Making public participation work for your project

Kristina Ray
Vice President
Katz & Associates, Inc.
San Diego, California
Presenter, 2005 APWA Congress

Effective public participation programs can help smooth the way for controversial projects, gain support for fee increases and even help break logjams created by opposing interests. Poorly executed public participation programs, on the other hand, create a climate of mistrust and cynicism marked by project opposition and lengthy legal delays.

A study of 800 homeowners tested two basic premises of effective public participation: getting the public involved early in the process and sharing decision-making power with the public. In terms of participant satisfaction with both the public participation process and the ultimate decision coming out of that process, early involvement was not important. What was important was people feeling like their input made a difference, even if they only got involved at the very end of the process.

This study confirms something public participation practitioners have been advocating for years: Don't jump into a public participation process without carefully considering whether and how public input will be used. Following are some key questions project managers should consider before launching a public participation program:

What "decision" will the public help make? Before asking for input, project managers need to isolate what exactly the public will be helping to decide. For example, a new road construction project consists of literally thousands of decisions, from the alignment location, funding sources, size, construction methods and hours, and landscaping. Some decisions are more appropriate for public involvement than others. Tell the public what specific decisions are up for discussion. Be sure that the project team and those who oversee the project team, including potentially policy makers, are comfortable with the decisions identified. Nothing is worse than going through a lengthy public involvement process at the staff level, only to have decisions overturned by those higher up in the agency.

What level of decision-making power are you willing to share? According to the study, an agency's willingness to share decision-making power is critical to an effective program. But, sharing this power is not an all-or-nothing proposition. The public can be invited to act as consultants, providing input only. Or, the public can be invited to serve in a more formal advisory capacity. The greater the role, the greater the promise is to the public that the input will be used. Set expectations from the start about what role the public's input will have. Then, call it what it is. Don't tell the public you're having a "public involvement" meeting if the real purpose of the meeting is to merely provide information to the public.

What tools are most effective? The nature of the decision to be made, and the public's role in helping to make that decision, will dictate what public participation tools are most appropriate. Often, project managers start with a tool in mind, such as a public meeting, without considering whether it is appropriate for the given situation. If the public's decision-making role is limited, a public meeting might not be appropriate. People who speak at public meetings expect their comments to be addressed directly. Alternatives to public meetings are self-mailing comment cards, advisory committees, workshops, and one-on-one stakeholder meetings.

Who is the "public"? The "public" in public participation should be defined as all people who are likely to be affected by or interested in the decision to be made. Many project managers express frustration that "real" people don't tend to participate. Instead, public meetings and advisory groups are populated with special interest group representatives and community activists. One way to get more people to participate is to clearly explain to the public how they are affected by a decision (don't assume they know). Notices for public meetings should be written in lay language, not "legalese." Some public participation experts recommend using provocative language or headlines to get the public's attention. People will only take time out of their busy schedules to get involved if they see a direct and immediate impact to their lives.

Is there enough time? Effective public involvement, like effective engineering or project construction, requires adequate time. Most project managers wouldn't expect a pipeline to be designed in one month. Yet, these same project managers don't understand why a public participation process can take months, a year or longer to complete. The length of time required for effective public participation depends on the decision or decisions to be made and the level of involvement the public will have in making the decision. Ideally, public participation should coincide with the technical process, so the project team can incorporate input as a project takes shape.

Even though public participation is common in today's public works projects, the practice is still comparatively young. As common definitions and standards of practice emerge, the quality of public participation programs will continue to improve. By considering these questions before launching a public participation program, project managers will find they receive better input, experience fewer project delays and enjoy better relationships with their communities.

Kristina Ray will give a presentation on this topic at the 2005 APWA Congress in Minneapolis. Her session, entitled "Beyond Special Interests: How to Get Real People Involved in Your Public Participation Program," takes place on Tuesday, September 13, at 2:30 p.m. She can be reached at (858) 452-0031 or