Last fall I surveyed my bog readers and asked what they were experiencing as their biggest work challenge. Many of you expressed that you frequently need to participate in public meetings. These meetings often generate many questions, concerns and even complaints from the public. And occasionally these meetings can get heated.
My staff and I have attended hundreds of public meetings and learned (sometimes the hard way) how to get the most from these meeting. Recently, we spoke with Gary Sokolow, an urban planner at the Florida Department of Transportation, about public meetings. Like us, he has attended and presented at many of these meetings. Together, we developed the following top ten list of common statements/questions heard at public meetings:
- “This will cause a new safety problem.”
- “You didn’t consider the development/issue/item down the street?”
- “You missed this fatal flaw.”
- “I wasn’t notified of the meetings.”
- “No one can show me how you came to your final decision.”
- “You will be impacting thousands of people!”
- “I don’t understand why you are doing this to me!”
- “You really don’t care what I have to say!”
- “You are going to put me out of business!”
- “You’re putting my children in danger!”
Any of these sound familiar? While the exact phrasing will change from meeting to meeting and project to project, the sentiments can generally be grouped into a couple different categories: your plan missed something important, you are somehow keeping information away from people, and/or you are directly targeting a person, their family, and their livelihood.
So, what is the best approach when you are asked to attend or present at a public meeting? We also exchanged our success strategies for participating at these meetings (Thanks Gary for agreeing to share with our readers!). Here is our collective approach and how we have successfully worked with the public to address their concerns.
- Use Best Practices. Even before the public meeting is planned, your study needs to follow the proper guidelines and include the relevant information. Talk with local officials about other developments and roadway projects in the area. Make sure your analysis follows the Highway Capacity Manual or local standards (if not, be sure to clearly lay out reasons for your selected method of analysis). Have another set of eyes on your analysis and report to ensure the math adds up, typos are eliminated, and information is organized and presented clearly. Make sure you discover the holes in your study or the public certainly will.
- Documentation. First and foremost, this includes the information used for your study and recommendations – methodology, traffic volume and crash data, forecasts and analysis, alternates considered, and justification for the selected option. Other aspects of the project also need to be documented, like how your public meeting was announced (mailing, ads, etc.), how the public was included in the project, and any feedback received. Good documentation and the ability to show that information can counter many claims of not knowing how to get involved or not understanding what is happening.
- Preparation. We like to think about potential questions that could come up during the meeting and our responses. Thinking through questions and answers before helps you organize your thoughts and be ready to effectively respond at the meeting. Also be ready with additional information about your study – not everything will be presented in the public displays. It’s far better to have that information readily available if needed then relying strictly on memory. Consider the need to have research studies available that demonstrate the impact of a change on safety, business economics, etc. An example of a successful implementation in another area can be a great help in alleviating concerns.
- Listen. Understand that change can be difficult to deal with and people often consider the change directly at them personally. Small business owners invest a lot of time and money into their company. Parents obviously want their kids to be as safe as possible. Make it a point to really listen to the people and their concern. In some cases, the person just wants to be heard and to voice their opinion. A strategy we have successfully used is catching individuals after the meeting has ended to speak with them one-on-one. This helps people realize that you really do care what they have to say and goes a long way to building positive relations with the public.
- Remain Open to Ideas. At least 99 percent of the time, you will have thought thru or analyzed all various options available. But every once in a while, someone may come up with something that you haven’t considered that could better solve the problem. Don’t immediately dismiss something because you didn’t think of it. Solutions on paper can always be changed and a better idea may be worth a delay in implementation.
- Avoid Technical Terms. As best as possible, use simple language or clearly explain the terms that you are using. Don’t wait for someone to ask what a term means. While everyone drives and has opinions about the roads, only a few of us are traffic engineers who understand all the jargon. Using complex traffic terminology without a ready explanation will make you seem condescending, not smarter.
- Remain Professional. Getting defensive or angry will only make a situation worse. Keep your composure and calmly explain the process, what is being changed, and benefits of that change. Responding appropriately with your documented information while facing an irate person can defuse a situation and actually draw more people to your point-of-view. If you tell someone that you will follow-up with them later, be sure to do so. One of the worst things you could do is ignore someone after telling them you would respond.
Public meetings are an important part of a transportation professional’s work. Don’t shy away from these opportunities. Just use the above strategies and remember that “I don’t know”, usually followed by “but I can get back to you on that” is much more acceptable than guessing or making something up. Show genuine interest in the concerns and opinions of the people and you are sure to have a successful meeting.
I would love to take all the credit you gave me but Florida DOT’s original list was developed by our then consultant, David Gwynn in an award winning paper for our 2004 national access management conferences, titled “Public Information Meetings for Access Management (Top Ten Complaints)”. David Gwynn, is now the Chief FDOT District Traffic Operations Engineer in Central Florida.