Stack of Discuss.Decide.Do. book

Why this book
is online

We know that one of the main reasons we are able to do the work we do is because others have been generous in sharing their knowledge, experience, and expertise with us. We also know that there are many people out there who are keen to learn more about how to design, deliver, and document credible, productive consultation processes. It has long been one of our goals to share the principles, techniques, and tools we use far and wide, and to see them taken up, improved upon, and shared further by others.

That's why we've published the entirety of our book Discuss.Decide.Do. on our website, making it free for anyone to learn about and use. Whether you're a student, practitioners, community leader, advocate, or just interested in democracy between elections, we hope you find something useful here. If you find something here especially useful, please share it far and wide (and let us know about it, too)!

And of course, if you'd like a hard copy, you can always buy one in our store.

Happy reading!

- The Swerhun team

Picture of people's hands putting dots on a map.

The Big Idea

The better the information people have, the better decisions they will make and the easier it is to find the common ground you need to take action.

Effective consultation manages risk.  It brings certainty to an inherently uncertain environment and puts your organization in a position where your work is championed by supporters and the process is defensible to criticism from naysayers.


THE SITUATION: People want more from the engagement process

There are a number of reasons why people want and need more from public consultation processes, including:


1. People have more access to information.

  • The internet has changed the landscape of knowledge. More people are able to educate themselves on any topic; they're also able to share their experiences with others.

2. People are more likely to question authority.

  • With more information people expect authorities to explain their decisions in a way that's consistent with the information they've learned on their own.

3. People have an expectation that authorities will listen.

  • There is a shift in power. Power used to be about who had the best access to information. Now, because everyone has access to information, it's not only about who's responsible or liable for making the decision, but also about the support decision makers are able to build.
  • Technology means people have a greater influence.  They can share experiences with communities across the city, province or country to make a bigger case for ignoring stakeholders (e.g. Upton Farm in PEI connected with communities have issues with CLC across the country).
  • People are now more capable than ever of exposing authorities that don't listen through the media and through connections with other stakeholders.              

4. People expect to be treated as investors.

  • Every government and public agency operates with the oversight of elected officials and is connected to taxpayers' dollars.  The public is aware of this and demands to be treated as investors or a board of directors. 
The breakdown of the barriers and the kicking out of the gate-keepers is a victory for democracy and for access, but it is also a nightmare for those trying to make sense of complex issues.
— Fieschi, 2012

THE SOLUTION: Effective engagement will make it easier to find common ground


1. You'll save time

  • By managing risk during the process you won't have to return after the process to respond to and address issues.

2. You'll be more aware of issues

  • By understanding the project or proposal from the perspective of participants you will understand what's important to them. This means you'll be able to take advantage of opportunities they identify and address specific concerns they raise.
  • By creating an effective two-way communication flow with participants, you will be able to share with participants the consequences of different potential paths of action, and their feedback and advice will be informed by knowledge of those consequences.

3. You'll keep the discussion focused on content rather than process

  • By delivering a defensible process you're helping to ensure that decisions are made based on the merits of the information available.

4. You'll build a bridge between technical experts and the broader public

  • By focusing on what and how messages are shared between experts and the broader public, you are in a position to help shape communications in a way that builds respect for the value of what different players contribute to the decision making process. This helps build common ground rather than reinforce divided positions.

5. You'll manage expectations and become a trusted information source

  • By giving participants a clear overview of the entire consultation process, you'll be creating an environment where all participants have a shared understanding of what, why and when certain decisions need to made.
  • By providing objective and balanced information, participants will know that a call to you will be more effective in answering their questions or resolving their issues than a call to an interest group or the media, who don't necessarily have a vested interest in telling a balanced story.
  • By earning the trust of participants, proposed actions will be considered thoughtfully rather than attacked. You'll earn the benefit of the doubt.
Nothing is more important in a cooperative system than communication among participants. When people are able to communicate, they are more empathetic and more trusting, and they can reach solutions more readily than when they don’t talk to one another. Over hundreds of experiments spanning decades, no single factor has had a large an effect on levels of cooperation as the ability to communicate.
— Benkler, 2011
Picture of facilitator in front of the room facing a room full of participants in a meeting.


