Picture this

25 08 2010

The conversion of a project memo to a map this week reminded me of just how effective visuals can be. As a construction project I am working on gets underway, the management  team requested a weekly report of planned activities. Originally formatted as a memo, it looked like just another list of hard to read (do I have time to read?) items. After some consultation with me and the project graphic designer, the report was reformatted to a map with corresponding numbers to identify the location of each work item. The piece received ooohs and aaahs from the team during this week’s management meeting!

As the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In our media-saturated society, the information conveyed by a visual at a glance is so vital to effective communication. We are also growing more and more accustomed to customizing our information by selecting what we want to pay attention to. The linear format of a narrative memo just doesn’t speak to people. We don’t have time or patience to wade through all the information. We want to be able to quickly ascertain what pertains to us. Use of visual tools is key to helping people sort out information and find what’s relevant.

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Getting better comments

12 08 2010

So last week I indulged in the advice I would give people about writing comments. This week, I take a more realistic tact and expand on the notion that we as P2 practitioners can help facilitate getting better, more meaningful input.

Yes, the work we do in public participation ought to bring about quality input. Carefully thought-out public outreach will help achieve more carefully thought-out questions, comments and feedback from stakeholders. Here’s how:

1. Provide good information. The more stakeholders know about process and facts presented in an understandable and accessible way, the more relevant and informed comments will be.

2. Ask good questions. Comment forms often consist of a blank sheet of paper with space for name and contact information. Instead of always using this open-ended format, consider developing a set of questions that helps stakeholders think through relevant issues and share their views. Think of a questionnaire format as a miniature interview; be strategic about the order questions are asked and careful with the wording. Focus on key issues or specific types of information you need. You can still leave space for open-ended comments as part of the questionnaire.

3. Identify target audiences. In order to increase the number of thoughtful responses, think about who is impacted by or interested in the issue; seek to engage specific groups of stakeholders instead of waiting for them to find you. A stakeholder analysis should be part of your public participation plan and should identify stakeholder groups based on interests or demographics. Find ways to engage groups who already have some knowledge, interest or opinion of the matter at hand.

4. Build credibility by keeping commitments, displaying fairness and demonstrating how comments are used. An agency or project owner with a reputation for fairness over time will gain more meaningful iput. One step toward fairness is to proactively engage opposition groups as well as supporters. Demonstrate that you are looking for input from all points of view. Finally, if stakeholders see that their input was taken seriously and influenced a decision, they will be more apt to participate again.  All these things add up to building credibility and maintaining a degree of public confidence that can help facilitate a more meaningful exchange.

5. Leverage communication tools for transparency. Instead of asking for feedback at the eleventh hour, right before a decision is made, engage in a conversation with stakeholders early in the process. Not only is this good research and fact-finding, it allows stakeholders to grasp the public process, understand key factors and constraints and weigh in on issues when there is still time to influence a decision. 

What would you add to the list for getting better comments in public processes?





Tips for writing comments

5 08 2010

As one who works in public participation and reads comments regularly, there are days I wish I could offer training on how to write comments. Comments frequently come from people who have an issue and people in support remain silent. Moreover, in the era of email and social media, people are often quick to send off rants and complaints without putting a lot of thought into it.

Comment-writing is not a form typically covered in composition class and I wonder if a few example comments would actually help people understand how comments could be more effective. I also take responsibility as a P2 professional to try to facilitate meaningful comments by providing good information and formulating good questions.

Here in the blogosphere, however, I can share my “tips for writing comments” with my imaginary stakeholders. Maybe you have some tips, too, or suggestions for spurring on more meaningful input. There will always be rants (they are not going away), but they don’t do a project or decision-making process any good without more substantial information.

Here’s my list of tips:

  1. You are always entitled to your opinion
  2. Your opinion will be taken more seriously if some justification or back-up support is included
  3. Besides an opinion, a comment is an opportunity to share what you know
  4. Consider offering proposed solutions instead of only submitting complaints
  5. Include your name and contact information so decision-makers can follow-up on your suggestions or probe for more information when you have a complaint