. Whatever methods are used, make sure they are simple, clear, and low-cost.
  1. Technical Considerations:
  • Utilize “offline” technology, such as:

The television: most government agencies have access to a television station. Televising townhalls and other public meetings has proven an effective tool for public engagement across various ages and socioeconomic statuses. People can watch on the TV, call in, or watch on the internet.

Publications in local papers: a simple way to communicate important information to people that does not require internet access.

Surveys attached to utility bills: a good way to reach a broad audience.

  • Utilize online technology too, such as:

Video conferencing: a quick and free way to communicate, with the “face-to-face’ feel that benefits group dialogue.

Online polls: elicit feedback while enabling the participant discretion in when they respond.

Social media: Twitter especially can be used to communicate important ideas quickly and broadly.

Konveio: an internet-based tool whose strength is collaborating and interacting on documents.

Balancing Act: an online budget-communication tool, useful for local governments to communicate economic information to residents.

So what?

I certainly left the webinar with a less empty toolbox for socially distant public engagement. Even more importantly, this webinar reassured me that Utah’s culture of collaboration can continue on through this crisis. After listening to and learning from these experts, I am convinced that socially distant public engagement can be equitable and effective, and that emerging methods for public engagement will continue to be useful post COVID-19. Clearly, 2020’s constraints have spurred innovation in public engagement strategies. Moving forward, I expect that even when socially distant engagement is no longer necessary, urban planners and the communities we serve will benefit from incorporating these new strategies into traditional public engagement methods.  


Photo credit: Margo Vacheva

Mikala Jordan is a recent graduate of the Master’s in City and Metropolitan Planning program at the University of Utah, where she worked with Dr. Danya Rumore as an Environmental Dispute Resolution fellow and a Global Change and Sustainability fellow. She is now a long-range planner for the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District.