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.

A funny thing happened on the way to the public meeting…

1 04 2011

One thing I love about public participation is its sponteneity and encounters with the unexpected. I plan all scenarios imaginable for meeting facilitation, but the real fun comes with real people come through the door. We get to meet people in the course of their daily lives from all backgrounds and with all types of personalities.

I have also learned that in order to be effective in this work, you have to find humor in even the most tense and complex situations. Note that the humor needed to stay afloat is NOT at anyone’s expense and especially should not limit, label or otherwise degrade stakeholders. However, sometimes a simple mispelling (who hasn’t accidentially typed “pubic meeting” instead of “public”?) or delightful turn of phrase deserves attention to recognize the fun and humanity of citizen engagement.

Every project I’ve worked on has had some range of stories of shared experiences and memorable moments. For instance, there was the meeting where I “took the microphone away” from someone a little long-winded. Or the guy who was upset at staff taking photos to document the meeting. Or, in meeting with a group of property owners about potential impacts overhearing a mom and son discussing how it might impact their illegal crop.

Through the course of time, I feel like I have seen and heard it all! But how about you? What are some of the memorable stories and humorous moments from your P2 experiences?

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.