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?

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