There are six strategies that we have found extremely useful when implementing public consultation processes. 

The six strategies are described here, along with an explanation of why each strategy matters and examples of how they have been applied in public engagement projects. 

Picture of a door knob and keyhole.



What it is:

The terms “Open” and “Closed” Doors refer to the decisions that are open to influence and those that are not.

Why does it matter?

  • The most compelling reason that someone would participate in a consultation process is because they believe there is a decision that they have an opportunity to influence.
  • The more transparent you are about what is open for influence and what is not, the easier it is for people to understand their role and what they can contribute.  This clarity builds participant trust because it is clear from the beginning what is “on the table” for discussion, what isn’t, and the reasons why.
  • Some doors are closed because they are beyond the mandate of your organization.  Once participants understand what your organization has the power to change they will be able to contribute to your process in a more meaningful way.


Examples of how it matters:

  • Towns and cities across Ontario have been updating their Official Plans in response to direction from the Province regarding where and how growth would be accommodated.  In many communities there has been resistance to the idea that neighbourhoods have to grow. Planners consulting the public as part of one town’s OP review clearly explained that the decision on whether to grow was a “closed door”, since that decision had already been made (by the Province). An important “open door” remained however – how to grow and where growth would be accommodated.  If a participant preferred not to see any growth, then that participant was encouraged to direct their feedback to the Province. As a result, time was not taken up at the meeting discussing something that was not available for change.  Instead, time was spent providing useful feedback on the open door.


  • Faced with a potentially significant budget shortfall, a major public service provider was consulting their users and the community about how services could be adjusted.  Several participants were inclined to focus on fundraising (Closed Door) rather than service changes (Open Door).  The consultation heavily emphasised that fundraising efforts were already being championed by a high profile working group of city leaders who were brainstorming different revenue options and who would conduct their own consultation. This made fundraising a closed door. By clearly explaining that this consultation was providing an opportunity to talk about adjustments in service delivery, participants were able to offer input where it was most needed.  

The key to successful self-governance in our Age of Information is to create a new balance between public and experts. Today that relationship is badly skewed toward experts at the expense of the public. This out-of-balance condition is not the result of a power struggle (though this is not wholly absent) but of a deep-rooted cultural trend that elevates the specialized knowledge of the expert to a place of high honor while denigrating the value of the public’s potentially most important contribution – a high level of thoughtful and responsible public judgment.
— Yankelovich, 1991
Picture of a tent.



What it is:

The term Big Tent is intended to reflect the number of people and diversity of interests that are welcome to a consultation process.  Strong processes are open to anybody who wants to participate. 

Why does it matter?

  • When you are working in the public interest every perspective matters. It is important to be as inclusive as possible, and people will look to see if your process includes participants with a balanced and diverse set of interests. This makes one of the important contributions to the legitimacy of your process.
  • By having a rich and diverse mix of stakeholders, you are demonstrating that there a number of perspectives that need to be considered by a range of interests that look at a project through different “lenses”. This also helps reinforce the fact that it’s not just what any one stakeholder says that goes.
  • When you have a full understanding of who will support or thwart your project, you know what you’re working with.  You are in a stronger position to maintain and build support, and to proactively manage or address concerns.
  • Players can contribute technical expertise. They can help compile the facts, whether because of their professional training, their hands-on-experience, their internet research, or any other source of knowledge.
  • Every participant is a potential future advocate and supporter.


Examples of how it matters:

  • A large public school board was struggling to keep pools open in their schools due to high maintenance costs and limited funding.  An aquatic summit was held and anyone interested in helping keeping pools open in the schools was invited. Over two years a huge range of both “the usual suspects” and a number of “unusual suspects” worked together to dramatically increase permit revenues – a very Big Tent was created. Parents worked together with parents from different schools in different neighbourhoods. Swimming instructors worked with non-profit groups and local businesses to raise awareness. Private foundations supported advocacy efforts, seniors lobbied their elected officials, and entrepreneurs set up new swimming programs with the help of funding from companies run by former Olympians.


