Foundations in Public Participation

By Taryn Oleson

In November 2014, I completed the Foundations in Public Participation program through the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2). Guided by two seasoned experts, myself and 13 others worked through the comprehensive five-day program on the planning of and techniques for effective public participation. Many trainees had diverse backgrounds and experienced with public participation, including those with communities comparable to some in rural Alaska. The open discussions about what methodologies worked and failed, who participated and why, and how success was measured often provided perspectives I had either not considered or encountered yet in my work. Non-textbook learning was promoted throughout the training and, as to be expected in a course on effective public participation, was highly participatory and effective.

Planning for Effective Public Participation was the focus of the first three days of the course. While familiar with Public Involvement Plans and documents through my work, I had not been exposed to the detailed process that is required for a successful Plan. Since I began at R&M in August 2014, I had been working from Plans written prior to my arrival and focused my learning on the implementation of them. Through this IAP2 program, I gained a much better understanding of the methods to the seeming madness and brilliance of developing Public Involvement Plans. For example, an important aspect for any participation process is making sure all involved, internal team, clients and public stakeholders know what the goal is for having public participation at different stages of the project and having consensus on what level of participation the public is being engaged at. This protects the project team from making potentially detrimental false statements and promises to the public. The in-depth knowledge on planning for effective public participation gained through this aspect of the program left me more confident and eager for R&M’s next public involvement process to begin.

Techniques for Effective Public Participation followed the planning portion of the course. Multiple techniques at each level of participation were discussed, with methods for evaluating success. Simulations of a sampling of techniques were done throughout the two days, providing examples of appropriate techniques for different situations. Every public participation process is different, dependent on all aspects of a project, and so no public participation technique can be applied right from the textbook. Public Involvement Plans and the techniques to engage the public are context sensitive, and as many R&M projects do, require context sensitive solutions.

Public Participation is vital for making sustainable decisions. Sustainable decisions are publicly acceptable, technically feasible, economically viable and environmentally compatible. This extends to every sector of work, but especially to R&M’s public sector clients. Through effective public participation, critical issues are addressed early, understanding by all stakeholders is facilitated and more achievable, risks are mitigated, and trust is built and maintained between the public and our clients. My training in public participation will allow me to develop successful, accredited public involvement plants, techniques and execution, allowing for better decision making processes on R&M projects.

1 T Oleson (Web)Taryn Oleson joined the R&M team as a Planner in August 2014. Taryn specializes in land use, transportation and community planning. She has coordinated a variety of public involvement programs, including those for long range comprehensive and transportation planning projects. Experienced in web and graphic design programs, Taryn communicates with the public through a variety of formats, including project websites, handouts, open houses, presentation and workshops. She has designed and conducted surveys, presented project information to community and governmental organizations, coordinated stakeholder interviews and facilitated advisory groups. She is skilled in policy analysis and compliance, including local, regional and state plans and policies. Taryn is currently serving as planner and public involvement coordinator for the City of Houston’s Community Impact Assessment and Comprehensive Plan Revision and multiple CSS transportation projects. She has also provided planning and public involvement support on the AMATS Travel Demand Model and Household Travel Surveys and is involved in the public involvement effort for the 27th Avenue Pedestrian Safety Improvements project. Taryn holds a B.S. in Environmental Policy and Planning from the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.