But Success Depends on Welcoming Public to the Party

Thomas Mullen
May 20, 2015

Do you know why we at SmartComment are so into public engagement?

Because we’re a bunch of romantics and, well, the process is pretty much like a wedding engagement — between your project and its eventual users. It starts with a big proposal, involves a lot of planning and money, some folks want to hurry it along, some want it called off — and the whole thing can be sunk by poor communication.

We’ve all heard the engagement horror stories. Fortunately, we at SmartComment have coordinated a few project-public weddings in our day and are more than happy to share our tips for ensuring a successful public engagement — so you can keep your project on the road to happily ever after.

Welcome Your New Family
For the sake of our handy analogy, we’re going to put you and your project team in the role of doting, financially responsible parents who love both your project and the public it hopes to be wedded to. You’re really hoping the relationship takes so they can one day be joined under the powers granted by a joint EIS/EIR, but you’re not going to start getting a good sense of their true chemistry until you bring everyone together for an initial public hearing – the public engagement equivalent of that first brunch with the prospective in-laws, some of whom aren’t totally convinced this whole thing is a good idea. And when it comes to being brunch hosts, you’ve pretty much got two choices. You can do the polite and expected thing — break out the fine china, smile, listen intently, and give your visitors a few hours of genuine, if basic, human interaction. Or you can be the family you’d want to see if the roles were reversed. The family who throws open the front door when your visitors are still coming up the driveway, excitedly whisks them inside, and sets the kids loose in the backyard while the grown-ups settle in for a free and meaningful discussion of shared interests and debate. Now you shouldn’t go hugging anyone at your actual public hearing. That would be weird. But you can achieve the same disarming level of goodwill (believe me, we’ve seen it) by politely inviting your newly arrived guests to share their thoughts on your project at a SmartComment station, complete with a SmartComment staffer or two and a row of comment-entry laptops. That’s right! As your all-in-one engagement coordinator, SmartComment will cater your public hearing. Now, be warned: our deviled eggs aren’t great. But our public comment software definitely is, allowing any of your various stakeholders to easily enter their contact information, pick the topics they want to weigh in on, and submit their comments with the click of a button. As Emily Post might say, sometimes it’s the little things.

Get More Input
So the initial meeting went great. There was a lot of enthusiasm, some doubt, and no shortage of opinions about how this thing should proceed. But even as you stack up the chairs and roll up the power cords, you know that the planning and hard work are just starting. Like sending out a round of Save the Dates, it’s now time to post public notices about your open comment period and start putting together a plan about how to handle all the questions, emails, letters, attachments and replies coming back. But guess what? Because you hired SmartComment as your all-in-one public engagement planner, we are STILL HERE and ready to handle all of that for you, keeping open lines of communication for anyone with input about your project and diligently keeping track of their comments – no matter the format. In addition to hosting our secure comment interface and portal on your website, SmartComment can accept emailed comments and even import written comments with a simple photograph from the SmartComment tablet included that’s included as part of our standard engagement services. Beat that, J. Lo!

Stay Organized
So the comment period is over and now the work really begins. Now all those comments – both spoken and written – have to be accounted for, analyzed, and responded to. Potential clarifications and areas of interest need to be addressed by the appropriate experts on your team. And all of these new bits of information – the comments, findings, responses, attachments and more — need to find their way seamlessly into the final Environmental Impact Statement. But you have questions. Are all those submitted comments secure and accessible? Can we possibly reply to all of them without losing them in the shuffle or (gulp) having to delay the targeted EIS date? And to this we say… come on. It’s not like you’re handing a stack of wedding RSVPs off to Great Aunt Gertie here. We’re experts! We ditch the paper piles and manila folders for the safety of a centralized, cloud-based comment database where every comment is diligently accounted for and assigned to designated project staff. We even make comment bracketing easy with our unique bracketing tool, allowing you to break each comment down into topic-specific sections with a simple swipe of the finger. Once your comments are secure and bracketed, you can search them by topic, keyword, open-closed status, submission date and other criteria. In wedding planning terms, you get the assurance that all your RSVPs are accounted for and properly submitted to the venue, while Aunt Gertie gets to keep her “working file” open for cat-food recipes and back issues of Parade magazine.

See The Big Picture
At this point, you’re probably counting the days until you get to officially present your final project to its public as it waits at the NEPA-officiated altar. But if you don’t stay focused on the engagement process, that day may never come. Because physically maintaining control of the comments related to your project is only one of the challenges facing your project team. Just as critical is truly learning from them – where the comments are coming from, what they’re really saying, and what to do about them. In fact, SmartComment’s powerful suite of analysis tools are built to allow to do just that, giving you an unprecedented understanding of the comments related to your project. Our central dashboard includes easy-to-understand graphics, the number of comments by topic, when they were received and other information critical to addressing any manageable concerns. Look at it like having a magical window into the in-laws’ true feelings about your wedding planning skills, allowing you to anticipate any concerns and maybe even make some tweaks to ensure any unnecessary drama.

Dress Up for The Big Day
Would you send your daughter down the aisle wearing cut-offs? Well, we know you and we don’t think you would. So why present your comments and agency responses in the Final EIS formatted in anything less than the visual splendor of a smartly outputted SmartComment report? After all, your project’s whole extended family is watching. Keep it classy… at least until the reception. Then you’re on your own.