  • A large city was bidding to host the Olympic Games. There were a number of organizations opposed to the bid because they preferred to see public funds spent addressing priority social issues like poverty and homelessness. Rather than ignoring opposition groups, the Bid team worked with the anti-poverty groups to develop an Olympic Bid related plan to address social issues.  Because of this inclusive Big Tent philosophy the project set a new bar for excellence in international bid submissions.
When a stakeholder (including government) agrees to participate in a public engagement process, he or she enters into a special relationship with the other participants. Collaboration requires commitment, trust, and a willingness to explore new avenues for solutions to common problems, which, in turn, implies new responsibilities.
— Province of New Brunswick, 2008

Picture of 3 speech bubbles overlaying on top on another.



What it is:

Framing is about the language you choose to use to describe your project. It fits issues within the context of a storyline or narrative that reflects a particular world-view that participants can relate to. 


  • There may be many narratives about how and why things have unfolded. Projects need one strongly framed narrative that all stakeholders and decision makers can support. This provides a shared starting point for the discussion and acts as a steady reference throughout the process.
  • A strongly framed narrative helps organize the content of a discussion. It makes what could be overwhelming information easily understandable.  It does this by presenting content around a small number of topics that communicate what a project is about and the thinking that needs to happen to move a project forward.
  • The narrative frames the relationship between you and everyone else involved in the process.
  • Framing is also valuable when working within your organization.  It will provide the decision maker the tools they need to sell or support your project with their peers and constituents.  When the project is described in terms of the value it can provide, it is much easier to build support and keep the overall work in the broader context.


Examples of how it matters:

  • A city was consulting the public as part of one of their regular Official Plan reviews. The city staff wanted to signal that they were open to any and all comments about the Official Plan, while at the same recognizing that not all residents are familiar with the Official Plan. The challenge was to figure out how to take a potentially overwhelming discussion and focus it in a way that residents could easily relate to. The most important framing decisions they made were (1) to tell people that the Official Plan focused on how the city grows and changes; (2) that the Official Plan directs changes to only 25% of the city’s land area, while 75% of the land (primarily stable neighbourhoods) is protected; and (3) that the consultation would focus on the changes happening in the 25% of the city where change was being directed. This framing automatically focused the scope of the discussion during the consultation to a subset of the city’s geography while at the same time managing fears that stable neighbourhoods would change.


  • A large municipally-owned public square was developing its strategic plan in consultation with the surrounding community. There was a strong desire among some participants to frame the discussion in terms of the revenue generating potential of the square, while others were keen to focus on the balance of uses of the square, including the important responsibility of the square to be available to the public. The framing of the strategic planning process was essential to its success.  Rather than having one of the two “competing” perspectives frame the discussion, the team of staff running the square framed the discussion.  They framed it in terms of confirming the role and identity of the square, which then helped inform decisions about revenue generation and users.
A framing effect occurs when in the course of describing an issue or event, a speaker’s emphasis on a subset of potentially relevant considerations causes individuals to focus on these considerations when constructing their opinions. For example, if a speaker describes a hate-group rally in terms of free speech, then the audience will subsequently base their opinions about the rally on free-speech considerations and, perhaps, support the right to rally. In contrast, if the speaker uses a public safety frame, the audience will base their opinions on public-safety considerations and oppose the rally.
— Druckman & Kjersten, 2003

Picture of a present.



What it is:

Packaging the work is about identifying a handful of logical steps that structure a decision making process. In our experience, every project can be broken down into three steps: Understanding the issues; Testing some ideas; and Deciding on a path forward. 


  • Different types of information are useful at different points during a decision making process. Identifying the order of events – what will be discussed when and why – is useful because it signals what feedback and advice will be useful at different points in the process. This lays the groundwork for how to think about the process of doing the work, which is much different than the technical content covered during the process.
  • Work is more focused when people strive to complete a specific task within a specific time frame. When you know at what point in time key decisions need to be made and what decisions are contingent on others, you can ask for the feedback that you need, when you need it.  This saves time because it limits the need to go back and revisit decisions that have already been made because participants have already agreed to the order of events.
  • These steps bring predictability to what is in many ways an inherently unpredictable environment. By packaging the work you are providing a structure within which there is flexibility to respond to unpredictable feedback and events while remaining in a strong position to manage the larger picture. The steps also bring a consistent framework that enables all participants to have a shared understanding of what’s happening.
  • This enables participants to be connected to your work right from the beginning, rather than when key decisions have already been made (this model is often described as Decide, Announce, Defend).


