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By Larry Schooler
It can be exceedingly difficult to convince a member of the public to take part in a public participation process. After all, how do they know that a comment they make in a workshop in a single breakout group will make any difference to the final result? The truth is that they don’t—unless public administrators demonstrate to them that it does.
That makes record-keeping during a public participation process all the more critical. The only way we can be anywhere near sure that a person’s comments matter is if we document them to the best of our abilities—knowing we probably can’t get every word, every nuance, or every inflection, but we can get pretty darn close.
But it’s more than just having the requisite number of notetakers, flipcharts, markers, notepads, or even iPads or laptops. And it’s more than having the skills to check with participants on how to re-word their comments in a concise way so that they can be quickly captured and taken down as notes. It can be just as important to check in with folks about how to record what they said as it is to be taking down what you hear them saying—you may not be fully understanding what they’re hoping decision-makers will hear, and it helps to be sure.
That effort to take the notes only matters, though, if the notes go somewhere. They should go to decision-makers, obviously, but they should also go where the participants can see them—AND what the decision-makers have done with them. So, the raw notes from the events themselves need to go somewhere (a database, spreadsheet, etc.) that participants can find (emailed to them afterwards, posted on the web in an easy-to-find spot, etc.). But once those notes are up, and you and your team and others summarize them into themes, those can then go onto a multi-column table.
In one column—say, on the far left—you list those public comment themes. In the middle column, you list the decision-maker or staff “analysis.” For instance, if the comment theme was “More money for affordable housing,” staff analysis could say, “Such funds are available via bonds that come before voters.” Then, in the next column over, you can list either the recommended or planned action being taken on the basis of the public comments. So, in the housing example, that could say, “Staff will recommend that City Council add funding for affordable housing to next bond referendum.”
It’s important to appreciate that even the comments that multiple members of the public make multiple times may not make into the staff recommendation or the final decision. But it’s important to show the public that a) you heard what they really said, b) you analyzed it, and c) why you’re not recommending it. It may be that what they recommend for action can’t be done under state or federal law, so they would want or need to lobby the legislators at those levels to get the law changed. Or it may be that funds aren’t available in the budget, so participants would want to advocate during the budget process. Regardless, it builds trust to show that the decision-makers are listening, even when they may not agree on the recommended course of action, and are willing to explain why they disagree. Few, if any, elected officials can satisfy their constituents with every vote, but those willing to explain what guided their decisions are more likely to gain public support than those who seem to ignore their constituents’ wishes.
The critical point here is that public participation depends on IAP2’s Core Value #7: Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision. To do that, the public participation team needs to devote resources to capturing all the input, both verbatim and in summary form, and to helping the public understand why their input mattered. The more decision-makers show they care about what the public thinks, the more the public may care to take the time to share their thoughts.
Larry Schooler is incoming president of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2USA) and a mediator, facilitator, and community engagement in Austin, Texas.