P2 tip #9: Be human

26 07 2011

In a seemingly cold, stark world of government regulations and red tape, public participation provides the human side of the work government agencies are set out to do. We are the literal and figurative eyes, ears and face of the project and in order to do it well, it is important to be yourself.

It is easy to get caught up in the technical jargon, legal precautions or become shielded by rigid rules and procedures. But effective public participation even for large, complex projects must start with sincere person-to-person communication. It is best summed up in the simple mantra, “be human.”

To “be human” means acknowledging people’s emotions, questions and concerns. They are valid and legitimate. To “be human” means speaking in your own voice. Find ways of explaining information and processes that fit your vocabulary and personal style. To “be human” means engaging in good, old-fashioned conversation. The kind where there is a sincere attempt to listen and understand; to enter into an exchange of ideas; and speak respectfully even when differences in opinion exist.

People long for community connections and honest communication. In a fast-paced world of real-time communication, hyper-commercialized and constant entertainment, the opportunity to be listened to and appreciated as a fellow human being is a gift.


P2 tip #8: Enjoy surprises and celebrate accomplishments

21 07 2011

Public outreach for complex and controversial projects is hard work. Every day brings something new. And then there are the same challenges that bubble up time and time again: the same question asked for the twentieth time this week, the same complaint heard six months ago, the same stakeholder who calls on a regular basis to bend your ear on some topic marginally relevant to the project.

But, public participation work brings plenty of surprises and delights! Feedback that a map was particularly helpful, evidence that the person you are talking to has thoroughly read the project website, and meaningful comments that have potential to transform the project … these are moments to be acknowledged and celebrated! In the midst of all the day-to-day hard work, recognize these glimpses of success and share your good news.

Big projects are accomplished with baby steps. Don’t wait to celebrate until final approvals are in place, look for the milestones along the way that help the project advance toward a sustainable solution. It will help keep the team motivated by creating a feeling of accomplishment when complex projects have long, hard, arduous processes. And that unexpected comment, early approval, or even a meeting that went better than expected? Cherish the moment and regain perspective to carry you through the next storm!

P2 tip #7: The project has a life of its own

13 07 2011

No matter how much you plan, there will always be project factors outside of your control. A complex, controversial project has so many stakeholders and inputs that you cannot possibly account for all of them. Instead, pick the most relevant, challenging, or influential stakeholders/issues/factors to pay attention to and monitor them the best you can.

The truth is, no one individual or project team can fully control any given project because a project takes on a life of its own. And it should. If the project truly meets a community need it will gain its own traction and support. It will develop its own champions and lobbyists to find funding, move it up the priority list or work connections that help a study move from concept to reality. You never know what the next caller, commentor or editorial is going to say, and that is part of the challenge and thrill of public involvement work.

The thing to remember is that no single person is responsible for the project living or dying. A complex project grows a life of its own that could be slowed or even stopped by a few loud nay-sayers, but it can also be carried forward through such difficulties by the voice of supporters. Perhaps our P2 role is to facilitate space for both voices to be heard in a structured and productive debate. We can’t control people’s opinions and reactions, but we can shape the tone of the discussion and foster civil dialogue instead of listening to a shouting match.

And when you can no longer see the forest through the trees, step back. Put things in perspective. P2 folks are often down in the weeds of day-to-day controversy and it can wear you down. Look at the bigger picture from time to time and appreciate the work being done and your overall purpose. Take a moment to view the project as its own living, breathing thing that can be sustained no matter what you say or do.

P2 tip #6: Argue internally

6 07 2011

The place to have tough conversations is within the project team. On one of my projects, it was likened to the family dinner table: we argue, debate and play devil’s advocate with each other at home, which makes us more articulate, thoughtful and concise out in the world. By arguing internally, we examine all aspects of an issue and make sure we aren’t missing information. We also confirm whether we have good justification for the direction we are headed.

When I say “argue,” I mean challenging each other, asking the hard questions and looking at things from all points of view. I get nervous if everyone is like-minded and a project is on cruise-control to a single solution. It conjures up images of political yes-men who want to please the powerful at the expense of others’ interests and concerns. Instead, I look for healthy, spirited debate within the team to help the project team arrive at better solutions and better decisions.

This also goes to the fact that in a complex project you cannot fear controversy. Embrace controversy to learn more, tackle the hard issues and arrive at better outcomes. It will likely be painful mentally and emotionally during the process, but if you have a clear, transparent process and believe you have obtained good data using reliable methodology, a project team can fairly examine various impacts, trade-offs and consequences to arrive at a solution. You won’t please all the people all the time, but I truly believe that fierce internal debate will result in better decisions.