Examples of how it matters:

  • A parks manager had her hands full with conflicts between dog owners and parents in a local park. The dog owners wanted to walk their dogs off leash, but families with small children had safety concerns. A public consultation process was championed by the local elected official, and the process was organized into three parts: (1) identify the issues, concerns, wants and needs of all users; (2) identify and evaluate different options on how to address the issues, concerns, wants and needs; and (3) propose a path forward based on the evaluation of the different options presented during part 2. This iterative process enabled the discussion to start with dog owners explaining how important off leash areas are to the health and happiness of their pets, and parents explaining interactions between off leash dogs and their children that make them uneasy. Together they brainstormed different alternatives, and a proposal for an off leash area in the park was ultimately proposed and supported by the community. The three-part process structured the discussion in a way that ensured the final result was based on a comprehensive consideration of the issues to be addressed and a thoughtful evaluation of options to address those issues.


  • After a successful start-up phase, a youth arts group was exploring options for continuing its operations sustainably into the future. The group’s strategic plan was developed using the three part process which involved consultation with youth, existing funders, potential funders, and other leaders in the youth arts and youth engagement community.  The first part of the process involved identifying the strengths, successes, and challenges experienced during the start up phase. The second part involved brainstorming and evaluation of different go-forward options. The third and final part of the process involved identifying a preferred path forward. This three-part process enabled full participation of all stakeholders in ultimately “making the case” led to successful future for the organization.
No matter how simple or complex a project may be, and regardless of whether the time frame is two months or two years, UDA’s urban design process always consists of start-up activities followed by three distinct project phases:

Phase One: Understanding – Figuring Out What’s Going On
Phase Two: Exploring – Trying Out Ideas, Exploring Alternatives
Phase Three: Deciding What to Do – Developing the Plan

We have found that this approach provides for the widest range of participation, the greatest opportunities for consensus-building, the strongest likelihood of success...Application of this phased approach ensures that even the most complex projects can be managed in a clear and systematic process designed to produce the best possible results for our clients.
— Urban Design Associates, 2003

Picture of hands shaking.



What it is:

Building relationships refers to establishing the opportunity to build a strong interpersonal connection between all people participating in the process. This includes the facilitator of the process, decisions makers who will receive recommendations from the process (typically senior civil servants and elected officials) and everyone who contributes to the development of those recommendations (i.e. public, stakeholders, etc.).


  • When there is a positive relationship between people there is a lot more tolerance, flexibility, willingness and space to see things from other perspectives. This is very helpful when many different interests have to negotiate to find the common ground needed to make decisions that are supported, and ultimately move forward.
  • Building strong relationships recognizes that any information a participant chooses to share is helpful, even if it’s negative. Showing that all feedback is valued increases the likelihood that participants will be honest about their opinions, giving you the opportunity to respond to them.
  • Mistakes and misunderstandings can happen.  They are easier to overcome with a strong and trusting relationship – it’s much easier to work together when people are willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. 
  • Building strong relationships ensures a regular connection with participants from the beginning of the process through to completion.


Examples of how it matters:

  • At the start of many projects there is often an articulate, informed, vocal community leader that is extremely concerned and passionate about what’s happening. Often their opinion is based on a small subset of project-related information that has made its way into the public realm prior to the project actually getting underway. These leaders often feel they have a strong responsibility to protect their communities from the threat of apparent injustices that are being planned. It is critical to build relationships with these leaders – and this starts with earning trust, freely sharing information, and really investing in expanding their understanding of the work. This effort has proven time and time again to be worth it – these concerned leaders regularly transform into strong project supporters when an investment is made in building a strong relationship with them.


  • A regional transit authority was conducting a public consultation related to the design of a major new piece of transit infrastructure.  A participant in the process, who was a retired employee in the Provincial Ministry of Transportation and was very familiar with the technicalities of infrastructure planning, wrote a long email with feedback.  Although many of the points in the email were not relevant to the work or incorrect, there were a couple of points that contributed to the discussion. The relationship-building reply demonstrated an appreciation for the effort that went into providing the feedback, identified the feedback that was particularly helpful, explained at what point that feedback would be considered in the decision making process along with feedback from others. Focusing on the advice that has value is the key here.


