this exercise, but better to take criticism from this
group and prepare than to have a public meltdown.
We shouldn’t take the criticism personally, nor
can we objectify our critics. There is a level of
steeling that we need to do for ourselves, especially
when dealing with controversial projects where
there is media attention. We need to recognize the
anger that we may observe among the public is
most often driven by their fear. Consider the high
probability that only limited or no community
engagement may have occurred. How would you
react if you found out at the last minute about
something that was going to affect you? Putting the
shoe on the other foot is good practice for life.
Fear of not having all of the answers:
This one looms large and may be the most
significant fear of all. As analysts and planners,
we’re always supposed to have looked at all of the
alternatives to an action and to have all of the
answers. That works with science and engineering,
but it doesn't work with people. For instance, if
we fill a wetland, we will cause adverse effects to
flora, fauna, groundwater recharge, flood storage
capacity, etc. If there are steep slopes, there will be
cutting and filling to create a suitable grade and
discourage runoff. But if we ask someone why they
are opposed to or concerned about a project, we
can’t know the answer or presume to know the
answer. We need to ask them to tell us and listen
to their point of view. Only then can we begin to
evaluate changes or alternatives.
Fear of being accused of working with
If we want to find out what someone else is
thinking, at some point we need to interact
with them. The public includes opponents and
supporters, and sometimes we can forget that.
Reading something written by project opponents,
asking others about them, or observing them from
a distance can all be useful preparatory steps, but
until you actually engage with opponents who
have concerns and issues (i.e., before your project
becomes an agenda item for organized opposition),
you won’t be able to understand their point of
view. The interpersonal contact provides context.
To someone on your team who didn’t know what
you were trying to do by talking with citizens, it
might look like you’re taking the opponent’s side.
There is an easy remedy for that. People simply
need to know what you do, how you do it and
how it provides value. You’re not a traitor or a
disingenuous person; you’re doing your job.
Reap the Benefits
As to the benefits of public engagement, it
demonstrates commitment to the project
and to the community; it’s very powerful.
It shows that the concerns of the public
matter to you, that community insights
are worth the time to learn about, that
you recognize you ultimately need the
public in order to be successful and most
importantly, that you understand your
project hasn’t been fully informed until you
have sought out and listened to the voices
of the community. For some, engaging
with the community can bring about
feelings of vulnerability—the opposite of
power. However, consider that the aim of
your project isn't power—it’s success.
Additionally, you will learn from your
shortcomings and you may build
relationships with people who are still
stuck and see you as an example. You
may even gain support—or at least a lack
of opposition—from parties you never
expected to support your efforts.
It’s time to stop allowing your fears to
paralyze you. Ultimately, facing that fear
menu and allowing your fears to motivate
you will benefit your work habits, your
project success and even the communities
impacted by those projects. J
Lesley T. Cusick has been in IRWA since 2013. She
is the Program Director for Community Outreach
and Engagement with RSI En Tech, LLC, an ASRC
Industrial Services Company. Lesley has over 30 years of
professional experience assisting public and private sector
clients with project development.