In today's world of "public outreach", "public engagement," and "getting the public on board," connecting with the broader public is becoming an increasing challenge to all those charged with getting information to the public and getting meaningful responses in return.
Given the fact that most of the general public or your target audience has a mailbox, it would seem that mailing information would be the best way to reach, inform and engage the intended audience. However, as those of us who engage in public outreach regularly can attest: if only the public would read what was sent to them, all our jobs would be very simple and easy!
The traditional ways of engagement seemingly fail in today's world of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard), CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything), NOPE (Not On Planet Earth) and NIMEY (Not In My Election Year). The bottom line is getting permission from the public to build or plan anything is an increasingly difficult task. When you add in the complexities of T & E (Endangered Species Act), NHPA (Cultural Resource Protection), VRM (Visual Resource Management) and other Federal mandates actions, how do you keep up?
What are public participation objectives or understanding public participation?
The objective of public participation is to inform, engage and involve the public with a collection or tools and/or processes that involve stakeholders to provide input to decision making process. Stakeholders are diverse members of the public, citizens, appointed and elected officials, agencies, community representatives and other interested parties. This activity includes the incorporation of the input obtained from public participation in the decision making process.
Where are you?
Struggling to keep up with an increasingly sophisticated public informed of and engaged with your actions is becoming more and more difficult. Do you involve the public in decisions that appear to be technical in nature such as risk, reasonableness, cost or location? The public often sees these decisions as community values that should have their input.
In your community are you considered a "good neighbor"?
Good Neighbor is often a fragile relationship defined as: What have you done for me or to me lately? The public community needs consistency, commitments and long term strategic solutions from you.
Traditional methods of mailings, door to door and other human touch methods such as one on one interviews, focus groups, phone messages, elected official briefings, are examples of the plethora of activities available for implementation in your outreach.
Typical Public Participation Processes
Public participation is typically broken into two distinct types. One is the Federal Processes typified by NEPA with its proscribed methodology of out reach and two is the non federal processes often seen as facilitated meetings and community advisory groups.
Consider for your next effort a different public participation process using the 5"I's":
- Inform the public of the problem or issue or action
- Involve the public in finding possible solutions
- Identify and prioritize possible solutions with the public
- Incorporate the public's recommendations
- Implement the "agreed to" solution
What are the benefits?
Public participation builds positive relationships with the public, increasing your credibility and reputation. It can reduce delays and costs associated with political controversy and litigation. Identifying and responding to public concerns before decisions are made can accomplish these benefits.
Are there limitations with the use of public participation?
A greater investment in public participation predictably brings higher expectations of benefits gained by that investment. But you must recognize that a key precept of all forms of public participation is that the use of these tools and processes lessons the degree of control you have over a project and its outcome.
A contrast in the expectation and the reality of public participation?
Expectations often contain education of the public about who you are, the creation of relationships, assistance in the solutions, represent what you have learned in the meetings to constituents, contribute letters of support for the processes used and participate in the project as it moves through adoption. The harsh reality often takes process leaders by surprise. The public who learned and participated often won't stand up in any public forums with support, public officials will remain "hands off" but some members of the public will speak favorably at neighborhood association meetings, attend open houses and speak positively. However, it is the continuous education and engagement of new participant's and loss of the learned and previously engaged public due to time constraints and turnover.
When to use what tool or processes?
The tools in your toolbox including processes to address three initial engagement steps of the public Identify solutions; Identify Issues and Inform and Educate. Determine when in your project you will use those tools. Is it up front before you begin or only during the project or is it an on going process through and after the completion of the project.
Determine which members of the team will be responsible for what portion of the process. Make assignments to members of the team. Plan and then execute the plan to stay on track with your out reach responsibilities. Be flexible in dealing with the public but be clear with them from the beginning the desired outcome and the timeline. If the objective of the outreach is to build a road from point A to B don't get side tracked into discussing and solving world issues around transportation.
The use of a Matrix
A matrix using the 3 of the 5 "I's" identify solutions, identify issues and educate with appropriate team members identified can determine the tools you may want to use. Each public participation training organization or resource has plenty of tools to use. Determine if the issue requires "low or high touch" with the public. Pick the one needed and put it in the matrix. The process manager can determine the touch needed and appropriate members of the team.
When you are using public participation with your project it is very important to document everything that is done with the public and their responses. Is there a final report, either internal or external? Will elected officials ask about the success of your outreach, how many meetings, who attended? There are some methods to track comments and contact, determine which one works best for your organization.
ConclusionIt is not always the process of public participation but it is always the design skills and the people skills of the process managers and the tools the select to use.
Laurie Moye, Coordinator, Regulatory Project & Public Participation, in the system engineering Department with Public service company of New Mexico (PNM). Ms Moye's work at PNM focuses on incorporating public participation in the permitting process for new and expanded PNM gas and electric facilities. Prior to joining PNM, Ms Moye worked for a private architecture and planning firm and for state and local governments. She has led public participation activities designed to reach consensus around the state of New Mexico. She has a Masters Degree in Community and Regional Planning from University of New Mexico and additionally has been trained in risk and media communication and public participation methodology.
PNM serves about 487,000 electricity customers and about 490,000 natural gas customers in about 100 communities statewide and also sells electricity on the wholesale market. The company, New Mexico's largest electricity and natural gas provider, is based in Albuquerque and has offices in more than 20 cities.