  • Elected officials appreciate having opportunities to connect to their constituencies.   One important relationship-building option that can be very helpful involves working with those elected officials to distribute invitations or meeting notices through their office to their constituencies.  Some councillors will take you up on it and some won’t.  The offer in itself demonstrates that you have respect for the networks they are accountable to, and recognize the value of using their networks to reach out on projects.

Guiding Principles for Consultation that help create and maintain strong relationships:

  • Accountability. Provide accurate, timely information and demonstrate how it has made use of input received from participants.
  • Clarity. There will be well defined objectives for, and limits to, consultation and active participation during the process. Clarity regarding respective roles and responsibilities of all participants will be provided.
  • Timeliness. Consultation will begin as early as possible in the process to allow a greater range of opportunities and issues to emerge and to raise the changes of successful issue resolution.

Picture of a light bulb.



What it is:

Promoting Understanding is about creating many opportunities for all participants to learn new things that improve the quality of their contributions to the process.


  • High quality opinions are formed when they’re based on an understanding of the consequences of different courses of action.
  • Sometimes opinions are based on misinformation or incomplete information.  It’s important to explain technical details in a way that’s objective, easy to understand, and directly linked to the decision(s) at hand.
  • People learn in different ways – some are visual, some prefer to read the details, others prefer to listen. Promoting understanding is a strategy that recognizes these differences and accommodates them through multiple communication tactics.  This ensures that as many people as possible have the ability to be well informed.
  • The credibility of the source often influences the perceived credibility of the information. Strong processes that use “promoting understanding” as a strategy give participants the opportunity to learn things from a number of different sources – fellow participants, technical experts, elected officials, etc.
  • People often have very strong opinions that at first appear inflexible. The reasons behind such opinions can often be translated into a list of conditions which may be possible for the proponent to address. Once people understand that these conditions can be met their whole perspective can change and they find they’re willing to live with an option that before may have seemed untenable.


Example of how it matters:

  • In one of the few areas undeveloped on the North American waterfront, a premier piece of property was being considered for redevelopment.  Historically the area had been home to primarily industrial, commercial and institutional uses; however interest in residential development was being expressed by a number of stakeholders. Strong opinions on both sides of the residential issue were shared – with some strongly in favour and others strongly opposed. Through workshop discussions it became clear, however, that the majority of participants would be able to live with residential development providing a number of conditions were met (e.g. buffers put in place between new residential and existing uses, and provision of local community amenities like community centres, libraries, schools and parks). The process then focused on the municipality’s ability to deliver on the conditions under which residential would be acceptable.  The ultimate plan for the site met these conditions, included residential development, and received significant community support.
Collective problem-solving discussion is viewed as the critical element of deliberation, to allow individuals with different backgrounds, interests, and values to listen, understand, potentially persuade and ultimately come to more reasoned, informed, and public-spirited decisions.

— Gauvin & Abelson, 2006
Picture of "Packing the Work" flow chart; 8 Steps flow chart; and possible results flow chart.


There are eight steps that we follow when implementing public consultation processes. 

The eight steps are described here. Each one is explained with a case study and examples of tools used and shared in public processes.

The steps tactics are listed chronologically. In multi-part processes you’ll find yourself working through these steps during each of the three process phases. 

Step 1: Develop an Engagement Plan

The first step in any engagement process is to come up with an overall plan that identifies what decisions will be made through the course of the project and when, what information those decisions will be based on, and how feedback from the community and other stakeholders will be considered.


Over the last 10 years, a former suburban civic centre grew substantially, with several new condo towers built and thousands of new residents. The municipality’s planning and urban design staff identified a need to improve the parks, public spaces and streetscapes in the area to be better able to serve the many new people living there. They decided to create a public space and streetscape plan for the area. 

a. Create a timeline that includes when the project starts, finishes, and key deadlines along the way.

