Public Engagement: Understanding the “Human Domain”

So, “Jade Helm 15.” You may have heard of it. A special forces military training exercise that will be staged, among other places, near us in Bastrop County. Whence, according to some, martial law will be declared upon Texas and they’ll shut down the Walmarts. Or something like that.

Hundreds of people in Bastrop, which is designated as “enemy territory” in the Jade Helm map, unexpectedly thronged a recent public meeting to voice their objections and fears — with one (1) Army officer on the receiving end as the Jade Helm spokesperson. (Note: When engaging with your public, plan to receive more people than you’ve ever had at a meeting before.)

In a recent story in the Austin paper, one of the neighbors made an important observation: Nearly four years ago, this same part of Bastrop County was destroyed by one of the largest wildfires in Texas history. It hasn’t been the same since. Said one resident, “People aren’t crazy out here. People have just been through a lot.” That disruption, along with the ongoing drought and growing pains of the Austin area, was enough to sustain the atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

A key objective of Jade Helm itself is to help the participants understand “the human domain” of future conflicts — which is also a good maxim for public engagement. Now, sure, you know that your neighbors, stakeholders, and the people you serve are people, with lives and lots of other demands on their time and attention. And good public engagement is designed to respond to those practical considerations — multiple channels of input including online, diverse activities at meetings including child care, things like that.

But it’s important to remember that people also lead busy emotional lives, and your project is competing for space among their moods and feelings. If it rubs them the wrong way, they will withhold their approval, as Bastrop did with Jade Helm, or as folks a little farther east are doing to the Texas Central high-speed rail project planned to connect Houston and Dallas.

Even if your project seems very cut-and-dry, the emotional climate in which you bring it to the public can lead to your progress being very rocky indeed. As you prepare for engagement, develop messages and understand your audiences and stakeholders, make sure you’re taking time to survey the “human domain” where you want to build.

Originally published at on May 12, 2015.

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