Public participation and stakeholder involvement during the planning, design, and construction of capital projects is extremely important. Both large and small projects will require and benefit from a communication strategy to inform the public and a method of soliciting and using feedback. This will allow the organization to effectively communicate capital needs and the impact to service levels or current asset condition in the event the project does not proceed. In addition, developing a process to involve the public during project planning is a key step in assessing priority and determining if the project will meet service-level goals and community expectations.
The Government Finance Officers Association recommends that organizations develop a communications plan for public participation focused on explaining capital needs, options, and strategies and facilitating feedback in advance of any major capital program. Capital programs gain from the support of the community both to ensure that capital projects will deliver expected and desired outcomes as well as to ensure there is adequate support for the investment. Organizations should consider and address the following in any communication plan on capital assets.
- Stakeholder Engagement: Communications should be directed at appropriate stakeholder audiences including:
- Public officials
- Officials from other jurisdictions such as special service districts and neighboring organizations
- Community Groups / Neighborhood associations
- Interest groups
- Regulatory agencies (oversight authorities)
Each stakeholder group may have different interests in the project and have different concerns or expectations. For example, citizens may be more interested in overall cost and impact on taxes, whereas a business may be most interested in possible loss of revenue from construction activity.
- Developing the Messaging: Regardless of the stakeholder audience, organizations should take care to ensure that there is a clear and consistent message that delivers accurate information both on the costs of the project, duration, impact, and benefit. Building credibility is essential in communications. Messaging should be developed with input from various groups within the organization (management, finance, engineering, operations, etc.) to ensure that information is complete and accurate. For high profile projects, it may be helpful to leverage external resources, such as financial advisors, subject matter experts, or public relations consultants to help gather and/or validate information or draft communication messages.
- Communication of Project Information: Organizations should clearly communicate project benefits, costs, impacts, and schedules clearly and at a level of detail appropriate for the audience and communication method. It is important that the finance officer present accurate information clearly and avoid using the communications to “sell” or unnecessarily advocate for the project. To maintain credibility, information should be transparent and accurate setting clear expectations. When communicating directly with citizens it is important to consider how citizens will be impacted by the project and discuss information in terms that are applicable – including the expected impacts (both to costs and benefits) on existing services and infrastructure in the event the project does not proceed. For example, it is often helpful to relate costs back to increases in tax rates rather than present actual project costs to provide context. Communications should also discuss project outcomes and expectations that include performance measures.
- Communication Methods: Organizations should consider strategies that utilize multiple methods of communication to reach different audiences. Some communications could include:
- Press Articles
- Social Media
- Presentations to Interest Groups/Local Non-Profit Organizations/ and Community Groups
- Regular communications at public meetings (public hearings)
- Use of Media (Editorial Boards / Press Conferences)
- Use of Public Feedback: When using communications methods that are more interactive and provide the opportunity for stakeholders to provide feedback, it is important that the organization be receptive to ideas and address any significant issues. Staff also must be prepared and develop a process for evaluating public feedback. When evaluating feedback, staff should recognize the limitations and potential bias in the collection methods and take that into account in using that information. Staff should also consider differences in demographic, social, economic, or geographic segments of stakeholders that may not be representative of the entire community. For this to be effective, the communications plan must be implemented early enough in the project so that staff has the ability to use the information collected to modify the project. Some examples of public feedback methods include:
- Community Meetings – Staff can attend scheduled community meetings for non-profit groups, or schedule specific meetings in public locations throughout the community that can allow for presentation and discussion of project information.
- Use of Citizen Committees – Elected Officials or staff can appoint citizens to serve on a committee to collect citizen feedback and formulate a recommendation.
- Public Opinion Research / Surveys – Survey data on public preferences can be conducted either by staff or externally by a firm specializing in collecting public opinion data
- Comments / Complaints – Staff can learn from tracking and analyzing comments or questions that come up through already established channels (for example: comment cards, website inquiries, social media responses, crowd sourcing, and CRM/311 systems).
- Monitoring, Reporting, and Accountability: In addition to communications during initial phases of the project, organizations have a need to maintain communications through the end of the project and report on results. Monitoring of progress and accurate reporting on the project will provide accountability and give credibility to the next project.