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.

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.