Looking for on-line dialogue

27 01 2011

In  talking with P2 colleagues recently, social media and the potential for public engagement using Internet-based tools is still resoundingly the trend to watch. The push for transparency in government is yielding some interesting on-line tools. Check out these examples regarding state budgets from Texas and commentary on a similar site for Oregon. Commitment to transparency and trying to make complex information understandable gets thumbs up from me!

However, I am still looking for examples of people engaging in discussion of ideas, options, pros and cons related to the information they find. Although the Internet makes information accessible, if decision-makers are only posting information for public use the conversation remains one-sided. We still need the two-way conversation and interactive part of interactive media…

I like this blog post that discusses the need for government to use the Web to listen, not just post information. P2 implies two-way exchange; dare I say, a dialogue! That means engaging with each other’s ideas and creating a space for multiple points of view. What examples have you seen of robust on-line dialogue that is meaningful and productive? I have faith it can happen, but I want to see it with my own eyes!


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?

My story of two recent meetings

22 07 2010

I have planned and facilitated two neighborhood meetings with emotionally-sensitive topics in the past month. The first was a meeting with property owners entering the property acquisition process. The second was a meeting with adjacent property owners who are not being acquired now, but may be in the future. We intentionally set up two separate meetings because each group has different needs and issues; to try and tackle both at once was not going to be productive for either.

In coordination with the project team, I spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of various formats. We spoke at length about what would make the best use of everyone’s time and how to make the meeting valuable to the people who attended. We focused on format and process before finalizing messaging and materials; proof that the media is the message; or in this case, the format is central to how we convey the message and how it is received.

We decided to use a table discussion format that allowed sharing information face-to-face with a small group and letting attendees’ questions drive the discussion.  This helped diffuse some of the emotion and allowed the group at the table to hear the answers to each other’s questions (especially since many people had the same questions). We provided handouts and maps at each table to support the discussion, but the strategy really depended on the table facilitators to answer questions openly, honestly and to the best of their knowledge.

Our team has developed a few mantras that have proven useful in planning for emotional contexts. One is “when you have bad news, see the whites of their eyes.” This reminds us of the need to treat each person individually and deliver information on a personal basis. The large group setting is risky because the audience can become just a sea of faces and project representatives can be viewed as Big Brother. The room set-up of presenter and audience implicitly creates an “us-them” tension. By talking around a table, we were setting up a space for conversation between people. We all act more humanely and treat each other with more respect at the conversation level.

The second guiding principle that led us to the table discussion format is transparency. In my experience, and in these situations the past month, people expressed appreciation that the project team was willing to meet with them, answer tough questions and hear their concerns. We did not prepare an elaborate presentation. We did not do a dog and pony show. We were not going to sugar-coat the difficult situation these property owners faced. People see right through that. Instead, we focused on being genuine, listening to people’s concerns and giving them the best information we had in order to equip them for the decisions to be made in coming months.

Finally, we prepared meeting staff for emotion. At a preparation meeting, we openly discussed how these property owners might feel and tried to see the project and meeting from their point of view. We discussed the need to listen and allow attendees’ time to vent. We also discussed the limits of what was acceptable and how we would support each other if a situation got out of control.

The two meetings went very well with very little eruption of emotion. People were civil, asked their tough questions and expressed their frustrations. Most attendees appeared to leave satisfied that they were heard and had more information than when they arrived. Our team agreed that keeping the conversation at the table-level was the right choice for the situation and both meetings were heralded a success!

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?