Virtual Engagement Catalyzed by COVID-19

Maintaining Credibility – Being Creative and Adaptive – Remaining Vigilant

Public Engagement has radically changed in the last few months, likely never returning to pre-COVID practices. Already a growing trend, virtual public and stakeholder engagement accelerated at warp speed to keep projects, public policy and community services in motion. 

With foundational commitments to genuine engagement, client success, continuous learning, and being nimble and adaptive, CDR ramped up its approach to virtual engagement expanding technological abilities and applying best practices. Pausing to reflect on the last few months and considering our collective future, we are offering lessons learned and both cautions and hopes for the future of engagement. 

Maintaining Credibility in Public and Stakeholder Engagement

Successful virtual engagement is occurring across the spectrum of projects we’ve been working on in transportation, water and land management. Already adding virtual tools to our engagement toolbox, CDR was poised to rapidly transition support to our clients on current and new projects. Hundreds of people have provided input to Colorado’s State Highway 52 planning project through multiple virtual engagement platforms. Dozens of partner representatives from across the State of Colorado effectively engaged in ratifying partner protocols and developing a vision and objectives for Fishers Peak, Colorado’s next state park. FedNet utilizes video conferencing to foster understanding and improving relationships. The Wildlife & Transportation Alliance has used virtual forums to expand understanding and address sticky issues.

Being Creative and Adaptive is Essential in our Changing Environment Adapting to New Realities Through Technology, Honoring Proven Concepts in Engagement

With an ethic of supporting genuine community engagement, CDR’s clients have maintained or strengthened the credibility of public projects by continuing to connect with community members through creative means. Using new tools in the toolbox requires just as much, if not more, time and effort to genuinely engage people in deliberations. We’ve made observations ranging from tactical needs to social dynamics in recent months. A sampling of practical and tactical advice for facilitating large groups includes:

  • Advance homework and/or surveys help orient participants, mitigating the need for long presentations 
  • Preparing “virtual rooms” is just as important as preparing for “in-person rooms” – prepare a virtual room by making sure the technology works, participants know how to use technology, virtual strategies and tools are tested, etc. 
  • “Breakout” rooms are your friend – have a co-host who can support conversation and summarize outcomes 
  • Shared documents – either being revised in real time, or participants modifying themselves – demonstrates listening and shaping content by constituents 
  • A Facilitation Buddy System – Managing chat functions, sorting participants into rooms, managing documents, capturing input and facilitating discussion requires more than one facilitator. Larger groups may need multiple facilitators for efficient, effective management 
  • Use a variety of tools to help people offer perspective – options such as polling, Social Pinpoint, sticky note simulators and others provide avenues for people who might be more comfortable participating in ways other than speaking 
  • Incorporate Breaks – Virtual engagement is exhausting – in some cases we are seeing people go from Virtual meeting to Virtual meeting – only there are no natural breaks – such as walking, riding or driving between meetings. Schedule breaks every hour, ask participants to walk around the block, get a snack and get away from the computer for 10 minutes. 
  • Continued Non-Tech Strategies – hard-to-reach populations still need mail-in/phone surveys, informational mailers, working with community leaders with existing relationships and communication avenues, with translation services supporting all 
  • Off-Line Check-Ins – During in person engagement, facilitators and client leads can have side conversations to check in and adjust processes and agendas in real time. Set up other platforms to check in mid-meeting to make those course corrections. 
  • All Ages are Participating – We have seen all ages up their game in use of technology. 
  • It Requires Time and Effort – There might be misperceptions that virtual engagement requires less time and work to implement. Our experience demonstrates that it takes just as much time and effort, if not more, as in-person engagement! 
  • Keep Learning – As we learn from and have access to new engagement techniques and technology, observe what is working and what isn’t and apply key take-aways to next sessions.

Remaining Vigilant About Genuine Engagement and Implications for Our Future  

Intentional action is required to foster genuine engagement across communities and partnerships. There is risk to simply “checking the box” to meet minimum requirements for public process. We are asking ourselves questions and raising concerns to remain vigilant: 

  • Are there populations and geographic regions we are missing because of non-existent or unreliable access to technology? 
  • Are we using the current COVID-19 environment as an excuse to not engage with community? 
  • Are our translation services applied in the right places and the right way? 
  • Are relationships suffering because there is nothing that can truly replace in-person engagement? 
  • As communities and states reopen, how do we transition and synthesize the effective, efficient technological engagement strategies that have made such positive advancements with re-emerging in-person opportunities? 

We hope we can all continue to challenge ourselves to “meet the community where they are” during this challenging time. With an intention of employing genuine engagement opportunities we can achieve quality policy, project and community deliberation. Technology can help advance this type of engagement if supported by decision makers and implemented well. We miss people… we want to see them again… and when we can do so safely, we will be ready to do so with a renewed appreciation for in-person relationship building and a refined, improved approach to how we do this important work virtually.

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Baby Goats and Engaging Engagement

patrick-fore-uwq9fWZ4ThE-unsplashOne of the most fun parts of our job is brainstorming creative ways to engage the community on a project that might have otherwise gotten lost in the shuffle. As part of the Thornton Comprehensive Planning Project, great partners and clients allowed us to do just that – consider unique opportunities to engage the community and “meet them where they are.” This inclusive engagement approach meant attending Thornton’s ice cream socials throughout the Summer, meeting neighbors and community members at their local clubhouses, presenting in high school classrooms, and even bringing baby goats to events to grab attention. Yes, you heard that right, baby goats! You have got to be kidding me! 

