Looking for on-line dialogue

27 01 2011

In  talking with P2 colleagues recently, social media and the potential for public engagement using Internet-based tools is still resoundingly the trend to watch. The push for transparency in government is yielding some interesting on-line tools. Check out these examples regarding state budgets from Texas and commentary on a similar site for Oregon. Commitment to transparency and trying to make complex information understandable gets thumbs up from me!

However, I am still looking for examples of people engaging in discussion of ideas, options, pros and cons related to the information they find. Although the Internet makes information accessible, if decision-makers are only posting information for public use the conversation remains one-sided. We still need the two-way conversation and interactive part of interactive media…

I like this blog post that discusses the need for government to use the Web to listen, not just post information. P2 implies two-way exchange; dare I say, a dialogue! That means engaging with each other’s ideas and creating a space for multiple points of view. What examples have you seen of robust on-line dialogue that is meaningful and productive? I have faith it can happen, but I want to see it with my own eyes!


“Why I do PI” guest post

20 01 2011

With a construction notification flier in my hand, I take a deep breath before walking into a business.

I am wearing a safety vest which makes me look bright and shiny. It’s a medium, but it looks more like an extra-large on my body. I don’t like it, but I wear it because it makes me look more professional when delivering construction updates to the public. It gives me more credibility talking to strangers.

The front desk ladies immediately turn their attention to me as soon as I step in, even before I open my mouth.

“What can I do for you?” one of them asks. Her tone was calm, but I could tell from her eyes that my presence had her worried. I’ve noticed that people behind desks sometimes are more nervous than I am because they don’t know what to expect from me.

I politely inform them that a construction project will soon occur in their area and encourage them to stay informed by joining our email update list.

“So are you part of the construction crew?” the other lady asks.  “Because if you are, they are really upgrading their people.” This time, she has a big grin on her face.

“I’m not a construction worker,” I reply, smiling. “I am a public involvement coordinator on this job, in charge of notifying the public of project progress, impacts and building bridges between my client and the stakeholders.”

“Oh, so you are the one that gets yelled at when people go crazy because of construction.” Was this a statement or question?

I chuckle and say, “Well, when that happens, I usually just stay calm, smile and tell them not to kill the messenger.”

They both laugh.

This kind of light-hearted conversation happens every once in awhile at my job as a public involvement coordinator in the civil engineering/transportation industry. Most people don’t know much about what our responsibilities are; some don’t even know that we exist. Often times, people think that taking complaints is all we do. I admit that’s part of my job, but there are many interesting elements in my role that make me enjoy what I do, so I can overlook the parts that are not so enjoyable.

I do public involvement (PI) because I can help people and make a difference in society.

When a transportation project is being studied, it means changes will happen. Not everyone enjoys change or knows how to deal with it. The public doesn’t always understand the need for a transportation project, and when it disrupts their daily life, the government becomes the culprit in their eyes. They often don’t realize their opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.

If the Department of Transportation (DOT) is planning on reconstructing the roadway in your neighborhood, wouldn’t you want to know why, what their plans are, and tell them how you think they can do it right? After all, you’ve been driving through it all your life whereas the design engineers may live in a different county. However, notification letters or fliers go unnoticed sometimes; the majority of the public don’t realize a transportation project is underway until they see barrels and flashing arrows on the street! Part of our responsibility as PI coordinators is to communicate complex but accurate information to stakeholders (you know, engineers can’t speak simple English) and design messages in a meaningful way so that they can be alerted early on, clearly understand the need and purpose of the transportation project, and be encouraged to submit their input to make a difference. In return, we actively listen to their concerns and try to incorporate them into the project development.

PI is more than public education. Rather, it is a two-way communication. We advocate for the public by striving to do what is right for them; and also advocate for our client by changing the public’s opinion and behavior toward the project from negative to positive. This is exactly what I love doing.

From PI, I learn something new every day and get to polish my skills as a communicator.

