By: Jennifer Rogers

Strategic Communications Regional Lead
Portland, OR

In 2008 I saw a proposed water storage facility in the suburbs of Sacramento, CA pause due to community concerns over its visual impact to the local neighborhood. Just a year later, I witnessed the raw emotion—frustration and anger—on people’s faces as they walked into public meetings about the proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The project had been a tug-of-war between landowners, agriculturalists, environmentalists, residents, and law makers to determine how to balance a healthy habitat in the California Bay Delta while delivering water to the state’s arid Central and Southern regions. “Stop the Tunnels” and “Save the Delta Smelt” were rallying cries (and bumper stickers). Eventually the project was reimagined in part due to stakeholder input.

As a young professional embarking on my career, I hadn’t realized the true power of community engagement, collaboration, and consensus building. Fifteen years later, what I know to be true is:

  1. Stakeholders’ beliefs—founded or not—can drive or derail a project
  2. Community engagement and collaboration delivers improve solutions
  3. Engaging the public early and often can build trust, support, and result in a more informed project.

While public engagement is often used synonymously with ‘outreach’, ‘awareness’ or ‘marketing’, I define public engagement as a dynamic and continuous process of collaborating with the various individuals and groups that a project may impact to co-create solutions and uphold the democratic idea that people should have a say in decisions that impact their lives.

“When communities are centered in the conversation, we can achieve equitable, creative, and effective solutions.” 

Haili Matsukawa, Vice President and Strategic Communications Practice Lead

Nip misinformation in the bud. Once misinformation is circulating in the world, it can be hard to bottle it back up. Psychologically, in the absence of a story, human brains make one up, or glom on to one that is simple to understand (ie. misinformation). But when stakeholders are engaged early on, project teams can get ahead of erroneous narratives. They have the chance to talk with stakeholders face-to-face, address fears and concerns, and begin trusting relationships. This can prevent misinformation from slowing or halting a project, and avoids the effort required to combat mistruths after they have entered the public consciousness.

Public engagement delivers improved solutions. Engaging stakeholders (residents, business owners, other agencies, lawmakers, etc.) leads to better decision-making on the part of a lead agency(ies) because they have a more complete understanding of the factors that influence the project. It also offers perspective on how stakeholders’ lives will be impacted by an initiative.

People with lived experience have insights that agencies, engineers, scientists, and consulting firms don’t have access to. Farmers who regularly walk their property can see under-seepage and boils deteriorating levees in a way that isn’t obvious to others. Residents in underfunded areas can attest to the health impacts of living in food deserts or near highways, and people who’ve experienced homelessness can provide nuanced solutions based on their lived experience. When individuals and agencies with first-hand knowledge of an issue have a seat at the table, their input not only leads to a more informed project, but it also fosters a sense that a project is more credible, making it less subject to being challenged. Further, it helps keep a project on time and within budget, avoiding costly delays that may result from public outcry.

Engage communities early & often. One of WSC’s primary tenets around communications is to engage communities early and often to achieve maximum success. This means, at a minimum, prioritizing public engagement strategies and naming them as important as the design and construction efforts. This also means allocating appropriate funding and time to public engagement that acknowledges it not as an afterthought, but as a vital part of achieving project success. Bringing all relevant stakeholders into the fold thoughtfully upholds the democratic idea that people should have a say over decisions that impact their lives and environments. I could go on about the benefits of investing in public engagement, but I’ll stop here for brevity’s sake.

WSC is one of the few engineering firms on the West Coast that has invested in communication services to elevate the work of its technical experts. This unique model allows for optimal integration of the two practices, and ultimately, a level of success for our clients that may otherwise be challenging to realize.

At WSC, we think about public engagement as relationship building at its core. When you consider what goes into a good relationship with a new friend—listening, asking questions, being considerate of their preferences and time limitations, learning their interests and needs—those are many of the same ingredients in a successful public engagement campaign. When building and maintaining relationships is considered a key ingredient in project design, it enhances outcomes and fosters long-lasting relationships for years to come.