Trends in public involvement: Focusing on the public in public works

Bill Cunningham, P.E.
Vice President
The Larkin Group, Inc.

Rick Worrel, P.E.
Vice President
The Larkin Group, Inc.

Editor’s Note: At APWA’s International Public Works Congress & Exposition last September, Bill Cunningham and Rick Worrel teamed up with nationally recognized public works directors Bob Lowry, P.E., of Overland Park, Kansas, and Bob Pryzby, P.E., of Prairie Village, Kansas, to present a panel discussion called “Getting the Public’s ‘Yes’ for Infrastructure Projects.” This article builds on that session.

APWA recently named Lowry one of its Top 10 Public Works Leaders; Pryzby has held this honor in the past.

In the ‘90s, the public learned its voice can-and often does-make a difference to community projects. While that change in perspective is simple enough, the implications are much more far-reaching. In fact, the evolution of public involvement has changed the way we go about the business of engineering and managing communications related to public infrastructure projects.

We live in information-rich times, and the public works arena is no exception. People want to know what’s going on in their backyards, front yards, and neighborhoods. They also want to be involved in a way that will impact outcomes. Public agencies that have adopted well-integrated public involvement programs say some of the credit for successful public works projects belongs to the enhanced communications that first educates the public, then builds acceptance and, ultimately, support.

“Our public involvement efforts help everyone agree on the breadth and depth of expectations for a particular design or construction, and it helps us minimize surprises for everyone,” says Bob Pryzby, P.E., Director of Public Works, City of Prairie Village, KS. “In the old days, we showed up to do the work, and nobody in the neighborhood knew what was happening.”

Now, he says, the public is directly invited to help develop designs from the earliest stages, and they are informed about construction plans. They also learn about the financial side of the picture. In Prairie Village, the annual construction budget regularly tops $4.5 million for a community with a population of 23,000.

Facilitating open communication is a much more comprehensive, more formal venture now because citizens are more aware of what information they want and what information is available via today’s diverse information channels. They’re also more impatient. Consequently, responsive agencies, including municipalities of all sizes, and progressive consulting engineers have developed programs to foster a communication stream with the public at various steps throughout a project, from initially identifying a project throughout its construction.

“There’s more communication about our intentions, and the public is more involved throughout design and during construction,” says Pryzby.

Bob Lowry, P.E., Director of Public Works, City of Overland Park, Kansas, shares his colleague’s assessment. “If anything, the city council and the public want us to do more,” he says. “We’re not paying lip service to public involvement. Overland Park has been doing it in one form or another for a good ten years.”

According to Lowry, the City’s staff, its elected officials, and the citizens themselves all want active public involvement programs. Council members, he says, are interested in satisfying their constituents.

The impact on the engineering process

“The more you sweat during the planning phase, the easier things are once you start moving dirt,” says Lowry, who oversees an annual construction budget of about $40 million. “Better plans result in fewer change orders, and the projects are less expensive in the end.”

“Sure, public involvement programs have changed the way we do things-for the better,” says Pryzby.

The goals of a thoughtful public involvement program complement the various stages in the engineering process:

  • Awareness - Recognition of an opportunity or problem.
  • Understanding - Educate key stakeholders about the problem.
  • Agreement among stakeholders - Demonstrate the need for the improvement.
  • Acceptance - Present alternative solutions and recommendations.
  • Support - Building advocacy for the optimal solution.

“The whole purpose of increased involvement is to educate people, to gain support, and I’ve always believed you can draw more flies with honey than vinegar,” says Lowry. “With a public involvement process, you can uncover things that even the engineers don’t find. It’s possible-in fact, very likely-that the folks whose front yards are going to be torn up have some important information and valuable ideas.” In Prairie Village, for example, residents clued the public works staff into the existence of a private owner landfill in a residential neighborhood, and advised them of an underground spring.

In addition to their contributions to the engineering process, public involvement programs generate goodwill and even foster cooperation with neighboring communities. “I think we end up with better quality projects built in a more timely manner,” says Lowry.

And, yes, Pryzby notes, public input also has killed more than one potential project.

