Getting better comments

12 08 2010

So last week I indulged in the advice I would give people about writing comments. This week, I take a more realistic tact and expand on the notion that we as P2 practitioners can help facilitate getting better, more meaningful input.

Yes, the work we do in public participation ought to bring about quality input. Carefully thought-out public outreach will help achieve more carefully thought-out questions, comments and feedback from stakeholders. Here’s how:

1. Provide good information. The more stakeholders know about process and facts presented in an understandable and accessible way, the more relevant and informed comments will be.

2. Ask good questions. Comment forms often consist of a blank sheet of paper with space for name and contact information. Instead of always using this open-ended format, consider developing a set of questions that helps stakeholders think through relevant issues and share their views. Think of a questionnaire format as a miniature interview; be strategic about the order questions are asked and careful with the wording. Focus on key issues or specific types of information you need. You can still leave space for open-ended comments as part of the questionnaire.

3. Identify target audiences. In order to increase the number of thoughtful responses, think about who is impacted by or interested in the issue; seek to engage specific groups of stakeholders instead of waiting for them to find you. A stakeholder analysis should be part of your public participation plan and should identify stakeholder groups based on interests or demographics. Find ways to engage groups who already have some knowledge, interest or opinion of the matter at hand.

4. Build credibility by keeping commitments, displaying fairness and demonstrating how comments are used. An agency or project owner with a reputation for fairness over time will gain more meaningful iput. One step toward fairness is to proactively engage opposition groups as well as supporters. Demonstrate that you are looking for input from all points of view. Finally, if stakeholders see that their input was taken seriously and influenced a decision, they will be more apt to participate again.  All these things add up to building credibility and maintaining a degree of public confidence that can help facilitate a more meaningful exchange.

5. Leverage communication tools for transparency. Instead of asking for feedback at the eleventh hour, right before a decision is made, engage in a conversation with stakeholders early in the process. Not only is this good research and fact-finding, it allows stakeholders to grasp the public process, understand key factors and constraints and weigh in on issues when there is still time to influence a decision. 

What would you add to the list for getting better comments in public processes?


Tips for writing comments

5 08 2010

As one who works in public participation and reads comments regularly, there are days I wish I could offer training on how to write comments. Comments frequently come from people who have an issue and people in support remain silent. Moreover, in the era of email and social media, people are often quick to send off rants and complaints without putting a lot of thought into it.

Comment-writing is not a form typically covered in composition class and I wonder if a few example comments would actually help people understand how comments could be more effective. I also take responsibility as a P2 professional to try to facilitate meaningful comments by providing good information and formulating good questions.

Here in the blogosphere, however, I can share my “tips for writing comments” with my imaginary stakeholders. Maybe you have some tips, too, or suggestions for spurring on more meaningful input. There will always be rants (they are not going away), but they don’t do a project or decision-making process any good without more substantial information.

Here’s my list of tips:

  1. You are always entitled to your opinion
  2. Your opinion will be taken more seriously if some justification or back-up support is included
  3. Besides an opinion, a comment is an opportunity to share what you know
  4. Consider offering proposed solutions instead of only submitting complaints
  5. Include your name and contact information so decision-makers can follow-up on your suggestions or probe for more information when you have a complaint

What’s your objective?

29 07 2010

I simply can’t stress enough how important it is to define purpose and objectives before you set off to do some kind of outreach. If you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish, how can you measure effectiveness? If you don’t know what you a trying to communicate to whom, how can you choose the right tools to deliver the message?

The biggest PI mistake I see made is choosing tools and trying to make the tool fit the situation rather than establishing an objective and then selecting tools that help meet the objective. (Thus the lengthy discussions about meeting format in the previous two posts…)

Most people readily admit that PI is not one-size-fits-all; yet we fall into the trap of “we need a meeting,” “we need a newsletter” or “let’s send a press release.” My response to these kinds of statements is, “Why?”

Until you can answer why, I am not a proponent of doing anything! In a time of tight funding and taxpayer scrutiny, it is important to choose and use outreach tools wisely. The tools you choose must be well-thought out and effective for your purpose. Combine limited funding with the changing media environment and information age, the same-old, same-old just won’t work.

So start with defining your objectives. Who are you trying to reach with what message for what purpose? If your objectives are clear, selecting the most effective outreach tools will follow.

Welcome San Joaquin NTI Class!

4 05 2010

What does it take to get you to participate?

Are you lurking in the background, trying to decide whether or not to take part in this blog? Have you read the posts so far, but have not added your voice to the conversation with a comment? Think for a moment about what is holding you back. Is it any different from what may hold back your intended audiences from participating in a process you facilitate … can you learn something from what you are feeling? (Blogs provide opportunity for comments, which is what many P2 processes do as well.)

What prevents people from participating? Here are a few thoughts based on this blogging experiment:

  • Lack of trust – “I don’t know who you are or what you plan to do with the information”
  • Feeling like just another face in the crowd – “This is interesting and all, but I don’t feel like I have anything to add”
  • Not knowing the technology or “how to” participate – “Do I have to log on?”
  • Fear of dissension – “What if I’m wrong, mis-informed, or get attacked for my views?” (ties to our comfort-level and desire to be with like-minded people)
  • No time – “I’d like to contribute thoughtful comments, but my daily must-do list is just too long to give this time”

Now that I’ve covered the negative, what do you have to say that is positive? What steps can P2 folks take to motivate people to participate?

Transparency and Open Government

27 04 2010

Another trend in public participation to watch is initiatives to improve transparency in government. Administrations at all levels of government (federal and local) have indicated a commitment to open processes and access to information. This is necessary to combat the extremely low levels of public trust in government as well as the increased accessibility to information via new media.

Leadership that endorses transparency establishes a tone that public involvement has a significant role to play in today’s government. However, public skepticism abounds when it appears that decisions are made behind closed doors with political influences and interests taking precedent over the ways in which a decision might impact people or improve their lives.

Policies on paper won’t necessarily be fully implemented overnight, but I suggest the following commitments as a starting point:

  • Be transparent about the decision-making process, including who, when and how a decision will be made
  • Be transparent about what points in the decision-making process public input can influence the outcome
  • Be transparent by providing access to information about various points of view and implications of the decision-making options
  • Be transparent by providing information relevant to citizens using plain English and explaining the potential impacts of a decision on various stakeholder groups

There is still much to do in terms of building trust and credibility among elected officials and government agencies. Transparency is key to winning back the public’s confidence. What commitments or practical steps would you expect from administrations promising transparency in government?