I remember when I first started this job, I often got lost in meetings because of my lack of knowledge of this industry. What is NEPA? What does EIS mean? What is FHWA’s role on this project? What do LOS, ROW, or MOT stand for? What is the difference between roadway excavation and rotomilling? What kind of impact does pile driving bring to the public? Is it something I have to tell the surrounding residents and businesses? Gradually I began to understand. I learn more every day, little by little, including but not limited to: environmental studies, engineering designs, and construction activities. It is a continuously stimulating experience for my curious mind. I also get to do research, write, design graphics, organize public meetings, and interact with interesting people. It is the diversity of my job that makes me enjoy what I do.

With a degree in public relations, I could have applied for a job in a PR agency; but I chose PI instead. At this job, our focus is on the roads that thousands of people drive every day and impacts to homes in which people raise their families, not promoting a product that we could live without. It gives me satisfaction to know that my contribution to transportation projects is not only beneficial for the present moment, but it will be used for generations to come.

Annie Wong joined PB Americas, Inc. following the completion of her bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from Brigham Young University in 2009. She has public involvement experience in a variety of transportation related projects and currently serves as the IAP2 Intermountain Chapter secretary.

The quest for civil discourse

13 01 2011

Last week Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell announced an initiative to foster civil discourse in Utah. The timing of this announcement right before the unexpected tragic event on Sat., Jan. 8, in Tucson, Ariz., makes it all the more relevant. What I have found most interesting in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is the discussion about the downward spiral of incivility in political discourse.

The trend is highlighted in a piece on international news coverage of the event for PRI’s The World (the second clip in the story from the UK was particularly interesting to me). Bloggers from all walks of life and backgrounds are taking up the issue of civility in the wake of Saturday’s shootings. Here are links to posts from a social media strategist, an educator and a sports commentator. And President Obama addressed the theme of civility in his remarks at the Jan. 12 memorial service.

My primary question regarding civil discourse is where do we see it modeled? The Internet and social media allow us to spout off opinions that are often reactionary. Political pundits who have gained notoriety on radio and cable television only fuel the fire of “us” against “them.” I have been amazed in the past couple elections what passes as “political discourse” … it sounds more like trash-talk from the sports locker room!  If our political leaders cannot model appropriate civil discourse, no wonder citizens struggle as well.

Civil discourse is not flashy, dramatic or violent. It can be confrontational. It should be well-researched. And civil discourse requires listening, not just talking. It includes an attempt to understand other points of view. But we prefer to listen only to like-minded people who share the same values and beliefs. It takes work to get out of our comfort zone and truly seek to understand other perspectives.

As P2 practitioners, we should be proponents of civil discourse and design processes that help people engage in thoughtful consideration of a range of issues and respectful dialogue.

Another approach to overcome the language barrier

6 01 2011

West Valley City, Utah, is taking an interesting approach to dealing with their multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual community: the mayor announced an English initiative this week. At first I winced – principles of public participation typically state that we should communicate with people in their terms. An “English initiative” at first sounds elitist and euro-centric!

But upon further investigation, I see that the city is trying to compile a list of resources for their diverse community of citizens to have access to learning English as a method to more fully participate in civic life. For a city with limited budgets and resources, translating materials and getting the word out in multiple languages can be costly and ineffective even when intentions are good. Instead, the city is advocating affordable – even free – English as a Second Language classes by providing an online resource that lists opportunities for English classes and providing the incentive of recognition at a city council meeting for participants’ achievements.

Although the city council recognition may not mean much on the surface (it sounds largely ceremonial), it does reinforce the initiative’s connection to participation in civic decisions and activities. It also provides an opportunity for citizens who would not normally attend a city council meeting to be seen and recognized, perhaps engaging a whole new segment of the population that has remained mostly invisible or silent in local government.

I have to admit I still have some misgivings about the phrase “English initiative” – but I hope that it is just the linguistic phrase and that West Valley City can succeed in adding more voices to their civic dialogue through this educational outreach.