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 #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.

Beyond civility: From public engagement to problem solving

4 02 2011

The National League of Cities (NLC) recently released a 10-page “Civility Guide” as an “action guide for city leaders.” Thanks to the blog at civsourceonline.com for highlighting this new publication. It provides practical and thoughtful tips along with quotes from representative local government leaders and examples of the seven principles they put forward.

NLC Executive Director Donald J. Borut wrote, The  following action guide draws on NLC’s continuing work on this topic to present cities and city leaders with ideas and a framework for action to promote democratic governance. As NLC defines it, democratic governance is “the art of governing a community in participatory, deliberative, inclusive and collaborative ways.” This isn’t easy work, but it is essential to the effective functioning of our cities and our society.

The publication is succinct and easy to follow. For P2 practitioners, there is nothing stunningly new in its content, but it is refreshing to hear proponents for meaningful public participation coming from within local government.

One of the most striking statements in the document was acknowledgement that city officials, staff and citizens need training and/or some kind of better understanding of effective public engagement. In a 2010 NLC survey, about half of all city officials and top staff surveyed said that neither they nor their constituents have the skills and experience needed to carry out effective public engagement. To me, this is a call to action for P2 folks to rise to the challenge of equipping our clients and communities! I am convinced that once someone has experienced “effective public engagement” – meaning, that citizens feel heard or decision-makers feel they have a better outcome because of public input – people become believers in and advocates for meaningful public processes.

I encourage you to check out this guide and share your thoughts on what is most compelling to you.