Public involvement has become a staple of review processes for major public projects. However, public expectations for genuine engagement have outstripped the techniques most commonly used to collect public input.
Typically, project sponsors schedule meetings in a public library or school auditorium to present their idea and solicit opinions. Just as typically, about a dozen or so people show up. The exception is when the project is highly controversial. That can draw hundreds of people, some to listen and others to protest loudly. Neither scenario equates to engagement.
Engaging affected publics means affording them an opportunity to participate at the ground floor of a project. This could involve a poll to measure support for relative project sizes, locations or costs. It also could involve in-person or online focus groups to understand how respective publics view different project options.
Even these one-off techniques may not fully satisfy the public urge to engage. As with consumers of products, constituents increasingly want to have a role in decision-making. With more access to information than ever before, consumers and constituents feel empowered. Smart public project managers tap into — not resist — that empowerment.
Too often, public project managers give people the facts, but not any simulated levers to see how those facts could play out in different ways. Little wonder that many skeptical citizens don't waste their time going to public meetings, which they feel are already rigged to reach a preordained conclusion.
That's unfortunate, because many public officials are sincerely interested in public viewpoints. But they have been trained to develop solutions to public problems and they see public involvement as a way to share and validate their solutions. It can be enormously frustrating to them to discover the citizens they serve are upset, in part because they had no real role in coming up with the solution.
The challenge today is to find authentic, ongoing ways to maintain contact with constituents, tapping into their thinking and their ideas, both good and bad. Online panels drawn from large databases, which could range from property-tax-paying patrons in a school district to registered voters in a county, offer one promising approach. Seeking the views and insights of citizens, even before there is a formal project to discuss, can be productive.
Perhaps the best form of public engagement is direct contact. If a project will have a particular impact on a neighborhood, it makes sense to talk with neighbors one by one or in small groups, preferably in their living rooms or a community space. Instead of telling them what you plan to do, explain what the problem is and the solution you are exploring, then ask for their ideas — and treat those ideas with respect, addressing as many as possible.
Retail outreach takes longer, but it may save time — and money — in the long run. Those most affected will have context for the project, even if they still are concerned or opposed to it. Showing them respect and embracing their good ideas can buy a lot of goodwill — and save a lot of money trying to tamp down their protests.
Some public officials fret about tipping off opponents too soon. That's a baseless fear. It is far worse to feed public suspicion that public officials are hiding facts or controversial projects from the public eye.
An emerging reality is that some groups jump into the fray over public projects to raise their own public profile. They concentrate on community outreach and organization, sometimes with little or no interest in finding solutions or compromises. Delaying engagement gives these groups more time to organize and polarize an issue.
Running a city, a road department or a sewer agency isn't easy because the job involves making decisions that can affect utility rates, traffic patterns and property values. But because their constituencies are relatively fixed and known, they have the opportunity to establish community rapport through ongoing engagement. The decisions won't necessarily get easier, but you are more likely to have community partners in your corner when you make them.