Ambushed by angry residents
One of the very first engagement projects that I ever ran involved building a new War Memorial Garden in a local park. I wrote up an engagement plan, promoted it to key stakeholders and local residents and invited them to the park so I could take them on a short walking tour and physically show them the proposed design. Following this event we would then welcome any feedback on the draft design and the engagement period would officially commence.
However during the initial investigation and planning phase, I was told about an existing issue that local residents were really annoyed about. It was about the old toilet block, it's poor condition and that often it attracted 'unwanted behaviour'. When I raised this as a potential engagement risk with my manager, I was told it was seperate to the proposed Garden and that I needed to engage on that, (and just ignore the toilet block issue).
Everything was well organised and going to plan. I was excited that our team used paint to show where the new path was proposed, we organised a display of plants to indicate where the garden beds would be, and erected a temporary wall to show where the new 'wall plaques' were to be located.
On Saturday morning we had well over 70 people show up. I did my facilitator thing and welcomed everyone, explained what I was there for and then invited them to walk with me as I outlined the key design elements of the proposed Garden.
But before I even took 1 step, I got a questions from a local resident about the toilet block. I tried to disconnect this issue from the proposed Garden, but to no avail. Then more questions kept coming in about the toilet block. And then more. The mood of the group quickly changed to frustration, as I realised they were all here to solve the issue with the toilet block (and didn't really care too much about the proposed Garden).
I had to adapt and pivot very quickly.
I was not able to answer their tricky and tough questions about the toilet block, so instead got out my note pad and showed them I was listening and taking notes. I promised I would follow up, report back and let them know what we could do to resolve the issue with the toilets.
After about an hour of listening and note taking, someone said to me "Thank you Dan. We have been trying to resolve this issue for a long time and no-one has ever come down here to listen to us. And he concluded by saying "by the way, we all love the new garden, we just want to make sure the toilet block is fixed first".
This story does have a happy ending.
The old toilet block was demolished and a new one was built. And, a few months later the new War Memorial Garden was installed and planted. It is a wonderful local park and enjoyed by residents and families.