Harness the Public Engagement River

Don’t Let Valuable Citizen and Agency Input Slip Downstream

What does a good public engagement campaign have in common with a well-constructed dam?

Both are tremendous undertakings, for sure. They’re both designed to absorb and process a wide range of energy levels, temperatures and pressure. And, ultimately, both aim to generate positive electricity in the community for the long-term purpose of enhancing the public good.

Have comments from that 2013 pre-scoping meeting become digital goo?

Unlike a dam, though, the typical public outreach effort for a large infrastructure project tends to spill a tremendous of the input that streams in over the course of the process. Sure, the main channel of letters, emails and comments solicited through a dedicated public outreach effort will be harnessed and eventually find their way into the final document or Environmental Impact Statement. But underneath this top layer of data are the deeper currents and riptides that help make up the true picture of public sentiment facing a project — and which are too often allowed to slip away downstream without ever lending their proper weight to the process. I’m talking about the results of that pre-scoping meeting two years ago, which have now formed into a stagnant, unused eddy on an ex-employee’s hard drive. And the board comments from the last eight quarterly meetings, which have long since run off in into the nearest file cabinet. And what about the constant stream of Facebook posts, Instagram comments and Twitter hashtags that slosh past every day, unimpeded by any mechanism to adequately capture or distill them?

To create a rock-solid foundation for any project, all of this data can be easily funneled into the planning process through a modern comment management platform. Results from these separate pieces of an overall outreach campaign can be saved into the system, then opened and displayed as easily as Word files on your desktop. Public opinion can be compared between forums, over time, or even poured together with all the other campaign inlets to truly crank the turbines on your project outreach capabilities. Never again will your community involvement staff stand before the board or the public without the full breadth of their public outreach data at their fingertips. And never again will your approving agency send you back to do more research because of an incomplete picture of the project’s perceived impact.

Don’t bury your public input data when your outreach campaign ends.

But what about when the outreach campaign ends? Why just shovel dirt over all this invaluable data, or send it off to wither away on the servers of your hired consultants? After all, we’re in the information age. Data permanence isn’t just a feature; it’s the lifeblood of every agency, corporation, and startup. Heck, even my fantasy football software provider knows I’m never going to leave them for the simple fact that they store my past season stats — even the ones I wish they wouldn’t. Point is, your public engagement data has a role to play and a story to tell long after the project is completed — whether helping you plan your next project, ensuring your company’s next generation doesn’t have to re-learn past lessons, or as backup in case of future legal or PR challenges.

Certainly, collecting valuable information from the public via a thorough outreach approach that ensures transparency and accessibility is critically important. But just as crucial is curating it with modern tools so that it remains accessible, simply organized, and easily understood — from initial scoping through outputting the final document, and beyond.

Agency leader enjoying the 30,000-foot view of his project input.

No longer forced to dig for supporting data in a disjointed graveyard of PDFs and Excel spreadsheets, your environmental consultants will be able to focus on the high-minded matters you’re paying them to consider. And agency leaders can now easily see the big picture instead of trying to squint at it through a constellation of random pinholes.

The input data most valuable to your agency doesn’t reside in a series of small, unconnected ponds, where results can be studied, reported and filed away as projects come and go. Thanks to social media and the internet, modern data is a river. And properly channeling it for your purposes demands a process as constant, unrelenting and permanent as the river itself.

SmartComment makes software that helps public agencies and organizations manage public comment periods. Visit them at smartcommentsoftware.com