Public Involvement for the National Environmental Policy Act

Here at Logan Simpson Design, we understand that some planners and National Environmental Policy Act practitioners view public involvement as an obstacle to progress. These planners might find themselves asking, since we already know the best outcome, why are we prompting the public to be involved? Why would they be interested?

 And if we’ve already considered a wide range of alternatives, why open up the potential for more?

 However, meaningful opportunities for public outreach can improve the results of public involvement and National Environmental Policy Act processes. Increased public involvement can translate into designing opportunities that maximize interactions with the lead agency, stakeholders, project proponents and the public. There is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach or format. Therefore, do not be constrained to traditional approaches when designing public outreach.

Pay attention to local culture and customs as they can easily influence both the format and the type of public involvement. For example, during a project in rural Utah, the public meeting center was a facility at the local fairgrounds, which meant we had to modify the format of the meeting to properly accommodate the available space. When we held the same meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, we had to consider a central location that allowed for a variety of transportation methods including public transit, walking, and personal vehicles. On yet another project in the southeastern United States, we were told to avoid scheduling public meetings on Wednesday evenings because local officials told us that they were typically reserved for religious studies. By paying special attention to local culture and customs, you’ll be able to circumvent any initial public involvement issues that may arise.

Consider the expected number of participants, which can dictate the size of the facility, the number of staff necessary to conduct the meeting, and the meeting format. I attended a public meeting where the meeting attendance was grossly underestimated. The size of the room was not large enough to accommodate the number of people. As a result, the meeting organizer scrambled to get a larger room minutes before the scheduled start of the meeting. Factors that contribute to the number of participants include the complexity of the project, potential for controversy, and the typical participation level on similar projects.

Educate the public on the types of comments and input that are most helpful. People who participate in public meetings and submit comments typically aim to express their opinions and perspectives about the proposed project, learn about the proposed project and action alternative, and share knowledge and information about places and resources they value.

Use skilled facilitators. The agency and public meeting facilitators can guide the public to prepare comments that contribute to improving the project. Facilitators should highlight the following public comment guidelines:

  • Submit comments that are clear, concise, and relevant to the proposed action.
  • Propose a solution instead of explaining why you oppose the project.
  • Focus on contributing to developing alternatives and clarifying the purpose and need.
  • Provide information such as photos, data, and geographic information system (GIS) data.

These guidelines can be posted on the project website, as part of the instructions on formal comment forms, on public meeting advertising materials, on displays at public meetings, and verbally at public scoping meetings.

Debrief. After each public meeting, set aside time for an internal debrief. Spend a few minutes discussing what went well, what needs to change, and what needs to improve. If the team is conducting a series of public meetings, they can change the approach, format, and structure of upcoming meetings to improve public interactions.

Apply lessons learned from previous public outreach opportunities and similar projects to improve interactions with the public. For example, one National Environmental Policy Act project in southern Arizona used educational forums to involve the public. These forums were tied to a proposed project considering uses on public lands. The public could attend in person and videos of each presentation and PDFs of associated slides were posted on the project website for future viewing.

Integrate social media. Some projects have used social media sites such as Facebook,Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and YouTube to advertise public meetings. Using a combination of traditional advertising and social media expands the exposure of the public meetings to a variety of age groups and demographics.

While, to some, the melding and coexistence of public involvement and planning may seem daunting, there are a variety of tactics capable of improving the public involvement process. It’s important to understand that public involvement does not have to be an obstacle. Rather, by thoughtfully and carefully designing public outreach, public involvement can provide a valuable source of information that benefits the development of National Environmental Policy Act documents.