Publicizing Public Participation
Public officials and public participation practitioners don’t always pay enough attention to publicity—ensuring that the public knows about their opportunity to participate. It’s never easy (or necessarily cheap) to do enough publicity such that a person couldn’t possibly miss hearing about a public participation opportunity. After all, many of us pay attention to a disparate array of news and information sources, online and offline, sometimes inconsistently. But if an agency does not adequately publicize the event, it could easily (and perhaps justifiably) attract critics who think they don’t really want the public to participate—they’re just doing the bare minimum to post “public notice.”
All of this came to mind when I bought the print version of the Sunday, November 13th edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel during the IAP2USA face-to-face board meeting in Milwaukee. On page 7B of the local section, the paper included a medium-sized ad entitled, “REGIONAL HOUSING PLAN: HAVE INPUT – ATTEND A PUBLIC MEETING.”
While not particularly eye-catching or enticing, the ad does provide helpful information for the public. The ad goes on to explain what the plan is designed to address, a website for more information, and a phone number one can call. It also lists the dates, times, and addresses of the meetings over the course of a multi-week period; the meetings seem to be geographically dispersed and are scheduled at a time that more people would be able to attend (towards the end of or after the typically business day).
The ad also informs the reader of how the meeting will be formatted—an informal “open house” format where the public can meet with staff, ask questions, and provide input, along with a single public hearing opportunity later on. And for those who can’t make any of the events, the ad includes ways to submit comments in writing and by phone.
As helpful as the ad might be, and as much as it speaks to the varying ways people may want to participate in a process like this, it points to a few ongoing challenges for the field of public participation and for governments seeking to do it well. For one thing, ads like this one probably won’t get all that much attention. The ad is buried towards the back of the local section, engulfed by other ads that are more eye-catching (graphics, use of color). For another thing, the ad does not make it clear to the reader how input from the public will influence the regional housing plan, or even what specific questions they want the public to address; topics are mentioned but they are fairly generic and difficult to consider in the abstract (“the balance between jobs and affordable housing,” “housing discrimination,” etc.). The ad also does not mention opportunities for the public to deliberate among themselves about the best way forward for their community. In and of itself, that might not matter—in some cases, governments may not be able to involve the public more deeply than that. But one would think that such a massive undertaking as a regional housing plan in a major metropolitan area would benefit from hearing how people with multiple perspectives view the issues and what common ground they can unearth that would help policymakers or plan writers.
Some time ago, the TED Talks series included a lecture from someone who took an ad for a Nike shoe and formatted much the way this housing plan ad looks—suggesting that no corporation would design an ad this way, if their ultimate aim is to attract attention (instead of to meet legal posting requirements). I’m inclined to give the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission the benefit of the doubt—I suspect they really want public input or they wouldn’t schedule nine open houses and a public hearing and maintain a phone line or a website. Nevertheless, their ad points to the need for governments and public participation practitioners to examine carefully how they make the public aware of their opportunities to participate and to scrutinize the “ask” they make of the public in that publicity. The more noticeable, widespread, and clear the publicity, the more likely the input will benefit the process as a whole, and even enhance trust between the public and the agency.
What do you think?