Accepting comments is a common practice for modern governments, but doing it well requires a little extra work. Some governments even pass laws to ensure that these processes are done well (or at least that they are performed in a consistent manner – this is so much easier to regulate than quality!). You have probably submitted a comment to your government as part of a process that skipped some (or even all) of these steps, but if your government wants to get the most out of their effort, while also making certain to keep citizens interested for the next time, they should really check out all of these suggestions. First, there are a lot of ways to engage with citizens these days and choosing the right one is important for connecting to the right audience. Second, while citizens generally have opinions on things (and are happy to share them!), providing educational materials on the issue as well as how to meaningfully engage in the process will make for a better experience for everyone involved, as well as more valuable and focused comments. Third, your government should be setting your expectations for what sort of response you can expect if you do submit a comment — and then meeting those expectations! That is to say that they should respond to you in the way they say they will. Finally, your government should be measuring how effective the process is so they know if it was successful and worthwhile.
So why would a government want to make a law to do something as simple as accept comments from citizens? A well-written law can help ensure that a government seeks public participation on the most important problems or decisions that it makes and can also help set uniform standards for citizen involvement and participation in order to make sure government decision-makers are fully informed when they make their choices. In the United States, the federal government has the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Of course, laws can also create hurdles to engagement when new technology becomes available if the law is too restrictive or precise in the way that it is written. This is a complaint often leveled at the US Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA), which had the best of intentions in 1980, but has not held up well in the age of social media.
First decide on the goals of the outreach, then determine the audience, then determine the tool.
Speaking of which, the Internet has created a huge number of ways to engage with citizens beyond the traditional methods, and figuring out which to use is a large hurdle for many governments today. The good news is that there is a simple guidelines that will help with this. First decide on the goals of the outreach, then determine the audience, then determine the tool. Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn may seem super cool, but if the right citizens aren’t on them (or don’t want to talk to government through them) then the government shouldn’t be there. These sorts of things change from city to city and country to country, so there is no consistent answer for all situations. In addition, it’s also important to remember that there is a reason that public meetings, newspaper advertisements, and public postings in relevant locations have been used for centuries – they work! Whether citizen comments come in by voice, mail, fax, or email, the content is what’s important.
In order to ensure that the content is high quality, the process should also focus on educating the citizens about both the issue that is being discussed and also how to respond in a way that will be most useful to decision makers. For example, if your government is considering changing the zoning restrictions in an area near you to allow more types of businesses to open, you would want to know what is currently allowed, what will be allowed under the new rules, and to see a zoning map that shows all the different types of areas around you. As you may have experienced, governments tend to talk in their own language – acronyms (APA, NEPA, PRA), rule references (508 compliance), and zoning districts (R-5-B). The outreach and educational material provided to you by your government should make all of this clear not just so that you can understand it better, but also so that you when you write a comment, you can write it in a way that will be meaningful to the government decision-makers. This makes the process better for everyone involved, as you learn more about the complexity of your government, and the government gets better input from you about what’s important.
Next, your government should keep in mind the expectations they set when asking you for feedback, make sure that they meet those, and include some form of response to your comments. The beginning part of this is obvious. If they say that they will personally respond to each comment with a hand-written letter, then they had better do that (this is only realistic in the smallest of commmunities). But they should endeavour to let you know that they received your comment and that it was considered as part of the decision making process. The likelihood is that you will only get a footnote in a preamble to a final document, but as long as you’re aware going in that this is what you should expect, at least you won’t be disappointed. Setting expectations and then meeting them raises the likelihood that they will participate again next time, creating a virtuous cycle of involvement, where greater participation creates better input and better decisions inside government.
Finally, your government will probably want to know if the process of reaching out to you was worthwhile. While it is important to know how many people were engaged, this really needs to be only one of the metrics that are used. More importantly, your government should be judging the process on whether they received quality feedback and if you were satisfied with the process. The Institute for Local Government has a worksheet that helps do this, and the Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation (@C2D2ca) has an excellent article on evaluating public participation that will help get your government headed in the right direction!
Dave Meslin, a “professional rabble-rouser” in Toronto, Canada has some ideas on why this public notice doesn’t get much response – and some suggestions on how to fix it. From TEDxToronto.
The International Association of Public Participation has developed a spectrum of public participation, and the activities described in this article are focused on two kinds of public participation goals:
- INFORM – To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problems, alternatives and/or solutions.
- CONSULT – To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decision.