Listening spectrum

Listening is about more than just quieting yourself. It’s about being where people are, when they are there, and using a spectrum of methods to meet people where they are.

There’s plenty of evidence that public consultation and feedback is broken: it’s used by those in power – generally those who are older, whiter, who own property, and know the system – as a means in slowing or stop progress.

It’s hard to read people’s minds, but a la Stafford Beer, The purpose of a system is what it does. At best it’s a check-box that is often legislatively required, at worst it’s a heckler’s veto and a vector to neighborhood disunity.

If you want to read other tips-n-tricks for tactical democracy, our second issue Scorching is now on sale.

We can do better.

There are all sorts of examples of virtuous project outcomes, without consulting the public once a policy choice has been made. The most recent example is when in 2017 the residents of Daly City, CA were given the commitment of building housing specifically for teachers. Providing low-cost homes to attract and retain teachers who were being priced out of housing in Silicon Valley. Once the peo- ple spoke, the municipality executed on this by building homes on school-owned land. In June 2022 teachers moved into the 122-unit complex. San Francisco made the same commitment, but spent 18 months on outreach and engagement, and ground hasn’t broken yet on any housing development.

The negative example are all the Robert Moses projects, using eminent domain to widen freeways, or other such shenanigans. We don’t have a good heuristic on when to consult people, and when not to consult. That’s for a future exploration.

For now, if we assume consultation is mandated, we wanted to explore how to use feedback to propel a project forward for a better outcome. Designing the consul- tation to resist a hecklers veto, and providing channels for residents speech allows the public to speak their mind, and the municipality to move forward to solve a country-wide housing problem.

It is important to design a landscape or spectrum of engagement to match peoples actual (or perceived) available amount of time.

By creating multiple ways to engage, you put the resident into the driver seat. You also don’t create a single point of failure. By deploying multiple methods your chance of blowing it decreases, while the opportunity for feedback increases.

More Time

Below are tactics when you want to spend more time with people


Sometimes a direct audience is worth the investment in order to maintain or build relationships, and to not have a larger engagement go off the rails.

A one-on-one sit down allows for a personal and direct feedback for 1-2 residents at a time. Provide a semi-private area for short conversations, and clear sign-ups opportunities.


Sometimes people just need to get something off their minds. Setting up a confessional booth allows people the unlimited time to offer public feedback without monopolizing time. By reducing the spectator audience, this tactic removes the negative performative aspects to public testimony.


Giving options for residents to provide feedback for people who can’t attend the in-person or remote sessions is both a good way to boost your engagement numbers, and also a direct action toward inclusive design.

Create a comment card in multiple languages and provide a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Less Time

Sometimes you need to reach more people, you don’t have the capacity to spend as much time with residents are you might like, or residents themselves don’t have lots of time. Below are quick engagement tactics


Madlibs are a powerful way to gain structured feedback from people quickly. You can create and print them out using widely available digital and print tools.

Useful in expanding your scope of inquiry. People are natural storytellers, and Madlibs gives residents a clear narrative to give consultation.


Stickers are a way to give just enough structure and tools to allow residents to tell their story, without putting too much pressure on the outcomes.

Read more about stickers, residents, and Block Builder in Issue 1: Founding.


Sometimes just having an up or down vote might help you in gauging the sentiment of your residents

I hope you found these tactics helpful. We are independently publishing a monthly zine / pamphlet with a lot of help from our friends. You can purchase the first two copies below and help keep this boat afloat.