“I hate roundabouts”

“I was never notified about this project”

“You want to do what on my street?”

New infrastructure projects always invite strong reactions — I’ve had community members and stakeholders scream, I’ve had them sob, I’ve had them argue. It doesn’t faze me. No, the thing that really makes me nervous is silence.

When I don’t hear anything…that’s what gives me butterflies in my stomach.

Because it shows that we, as communicators involved in such mega-engineering projects, aren’t doing our jobs. We know how essential infrastructure is to a thriving economy — and public involvement is central to the process. We need public input to drive projects forward. And to get that input, we have to meet our community where they are, ready to listen.  We have to communicate with them in a way that makes them want to get off the couch and get involved in the things that directly affect them.

We need those strong reactions.

Why we need to increase public engagement.

Over the years I have participated in and lead public engagement processes that have been no more than a checklist approach. You know the kind. A public open house is arranged, the legal notice is put in the paper and…no one shows up.

It doesn’t matter. We did our job and we held an open house — put a check in the box.

The open house for one particular project stands out in my memory. Someone actually did show up, and they weren’t happy with the design alternatives.  The engineer told them, “If you don’t like it go ahead and come to the City Council meeting and tell the elected officials.”

I couldn’t believe it! An open house isn’t a box checking exercise, and the public deserve more than lip service. And do you know what? We need public input. Unhappy with the engineer’s attitude, I set up an individual meeting with this particular stakeholder. We listened to their concerns, we learned something new, and yes, we changed the design…before a very public City Council hearing.

Creating connections.

At its core, public participation is about involving the public in problem solving and decision-making — it’s about making the most of their perspective and their experience of living and working in a community to drive projects forward in a way that works for everyone. And the only way we can do that is if they show up in the first place.

Stakeholder engagement comes from creating connections, from listening and responding.  The challenge with creating connections is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. There’s no checklist of tasks that’ll work for everyone. In fact, most skilled public involvement communicators are chameleons who can cater to people with different perspectives, different experiences, and different opinions. They have an extensive toolbox they can draw on to juggle the needs of the different people in any given community.

Let me show you what I mean…

How to meet people where they are.

Meet Alex. He and his wife, Maria, have owned a small, neighborhood grocery store for the last forty-five years. In this time, Alex has seen his business grow as the community has swelled.  He has also seen his business recede under a struggling economy.

Alex is a community man; his business has sponsored little league games, movies in the park, and other neighborhood events. Alex is a proud man.  He is a farmer at heart, most comfortable with dirt on his clothes.  He has created jobs and seen families flourish as a result of his business.  But Alex is also a shy, traditional man.  He sees no need for the internet, or cell phones. He opens all his mail, everyday. He speaks Italian in his home, English is a second language.

When his City began to study the traffic and safety challenges along the busy highway that his grocery store fronts, he wasn’t concerned.  He doubted the changes would impact him.  Alex was repeatedly invited to share his feedback but again, didn’t see a need.  To create a connection, Alex needed someone who understood what his business meant to him.  He needed someone to actually go to him, to visit his store, and to ask him about what he had seen over the past 45 years on this roadway.  He needed someone to listen, to hear what he said, and to promise to respond. Perhaps even someone who could communicate with him in Italian, his native language.

Alex may not be the typical resident but he represents many members of the public.  A direct mail postcard, a project website, a social media campaign, and an open house probably won’t get Alex’s attention. A visit to Alex’s store, a tour of his business, a meeting with his employees almost certainly would.

Are you using all of the tools in your toolbox?

As a public involvement lead you’ll probably need to employ all of the tools in your toolbox to reach the multitude of stakeholders — and it’s your responsibility to understand which tool is meant for which stakeholder.

Because the City Council will want to hear from Alex and from others like him — they want to know that his perspective has been incorporated into the plan. And they don’t care how many postcards you send out or how many open houses you hosted; they just want to know that he was involved. So you can let Alex make his way to the City Council without hearing from him first, or you could take the time to figure out how to create that connection with him. You can learn how to involve him, to pivot him from an uninvolved member of the community to a fierce advocate who understands the importance of the project.

Public involvement is simply not a checklist and if it treated as such, there’s no point in wasting everyone’s time. The public can smell the disingenuous approach one makes when trying to complete a task rather than engage a neighbor.  Public involvement is about connecting. Take the time to meet the people that make up the community, and the city or county, you are serving. Meet men like Alex and I’ll bet you may learn something.

Whether we’re talking about communicating with the wider public about an infrastructure project, or focusing internally on developing teams within an organization, it’s always worth following the old Chinese proverb:

 “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.”

How are you at creating connections? If you need some extra support in that area, we’d love to help.