Quality Civic Engagement Blog

The Engagement Series

Posted by Nick Jeffress

How to get from concept to solution by asking the right questions

Last week, the Institute of Local Government out of California hosted a webinar titled “Engaging Your Community Through Surveys and Polls.” They were kind enough to record the talk, and if you’d like to see their teachings on the issue, you can find the video of the webinar here.

The hosting of this particular webinar, and the interest they received and attendance for the event, made us realize that perhaps there’s a need for a singular online resource on question types or ways to lead constituents through topic areas to help them, and your locality, come up with solutions to otherwise complex issues. If you remember, we discussed this briefly here on this blog a couple weeks ago, but now it’s time for the full dive.

Where to start

Depending on the size and makeup of your policy-making body, we want to preface all of this advice by saying that there may be some tweaks made for your individual circumstance. No committee system to vet ideas, or no robust communications department fielding citizen concerns? No problem! While you may have to alter these steps (or their place in the process slightly), they should still stand up for your local community and aide civic engagement and community policy-making 



The polling, or survey, structure should follow this easy outline:

  • Baseline / Discovery
  • Issue Specific
  • Prioritization
  • Policy Specific 

Baseline / Discovery

How often do you think, or has a colleague told you, that because no one was calling, writing, or showing up, that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong?

Well that’s the issue with the first, and perhaps the most overlooked, part of the traditional civic engagement model - the Baseline, or the Discovery part of your citizen conversations. Topics in this stage will help you identify trends and potential hot topics, and questions will take the form of “scale” questions, or “satisfaction” surveys, which help inform community priorities like whether public transportation needs improving, or if people want a new local park. Starting with discovery can also be of critical importance to your policy conversation down the line, as your citizens may not engage on later stage priorities if they have not been brought into the decision making process early.

When done successfully, constituents will be more willing to come forward with innovative ideas for community improvement, and they will remain more involved to see issues through the process.

Issue Specific

Asking issue specific questions about problem areas identified in Baseline / Discovery is the next critical step to a new local policy or action. Moving your residents down a path, from broad topics to well-constructed policy, does not happen overnight, and skipping this initial issue phase of your local issues can lead to polarization, or angry citizens who have identified problem that they don’t believe is being addressed.

In this phase of quality civic engagement, ask for help crowdsourcing ideas and solutions through tools like forums or open discussions, or lay out many different options and ask for citizen opinion on each. Public opinion will help you narrow down possible solutions to your discovery-identified issues, and will move you comfortably into the policy making process - with your citizens on board.


With many options or topics on the discussion board, prioritization becomes the key to implementing policy with citizen support. In this phase, key components and steps become reviewing multiple proposals and budgeting, both of which are going to bring many opinions forward and have the potential to become hot topics with your most vocal residents.

6177887982_63b6b949e0_b.jpgThis is what we want to avoid! Build your policy issues from the ground up.

Because this is phase 3 of the citizen engagement policy making process, by this point you should have sufficient input from your normally nonvocal residents to balance the vocal few. By keeping dialogue open and walking your community through an engagement-driven process, you will have more informed citizens who help build consensus rather than a couple squeaky wheels driving the policy dialogue.

Policy Specific

After rounds of Baseline / Discovery, Issue Specific, and Prioritization questions, hopefully your citizens have come around to a consensus decision that is both budget conscious and a group priority. At this point, you want to put all of the information gathered throughout the process into a single policy specific question, one that will help your local government take citizen input for or against a specific policy and act with their input as a data point in the final decision.

While the hope is that with well kept citizen engagement you will arrive at a public consensus on an issue, sometimes external forces will prevent you from acting directly in line with the preferred outcome that has been communicated by citizens. In these cases, 

it is of the utmost importance that you still complete the process, and then to continue with feedback on why actions were made and how you will use this input in the future.

In these circumstances, you can even look at a missed policy opportunity by using that information to loop back into Issue Specific engagement, and find out if there is another option citizens and policymakers can agree and act upon.

By completing this process, and keeping all of your data for future discussions, you will have better engaged and informed citizens, who can help influence local policies with better information - a win for the community.