Over the years, we at the Orton Family Foundation have debated how much citizen participation constitutes success in our projects. This discussion gets complicated as the “how many” quickly and appropriately gives way to a deeper conversation about the “who” in the room and the opportunity and level of participation rather than just a simple head count…
As I often say, the only thing harder than planning in the midst of a crisis is planning without a crisis at all. So: when there is no crisis at hand and a community is trying to bring citizens together for authentic, thoughtful discussions about its future, what constitutes a successful turnout? From my observations, achieving 10 percent community participation is pretty amazing (even though it doesn’t sound so great). And if this happens two or three times in a row, there’s really something going on.
Another way I’ve tried to calculate success in the numbers is to find out how many people turned out for the most controversial issue in the last five years, (i. e. a development proposal, school bond, crime, etc.). If the community then meets or exceeds that number in the context of a proactive planning discussion, that equals success.
But I’m still not satisfied. This may be setting the bar too low.
In dozens of Vermont towns and neighborhoods, more than 40% of the households subscribe to Front Porch Forum, where planning-relevant discussion often occurs. In one town that we studied, about three-quarters had posted in the first year.
Of course, ongoing online exchange among neighbors is different than face-to-face planning sessions, but we have seen many times where community turnout swells for such gatherings once FPF is up and running well. Frequent communication among clearly identified nearby neighbors gets folks informed and engaged.