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?


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