P2 tip #5: Anticipate issues

15 06 2011

As P2 professionals, we bring a different perspective and skill set to a project team. While others are in the mire of technical methodology and data, we stand slightly outside the technical work and are well-positioned to offer insight that may not come from anyone else on the team. So speak up! Although our primary responsibility is to communicate effectively with the public to support the process, we also have a responsibility to anticipate issues that others may not see.

Our unique perspective can be traced to differences in right brain/left brain functions of planners, engineers and communicators. It may also come from our greater level of attention to how something may appear to the general public and whether information is clear, logical and understandable. I consider myself the first focus group for information … if I can’t make sense of it, how can I expect to explain it to stakeholders?

Moreover, as communicators we should be looking ahead at potential issues to help the team address them early. Being proactive in anticipating issues allows time to gather information or work with stakeholders who can be opinion leaders. Early groundwork can pay dividends later when controversy arises. If nothing else, the project team has already thought through a range of responses and it should help avoid the team going into panic mode.

Anticipating issues is an ongoing process during the life of a project. An initial analysis should be part of a public involvement plan, but it may also fall under a project risk analysis, situation analysis or stakeholder analysis. There are always changing conditions to address. Look ahead and think through reactions and consequences each step of the way.

P2 tip #4: Build local ownership

7 06 2011

Who does a project serve? Who does it affect? Who is going to live with the outcome day-in and day-out? Although a local, state or federal agency owns a project in terms of funding and decision-making, project results impact a community. And the reason a project exists is to serve that population. The government agency may not be able to turn over the decision to the community, but as P2 folks, we must help the project team think about what best fits the community’s needs and values.

Building local ownership starts with listening. The project team should listen to how the community defines the problem and allow input to brainstorming potential solutions. Listening will help the project team better understand the problem and better evaluate possible solutions. And if we are listening well, the result will feel logical to those it serves. (This doesn’t mean there won’t be differences of opinion or opposition…)

Does the project respond to the community’s defined needs? Do they see how it fits in with the present or future landscape? Do they understand the potential consequences and benefits of the options under consideration? Can you describe in a couple simple sentences how a project proposal meets a need or improves the quality of life?

Part of our role in PI is thinking about the citizens a decision-making process serves. We should put ourselves in their shoes to keep a check on whether a project team’s definition of issues and solutions rings true with what people may be thinking and feeling on the ground.

P2 tip #3: Set agendas aside

1 06 2011

Complex and controversial projects are ones that are surrounded with many different voices and opinions; there are many factors to account for and countless options to consider. For this reason, it is important to set agendas aside. The guiding principle for projects I have seen come to successful completion is, “Do what’s best for the project.”

Doing what’s best for the project means taking a hard look at the technical data to see the story it tells. It means letting go of personal inklings or biases to really pay attention to the direction the data points toward. Once the team identifies the trade-offs between various options, it is time to present the options and get feedback on what trade-offs are most acceptable to the community.

An awareness of agendas at all levels (political to grassroots) is needed to effectively communicate with stakeholders and address a range of issues. However, because agendas will never square up and spending government funds on one group’s solution over another solution because of power and influence is unfair, the project team must examine the data in a clear and transparent way. The project purpose, methodology and results should form the basis of decisions.

This does not mean working in a vacuum or being free from political influence … there is a time and place to understand and analyze political will. But the data (and how the data was derived) must stand up to public scrutiny. For as dry as technical work can be to describe, there must be a logical and compelling story within the technical analysis.  And when the project team reaches an impasse where we don’t know what values and impacts to choose over others, it’s time to seek stakeholder input grounded in the presentation of well-researched facts.