The project was scheduled to take 6 months. The work would happen using the three steps, with each phase taking approximately two months. Phase One focused on understanding existing conditions and issues, Phase Two explored options to address the issues, and during Phase Three the draft public space and streetscape plan would be developed, refined, and finalized.

b. Identify objectives for the engagement process, including the open and closed doors.

Objectives for the consultation process included:

  • Build constituency trust and support for the Plan;
  • Attract a balanced mix of interests to the process (including local businesses, residents, interest groups, etc.);
  • Maximize the number of people and interests participating in the process;
  • Create opportunities for learning among all participants;
  • Provide an opportunity for the City to test ideas with stakeholders;
  • Enable the City to clearly demonstrate how input was used;
  • Meet any regulatory consultation requirements; and
  • Provide a comprehensive record of the results of the consultation process in a manner that can be of direct use in decision making.

Open and closed doors included:

OPEN:  Whether new access points are required for cars, bikes or pedestrians.

CLOSED:  The minimum width of the roads, bike lanes and sidewalks (since these are already set in City policy).

OPEN: How stakeholders currently use the area and how they would like to use it in the future.

CLOSED: Any option for the future that eliminates an existing use (e.g. can’t remove existing condos, parks, community centre, or the shopping mall).

c. Identify which engagement mechanisms will be used and when.

Examples of engagement mechanisms are: interviews, open houses, town halls, interactive workshops, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Engagement happened in three phases, matching the three phases of the work plan. 


  • Seek feedback on existing conditions and issues to address
  • One-on-one meetings with significant property owners
  • Community workshop #1
  • Workshop with key stakeholders #1


  • Seek feedback on options to address issues
  • One-on-one meetings with significant property owners
  • Community workshop #2
  • Workshop with key stakeholders #2


  • Seek feedback on draft plan
  • One-on-one meetings with significant property owners
  • Community workshop #3
  • Workshop with key stakeholders #3

  • Website with project overview, meeting dates and meeting results, discussion guides and or feedback forms, as well contact information and links to background information
  • Facebook page with project overview and meeting updates
  • Twitter updates about upcoming meetings, project updates, media mentions, retweets of related Twitter activity
  • Email invitations
  • Posters advertising meetings
  • Ads in local newspapers

d. Identify which communication tools will be used and why.


Sample of tool used to support this tactic:

Step 2: Map Stakeholders & Build a Database

The second step in any engagement process is identifying who needs to participate.


A large municipality was contemplating the removal of an elevated expressway that was in a state of poor repair and blocking access to the waterfront. The expressway connected downtown to a middle/upper income residential area, passing through a lower income residential area and an established film studio district. There was also an active rail line running parallel to the elevated expressway to bring supplies to a sewage treatment plant.

a. Brainstorm a list of the issues that might be created by the project/initiative. Make it a long list, and think about the project from a number of different perspectives, looking through a number of different “lenses”.

  • Noise from demolition of expressway impacting film shoots
  • Traffic impacts on adjacent neighbourhoods
  • Health impacts from dust entering homes without air conditioning (often in lower income areas)
  • Increased travel times for commuters from wealthy residential area
  • Impacts on rail operations (if any)
  • Impact on neighbourhood schools
  • What other issues might be created by this project?

b. Drawing on the list of issues, identify different organizations, in addition to the general public, that would have a vested interest in how the project unfolds. Make a list.

  • Local public school
  • Local resident associations
  • Medical Officer of Health
  • CAA (Canadian Automobile Association)
  • Canadian Pacific Railway
  • Local businesses (especially film studios)
  • Local property owners (who may lease land to local businesses)
  • Environmental advocacy groups
  • Relevant Public Agencies (e.g. Provincial Media Development  Corporation)
  • Elected officials from all levels of government
  • Relevant government staff
  • General public
  • What other groups might be interested in this project?

c. It’s often helpful to map the issues and players to get a feel for the relationships between them and to help identify and fill any gaps.

d. Based on the stakeholder list, create a database of names, emails, and phone numbers.

Do this in a spreadsheet (not in a word processing software).

Here are a few tips to consider when setting up the database:

  • First name and last name should be separate columns (so the database can be sorted by either first or last name)
  • Include the affiliation of each contact, as well as their phone number and email (and mailing address, if relevant)

e. Flesh out the database by talking to people that are already in your list.

