Public Participation Guide: Foundational Skills, Knowledge, and Behaviors
The individual skills and behaviors of the project team are paramount to a successful public participation program. There is no one magic skill that will help you to always succeed. However the right attitudes and behaviors are always necessary for success and will go a long way in building the trust and credibility necessary for successful public participation.
The skills, knowledge, and behaviors outlined in this section are all essential for success. All can be learned, but all require practice, experience, and diligence to ensure their effective use. Few public participation projects can achieve success without all of these actions taking place.
Fundamental Understanding of Public Participation Principles
All of the information presented on this website is designed around fundamental principles of meaningful participation that are essential for the trust-building and credibility that lead to project success. They are:
- Clear, defined opportunity for the public to influence the decision
- Management commitment to fully consider public input in decision making
- Engagement of the full range of stakeholders from the community, including vulnerable populations and marginalized communities
- Focus on building relationships between and among stakeholders
- Creating and sharing truthful, comprehensive, and clear information.
Fundamental Understanding of Public Participation Behaviors
Ultimately, it is how agency staff behave that determines the success or failure of public participation and convinces others to participate in a meaningful way. Behavior of the sponsoring agency will set the tone for the entire process. These behaviors cannot be faked; they must represent the sincere intent of the agency to build and implement effective public participation programs. Important behaviors for public participation include the following:
- Transparency to open up the process and allow all of the parties to understand how decisions are being made and the information that is being considered, and to approach problems as colleagues in order to understand the issues and solve the problems
- Openness to different stakeholders, ideas, input, and ways of working with people, regardless of race, color, national origin, sexual orientation or income
- Humility in order to suspend judgment and assumptions, value the contributions of others, and take the attitude of a learner
- Respect for individuals, for their experience, points of view, emotions, and needs, and provide validation of each individual’s experience and values
- Honesty to always provide truthful and timely information
- Reliability to put forth the effort it takes to make a participatory process work and to do what you promise
- Flexibility to recognize that you cannot predict all contingencies in advance and will have to adjust the process as you proceed
- Resiliency to move the process forward even through difficult and controversial circumstances.
Planning and management are essential to public participation. The project management skills in which agency staff will need to gain proficiency include:
- Situation Assessment. The ability to engage in stakeholder interviews to assess internal and external needs, constraints, and conditions for effective planning.
- Goal-setting. The ability to define clear, understandable goals and objectives for the role of the public in the decision process. The ability to describe individual roles and responsibilities for all team members in regard to public participation.
- Planning. The ability to synthesize the results of the situation assessment into understandable and actionable components. The ability to define the overall decision process and identify and integrate the appropriate public participation activities to achieve the goals and objectives.
- Process Management. The ability to keep all activities moving forward, organize activities for success, keep track of goals and objectives over time, and integrate different team members’ activities.
- Meeting and Event Management. The ability to plan all logistical elements of meetings including facility selection and booking, publicity, setup, audio visual support, organizing all activities and roles, registration, and collecting input.
- Evaluation. The ability to design evaluation metrics to gauge the success of the public participation process and events. The ability to collect, assess, and act on the data from evaluation to improve project performance. (Additional resources on evaluation.)
Effective communication is the foundation of any public participation program. The ability to create and distribute effective information, develop meaningful relationships, and listen to public input is essential. The basic communication skills required for any successful public participation project include:
- Effective writing. The ability to create clear and concise written messages in plain language.
- Translating complex information into understandable formats. The ability to combine words and graphics to make difficult and complex issues understandable to a lay audience.
- Presenting information in public settings. The ability to present information to large audiences in a comfortable and understandable way. The ability to create effective visual information that assists the audience’s understanding.
- Interpersonal skills. The ability to relate to people in face-to-face situations, to make them feel comfortable and secure, and to exhibit key public participation behaviors at all times.
- Active listening. The ability to focus on the speaker and portray the behaviors that provide them with the time and safety needed to be heard and understood.
For many projects, a neutral facilitator can help make the overall process work as well as facilitate specific meetings and events. Facilitation includes the full range of management and support required to help a group to accomplish its goals.
There is a wide range of perspectives about the ideal nature and values of facilitation, much as there is a wide range of perspectives about the ideal nature and values of leadership. Someone who has strong knowledge and skills regarding group dynamics and processes is often most appropriate to serve as a facilitator. An effective facilitator might also require strong knowledge and skills regarding the particular topic or content that the group is addressing in order to reach its goals.
Facilitation fills an important impartial role to ensure all voices are heard and understood, and that the discussion stays on topic to the specific project. Key facilitation activities include:
- Suggest procedures, processes, and structures that promote inclusion and participation
- Prepare and implement a process workplan
- Get to know all participants’ values, interests, and concerns
- Identify if certain stakeholders are more vulnerable to the outcome of the decision
- Get to know the issues inside and out
- Advocate for all of the skills, behaviors, and goals of the process and/or meeting
- Act as learning and dialogue guides
- Ensure logistical arrangements that meet the needs of the participants
- Ensure all voices are included and heard, including marginalized communities
- Help participants understand the importance of process
- Design structured thinking activities
- Teach people how to participate
- Identify and clarify conflicts
- Mediate small conflicts
- Identify common ground as it emerges
- Enforce agreed-upon procedures and processes
- Suggest, get commitment to, and enforce ground rules.
For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460