P2 tip #2: PI takes the whole team

26 05 2011

If you were to draw a picture of how public involvement (PI) functions on a project, what would it look like? My best answer to this question is to state what it would NOT look like: PI as an appendage, an add-on, a group the team goes to in crisis for specific things …. “We need a meeting!” “We need a newsletter!” “We need you to go meet with this stakeholder to find out why they don’t like x, y or z!”

Although PI practitioners are responsive problem-solvers and we can do all these things, I prefer to view PI staff as facilitators that enable the team to communicate well with a variety of stakeholders. We are the resident experts to help the team communicate complex information and prepare them for their own technical and stakeholder meetings.

The medium is part of the message, and to send PI staff to cover meetings with various stakeholders sometimes sends the wrong message. The project manager, design engineer or other technical specialist must be present in the room for specific discussions that influence decisions. While we might have great interviewing skills and can explain proposed plans as well as anyone else on the team, having the actual technical specialist or decision-maker in the room sends a powerful message and changes the tone of discussion.

And so, PI takes the whole team; it cannot be delegated out to an informed but independently functioning individual or group. Every person on the team has a role in communicating with stakeholders; PI staff is there to help the team be successful in how it is done.


P2 tip #1: Support the process

23 05 2011

Public involvement should support a decision-making process, not drive the process. This then begs the question that a defined process is in place; if there is confusion on the project team about the process, then there is certainly confusion among the public. Part of our role as P2 professionals is to communicate the decision-making process in a clear, simple way so that people know when and how they can participate.

But back to the key point … As much as I love public participation and idealize its role as crucial to public decisions, public involvement (PI) usually is not and should not be the driver. The reason a project exists is to gather the relevant data for a fair evaluation of how to best invest limited dollars to address some community issue. Public input and reaction to options is part of the process, but must not be mistaken for technical data and analysis. Which is another part of our jobs: communicating complex technical data in a way that people can understand and make their own judgments.

As often as public reaction can play a prominent role in whether a project moves forward or not, I have come to believe that PI is really a supporting function. It sometimes needs to stand to the side and let the process run its course and the data do the talking. Shifting the view of PI as being central to a project to PI being in a supporting role may change the timing and selection of tactics.

The criterion of supporting the process also helps with cost efficiencies. The level of PI needed is that which is needed to bring the process to completion. Outreach tools are selected based on who needs to be reached and the information that needs to be shared. These are all dictated by the project itself. We often think in terms of responding to the public’s need for information, but I find that if I am in tune with the project’s needs and a good process is in place, PI functions well as a conduit of information between decision-makers and stakeholders.

This post is part of a 10 part series on P2 tips for complex projects. Read the series introduction here.

P2 tips for complex projects: Series introduction

17 05 2011

Conversations I have had the past few weeks consistently turned to the role of public participation in complex and controversial projects. And as I think about my experience as well as my ideals, I have been jotting down the tips I would pass along. I have identified my top 10 P2 tips for complex projects to share during the next several weeks.

As a preface, there is no magic bullet to making public outreach successful or a project successful. There is no single thing to do or not do; and in fact, as I look at my list, I see that my understanding of public involvement is much more about a project philosophy and approach than any tool or technique.

As a disclaimer, the posts to follow are based in my experience but are extracted to be posed as an ideal that hopefully can prove relevant to other projects and contexts. Public participation is so contextual that something that works brilliantly in one case may completely fail in another. And so I am trying to pull out kernels of wisdom that have broader application, but every point may not apply to every situation.

Finally, the forthcoming posts start to paint a picture of my personal philosophy of the role of PI in delivering projects funded and run by government agencies. These are my own views based on my own experiences and I am choosing to share tips that I feel passionate about. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your reactions as the series develops!

More coming soon…

9 05 2011

It has been a hectic month, but I have a new series formulating to share on P2Exchange: How public involvement can contribute to complex or controversial projects. My thoughts on that topic will be here in a series of posts over the next several weeks.