Not surprisingly, city staff members may resist public involvement efforts. “‘What’s wrong with the way we’ve done things?’ I heard that early on,” recalls Lowry, acknowledging that there may be internal barriers to implementing an effective program. Talking with his staff about why it’s important to listen to the public helped overcome initial resistance. Ultimately, public involvement sells itself, he says. “You just have to persevere in your commitment, and help them understand the value,” he says. “In the long run, it does make a difference. And I’ve never had a public involvement effort backfire on me.”

Pryzby emphasizes Prairie Village’s commitment to annual improvements in their public involvement process. This year, he’s borrowing an idea from neighboring Overland Park: post-construction communication. “There are important lessons we can learn once a project is complete, lessons that may help the next project,” he says.

What about the old adage that “no news is good news.” Pryzby doesn’t buy it. “For me, ‘no news’ means be prepared for the unexpected,” he says. “Some projects you get a good response, some you don’t. Frankly, I’m more comfortable if we get some inkling of what’s on the citizens’ minds.”

Tailor the communication to the project

“What we invest in communication and public involvement is time and money well spent,” says Lowry. “Frankly, it’s a drop in the bucket and pays huge dividends, like helping set expectations for the next project.”

The public involvement program should be flexible, tailored to the particular needs of a project, and targeted for the specific audience. In general, the cost of such programs ranges from about one percent to five percent of a project’s construction cost.

Typical public involvement strategies and techniques include:

  • Open house public meetings.
  • Citizens advisory councils.
  • Briefings with special interest groups.
  • Direct mail, including newsletters and meeting notices.
  • Toll free telephone hotlines.
  • Project web pages.
  • Press releases.
  • Newspaper ads.

A public involvement communication effort is not a “one size fits all” type of program. “We might hold four public meetings on a major project, and do a simple letter and door notices on another,” Lowry notes. “We might work with our consultants to write a newsletter specific to a residential street project or stormwater project.”

Project scope, time frame, and identification of key stakeholders drive the communication plan. A corridor location study, for example, would typically be much more far-reaching than a four-block residential street improvement project. It affects more people and the time period of the project is likely to be much longer. Therefore, it might justify a more extensive public involvement program, with a newsletter, a web site, multiple public meetings, a telephone hotline, and more. The local street improvement project might be handled with letters to residents in the area announcing a backyard information gathering, door hangars the week before construction is to begin, and a post-construction survey.

While they haven’t yet put up a web site, Lowry acknowledges that their communications mix eventually will include such a tool.

Often, highly sensitive projects warrant special attention. For example, bioengineering channel projects or storm drainage projects in backyards and side yards have the potential to impact wildlife negatively or infringe on property boundaries. Wise public works officials and consultants tune in to the public’s sensibilities and collaborate in a proactive manner.

One of the most powerful tools Prairie Village uses in the construction phase of all its projects is a “Citizen Bill of Rights.” “We issue this at a public meeting to which all stakeholders are invited,” says Pryzby. This document states the city’s and the consultant’s philosophy:

  • You have the same rights and privileges as your neighbors.
  • You have the right to have the work performed in a timely, professional manner.
  • You have the right to have your concerns addressed promptly.
  • You have the right to live your life in a reasonably normal fashion during construction.
  • You have the right to have notice prior to work commencing on your street and property.

In addition to the more systematic input that comes from surveys, Pryzby values the input that can be acquired only from personal interaction, and he routinely spends time on Saturdays or evenings. “I walk the site, go out in the field,” he says. Such interaction is especially important during construction.

Ideally, public works departments mesh their public involvement programs routinely with other operations, rather than implementing short-term tactics or one-time events. In addition, flexibility to accommodate ever-changing expectations, situations, and technology also will help them nurture productive relationships with the public.

If the shared objective is the community’s long-term quality of life, and if all sides recognize the value in true dialogue, public works officials are positioned to foster partnerships that involve listening as well as telling (and never ignoring). The long-term rewards are worth the effort.

For more information, contact Bill Cunningham at 816-823-7256 or bcunningham@larkin-grp.com, or Rick Worrel at 816-823-7271 or RWorrel@larkin-grp.com.