Throughout the project, CDR worked with local farms to bring baby goats to Thornton Fest and Harvest Fest hosted by the City. The goats hung out in a pen and enjoyed attention from the youngest community members while parents and interested spectators filled out surveys and posted on boards about their vision for the City which informed the development of the draft Comprehensive Plan. As a result of this robust and unique engagement, the project was awarded a 2019 APA Colorado Merit Award in the category of Community Engagement! We were honored to work with partners Cultivando, Clarion, and the City of Thornton on this project and receive this exciting award.

As an added bonus, if you weren’t able to see the baby goats in person, you can watch them virtually on this baby goat cam:

For more information about this or to brainstorm creative engagement ideas for your upcoming project, please contact Melissa Rary,

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CO 52 Planning and Environmental Linkage Study and Access Control Plan

Strategic Communication, Agency Coordination, and Public Involvement to create local solutions for a regional corridor.

clark-wilson-Q1t4WhQWgI8-unsplashWhat’s 42 miles? Well, it’s the length of CO 52 from CO 119 in Boulder County to CO 79 in Weld County. Google says if I drive it, right now, it’ll take me 52 minutes (as an aside: if, for some reason, I walk it, it’ll take 13 hours and 40 minutes). That’s a long corridor.

But, what’s interesting about this corridor doesn’t end at its length. This corridor also houses big, urban communities like Erie and small, agricultural communities like Kennesburg. The main streets of small towns such as Dacono, Frederick, and Fort Lupton host myriad family businesses, while the IBM campus sits at the western end, at CO 119 and CO 52. Boulder and Weld Counties both have their unique values and priorities – for their economies, their residents, and mobility. The corridor is a major connector bringing travelers, freight, and even data north to Fort Collins, south to Denver, and west to the City of Boulder.

This is all to say — this is a long, important corridor with lots of divergences in its stakeholders, interests, challenges, and goals. As part of the recently launched CO 52 PEL / ACP (Planning and Environmental Linkages Study / Access Control Plan) CDR is charged with finding ways to allow for local uses and identity of the corridor and to develop a cohesive corridor vision and plan. Adding to the challenge of the corridor’s unique complexity, we’re now finding ways to maintain our original schedule and stakeholder engagement effectiveness through Covid. To do all of this, we’ve developed a plan that includes strategic communication, agency coordination, and public involvement that’s tailored to each stakeholder’s preferred method to engage. We’re using formal stakeholder groups. We’re using interactive mapping for members of the public to learn about the study and provide content at their convenience. We’re translating materials into Spanish. We’re working closely with local jurisdictions to plug into their virtual and traditional (aka – analogue) communication platforms. Our commitment on this study is to first ensure that we effectively engage the broad spectrum of stakeholders and, second, that their interests are linked to decisions so that the final plan manages to be both local and regional.

To learn more about strategic communication and public involvement using interactive mapping, contact Jeffrey Range at

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Humans of CDR

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CDR Associates to lead strategic planning for water policy institute at Spur campus

Colorado State University System has selected CDR as the lead consultant to conduct strategic planning for a water policy institute at the future Spur campus at the National Western Center in north Denver.

“The Spur campus is a place made for the public, and a place to convene the greatest minds around the biggest issues of our time,” said CSU System Executive Vice Chancellor Amy Parsons. “Water is a critical issue that requires interdisciplinary expertise and collaboration, and the water policy institute is positioned to begin this work prior to the grand opening of the CSU Spur campus in 2022.”

Housed within the water building — one of three buildings on the Spur campus — this policy institute will be a CSU-led, non-partisan policy center that addresses core natural resources, regulatory and governance, and socioeconomic issues shaping sustainability of the West’s water future through research-based policy analysis, alternatives, and recommendations.

The CDR team is comprised of three Colorado-based organizations: CDR Associates, which provides stakeholder engagement and leads the decision-making process; ICS Consulting, which provides innovative solutions to complex water problems; and LRE Water, which provides engineering services for resolving water resources challenges. 

“Developing a water policy institute is a meaningful and rare opportunity to shape how future water is managed, in a way that really meets the needs of these future policy-implementers,” said Emily Zmak, a CDR Associates process expert on the project.

Scott Campbell, principal and owner of ICS Consulting, agreed: “We need a place like WWPI to chart a viable future for the American West.”

At Spur, the water building will host programs focused on education, innovation, and research — advancing innovative practices in water; providing a venue for water-focused dialogue and conferences that highlight connections between water and urban and rural food systems; connecting water users with problem-solvers; showcasing water sustainability; and fostering cross-sector collaboration. The facility will be a venue for K-12 education and field trips. Denver Water’s water quality laboratory will also be part of the water center.

On April 30 at 1:30 p.m., CSU System will host a groundbreaking celebration with campus leaders, program partners, and community members at the future site of the Spur campus. The event is free and open to the public and will include site tours and a sampling of programs and activities that will be offered at the future campus.

About Spur: CSU System at the National Western Center

Coming in 2022: CSU System will open Spur, where innovative ideas and unforgettable experiences come to life at the National Western Center. Spur’s three buildings at the center of the landmark project in north Denver will engage all learners and fuel new solutions around water, food, and health – creating impact on our lives and our world. Spur is where learning is open and accessible to all. Where researchers tackle the world’s most pressing problems around water, food, and health. Where art and culture challenge and surround you. Where rural and urban, local and global intersect. Learn more at

About the CDR Associates Team

For over 40 years, CDR Associates has provided expert process guidance to ensure a people-oriented approach to complex challenges. CDR’s services include facilitation, stakeholder engagement, and the development of agreements. The CDR Team is joined by LRE Water, an engineering firm, and ICS Consulting, an expert in complex water networks, to bring a diverse set of perspectives to the WWPI.

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