  • Joe Smith from the Provincial Media Development Corporation provided names and contact information for all of the film industry companies in the area
  • Local elected officials provided the names and contact information for the presidents of all the local residential associations
  • Local public school provided contact information for the school’s parent association
  • President of local resident association provided contact information of interested homeowners

f. At this stage it is often helpful to add a few new columns to your database.

  • A column titled “source”. Use this column to make a note of where the contact name came from so you have an answer when people ask “how did that name get on the list?”


  • A new column called “constituency” or “membership”. Use this column to make a short note about the number individuals each organization represents (if you know). For example a resident association represents all residents (typically home owners) in a defined neighbourhood which could include dozens of homes on a number of different streets. Your data base doesn’t necessarily need to include the names of every resident in every house because you connect with these people through their representatives at the resident association.  This means that your database doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but you do need to have a defensible list of contacts that can connect with larger networks. These “nodes” in the network are an important resource in the process.


  • A column that identifies the outreach tools that each association or group uses to stay connected to their members/constituents. Outreach tools include things like newsletters, email updates, meetings and events. This tells you a lot about the legitimacy of a group as representative of others. Also note whether these mechanisms are only to get information OUT, or do they also enable constituents to bring information IN. It’s important to verify that the person who claims to be speaking for a particular constituency can demonstrate that they consulted that constituency.  


Sample of tool used to support this tactic:

Step 3: Develop the Content & Create the Materials to Inform Discussion

The third step of the engagement process focuses on identifying the information that people need to meaningfully participate in the process, creating the tools that will be used to convey that information, and preparing the key questions that will be asked to seek the feedback required.


A large public library was facing potential budget cuts. To manage these cuts, the library decided to close four branches. There was a huge public outcry to this decision and extensive media coverage.  In response, elected officials provided emergency funding to the library to keep all branches open for one year. During this time the library Board and senior management decided to consult the community on alternative solutions.  

a. Identify the key messages to be conveyed to participants during each phase of the project.

Key messages from Phase One:

  • The library is dedicated to engaging our community in literacy and learning
  • We face a big challenge – as demand for library services grows, operating revenues decline
  • A number of changes have been made over the years to keep the library financially stable (e.g. reduction in hours and staff, wage freezes, etc.)
  • We need a plan that ensures long term financial and operational health of the library system
  • We’re committed to working with you as we develop that plan
  • The consultation process will start in April and end in September
  • The consultation will happen in three parts, each part will last two months
  • Phase One will focus on confirming issues to address over the six months, Phase Two will focus on testing ideas to achieve long term financial and operational health of the library system, and during Phase Three we’ll work on refining those ideas and deciding on a path forward

b. Identify the feedback needed from participants during each phase of the project and develop focus questions to solicit that feedback.

Focus Questions from Phase One:

  1. Why do you think it is important that the library is financially and operationally healthy?
  2. What do you think are the two biggest challenges to achieving this? What are your suggestions on how to address those challenges?
  3. What are the two or three things you value MOST about the library?
  4. What opportunities do you see for library users and the broader community to play to ensure the long-term sustainability of the library?
  5. Do you have any other feedback?

Focus Questions were also developed for Phases Two and Three.

c. Identify the tools and mechanisms that will be used to communicate the key messages and focus questions.

  • Three Neighbourhood Workshops were held during each phase of consultation
  • One City-wide Stakeholder Workshop was held during each phase of consultation
  • A Discussion Guide was created for each of phase of consultation and used during the workshops and posted on the library website
  • A PowerPoint presentation was created for each of the three phases of consultation and delivered at all workshops and posted on the library website
  • The same feedback should be sought, regardless of the mechanism used to solicit that feedback. Focus questions should be identical whether they're being asked in a newsletter, on the web, or in a meeting.

Examples of typical key messages and focus questions:

Common tools and when to use them:

Step 4: Draft & Distribute Invitations

The fourth step focuses on getting people to participate.


A small municipality was developing their first culture plan. The municipality was well known for having a strong university, a thriving music scene, several active local craft guilds, a rich and lengthy heritage, and being located about half-way between two major urban centres. 

a. Identify what would make people interested in participating in the process.