The resource professional as facilitator: Part 2

This is part 2 of a two-part series on public input processes for natural resource professionals.

Meeting locations with more informal settings can help participants feel at ease when providing their input. Photo credit: Georgia Peterson, MSU Extension

Meeting locations with more informal settings can help participants feel at ease when providing their input. Photo credit: Georgia Peterson, MSU Extension

Natural resource professionals are increasingly expected to include public input in their management or design decisions. This can sometimes feel like a difficult and confusing task, since formal education, at least until recently, rarely focused on the “soft skills” involved in including multiple voices when managing natural resources. This article is part 2 of a two-part series on public input processes for natural resource managers. Part 1 discussed outlining the goals and intentions for public input before sending out invitations or announcements. Part 2 will offer ideas on how to be as inclusive as possible when inviting members of the public to provide input—at whatever level the organization or agency deems appropriate for the process or decision.

Even after setting a clear goal and desired outcome for soliciting public input, staff in natural resource agencies or organizations often struggle to attract more than a handful of participants to their events (when it is not a hot-button issue). Many may assume that it is just a lack of interest, but studies suggest that people are indeed interested in natural resource-based topics, but are often unaware of these opportunities. Others may be aware, but may find it hard to participate because of the event’s inconvenient time or location.

In the USDA Forest Service’s publication Dialogue on Diversity, there are several critical steps natural resource professionals can take to improve their chances for a well-attended, diverse public input session. The most important first step is to find a local partner to help coordinate the event. Find a locally-trusted, active member of the community who can be an advocate for the topic at hand. This partner does not have to have any natural resource experience—look to local chambers of commerce or other community, social or civic organizations that have good visibility in the area.

Next, coordinators need to be sure that the time and location of the event is as convenient for participants as possible. The Dialogue on Diversity study found that early evening sessions were usually the most effective, convening in a meeting room located on a community college or, when available, a community center. Do not overlook the importance of refreshments. Participants should be appreciated for the time they invest in coming. Food and drink is a simple way to show they are valued, and may put people at ease.

Advertising for the event should include more than an ad in the local paper. Although newspaper readership is still relatively strong thanks to electronic platforms, these one-time announcements can easily be overlooked. If a natural resource professional’s organization or agency is not tapped in to various social media networks, they are missing out on a critical advertising opportunity, especially among younger audiences who can add important age diversity to public input sessions. Direct letter invitations require more time and assembly, but may demonstrate that an agency or organization is serious about wanting outside participation. If letter invitations are sent to presidents or chairs of local organizations soliciting attendance, consider using the local partner’s letterhead to reinforce the local connection to the natural resource topic.

All these steps most certainly require extra up-front time and effort for staff members. If natural resource agencies and organizations are dedicated to expanding their public outreach and increasing their decision-making transparency, however, following these guidelines will increase the chances that organizations or agencies will generate the productive input they need to make better decisions on the land, and perhaps even increased trust in our public institutions.

For more information on how to pursue these different participation strategies, consider attending the Conflict, Collaboration and Consensus in Natural Resources (CCCNR) program from Michigan State University Extension. In 2014, this program will be offered in two, two-day sessions: March 12-13 and April 9-10 at the Kettunen Center near Tustin, Mich. The cost for this program including materials, meals and lodging, is $495. 

Other articles in this series:

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