Guest Post: Why I do PI

16 03 2011

Public involvement gives communities the tools to grow. As a neutral third party, we are able to build a bridge between groups that are otherwise adversarial. This was never more clear to me than when I was involved in developing a regional storm water management plan between a group of cities and canal companies.

 This issue was especially sensitive because both entities maintained a certain ownership of the regional system of storm water/irrigation channels. The canal companies owned the canals – for irrigation purposes – and the cities historically used the canals for storm water management. This relationship became muddy at best when flood liability, canal maintenance, and “who’s in charge” was blurred between two entities sharing the same system for different uses.

 The canals were originally built by farmers who needed to send water out to the lower Aggie valley. With gradual increases in population and urban development, the cities’ storm water contribution to the canal system steadily increased as the availability of permeable ground diminished. The cities needed a way to better manage their regional storm water contribution, and to forge better agreements with the canal companies regarding flood liability, maintenance, and future growth.

 Initially, both groups were apprehensive about working with one another. Cooperation had not come easily in the past and we were brought in to facilitate some dialogue between the cities and canal companies – though the outcome was uncertain. My company needed to convince the cities and canal companies to work together, and most importantly, to trust each other.

We recognized the best way to engage the canal companies and cities was to focus on addressing three distinct needs: psychological, procedural, and substantive needs – or a “triangle of satisfaction.” A careful balance needed to be struck to get the canal companies and cities to work well together.

To address this “triangle of satisfaction” we engaged with canal and city representatives on three levels:

  1. Psychological: We interviewed members of the canal companies and cities to better understand each entity. We shared the anonymous notes from these interviews with the entire group, and everyone knew their perspective had been heard
  2. Procedural: With the cities’ consent, we established an Advisory Council of city and canal representatives who agreed to work together on storm water management. We positioned ourselves to facilitate a process that the group would design and to provide the procedural framework to get things done.
  3. Substantive: We helped the Advisory Council make goals for the short and long term.  Four years later, a new set of regional design standards is in place, the canals have been mapped with GIS equipment, and the canals and cities are working on signing agreements to define roles and responsibilities. With the psychological and procedural needs met, concrete substantive results could be achieved.

 This project demonstrates for me the real world effect of PI. By using public involvement theory to solve this issue, a community not only resolved current obstacles, but developed the strength to face future problems together. 

 Public involvement is empowering. The reason I do PI is because I want to help shape the process that brings people together to solve problems collaboratively and to strengthen a community.

Lucy Park is a project specialist at The Langdon Group in Salt Lake City, Utah. Lucy has public involvement experience in a variety of water, infrastructure, and transportation projects.


Attention please! Part 2: The steps agencies take to get noticed…

12 03 2011

In the midst of a multi-media, consumer society, agencies have to work hard to get their message through the morass of daily communication. And although major corporations can purchase air time during the Superbowl or American Idol, a localized public education or outreach campaign works with limited resources. So how can agencies gain the attention of their intended audiences? Here are a few techniques I’ve recently come across:

Build brand identity. A signature look, hook or character can help people identify the message source and provide reminders of what an agency advocates. In New York City, Birdie has its own social media following and makes public appearances to promote GreeNYC.

Hold contests and give recognition to participants. Interactive media makes it easy to challenge followers to take action and track it online. Utah’s Clear the Air Challenge encourages groups to form teams to track vehicle trip reduction. Interactive media also makes it easy to upload contest entries such as this call for video entries from Utah State Parks. Some kind of reward, incentive or benefit should be clearly communicated to help drive interest and participation.

Be willing to stir up a little controversy. If an issue deserves robust public discussion, don’t be afraid to establish space for it. If you don’t provide good information and a forum to air various points of view, you can bet it will happen elsewhere. In my interest to see interactive media successfully facilitate fruitful discussion, a review of a blog dedicated to discussion of education issues in Iowa caught my attention.

What do these techniques have in common? One, is the use of interactive media. There is something to do, to take part in and even belong to. This is not a lone voice in the desert or speaking from a blow-horn, it is meeting people where they are at and when they have time to engage with the message. Two, props to for providing forums and blogs to share ideas about how government agencies are using interactive media and how they can use it better.

Attention please! Part 1: The steps people take to get noticed…

4 03 2011

On the world scene, civil unrest and political turmoil in Egypt and other countries under the label the “Jasmine Revolution” is a compelling reminder of the power of the people to change political tides and collectively make a strong political stance. The rallying cry around freedom and the role of information-sharing to facilitate change is a fascinating phenomenon. The Jasmine Revolution represents public demonstrations and the voice of the people at its most extreme form where people are willing to assert their views and rights at the cost of risking their lives.

In Utah, residents watched court proceedings for Tim DeChristopher this week with interest. DeChristopher was found guilty of derailing an auction of public lands for oil and gas drilling in 2008. He claims it was an act of civil disobedience necessary to stop what he viewed as a threat to global warming. He faces up to 10 years in prison for fraud. More than 400 people gathered to rally in support of DeChristopher at the start of his trial in peaceful demonstration and he exited the courtroom after the guilty verdict Thursday to cheers and applause.

On a much smaller scale, I have witnessed 50 emails come in on a project in the past week as a letter writing campaign. No one is calling to discuss the issue, but the emails continue to arrive on a daily basis with basically the same questions and concerns. People want to state their opinion, raise their concerns and add their voice to being on record as opposed to a particular action.

Civil disobedience, protests and letter writing campaigns all have their place in the world of public process. It is often an action that takes place outside of defined processes because the existing processes are not working or constituents do not feel that they are being heard. So they begin shouting louder by showing a force of numbers, holding signs to make the news and raising the flag up the political ladder of influence.

These techniques can be considered P2 practitioners’ worst nightmares. They are a sign that something is not working and people feel a sense of desperation. Or is it? Maybe it is public participation in its purest form, a grassroots collective creating their own processes and organizing around their own interests.  Folks are willing to donate their time and make personal sacrifices because they have a message they believe in.

The biggest downside? These techniques are usually positional and limit the opportunity to engage in dialogue. These are signs of people planting their flag clearly on one side of what they view to be right and wrong. It represents a model of winners and losers rather than seeking a spirit of collaboration and compromise. The discourse of “no compromise” may have its place and it all depends on context, but I hope that people who want their voices heard are willing to engage in thorough study and discussion of issues and options, not just another shouting match.

Next week: Attention please! Part 2: The steps agencies take to get noticed…