Public Participation and Engagement During and After COVID-19 Outbreak

Water Foundation shares recommendations to help public agencies continue to make public engagement more transparent, inclusive, and responsive to every form of  participation.

Across our work on safe drinking water, ecosystem restoration, and climate resilience we support communities and residents to be decision makers on the policies and practices that shape their lives. We believe people should have the technical support to be able to powerfully stand up for their needs and aspirations and make equitable decisions in partnership with their neighbors and their government.

This is why public participation and engagement matters. It is how power imbalances are corrected, public officials are held accountable to all of their constituents, and community residents can directly share their experiences and ideas.

In the past few weeks, traditional public engagement has been upended. In-person hearings, community forums, and other meetings are not possible right now, and may not be for a while. To collect public feedback, agencies are increasingly considering how to best use phone, text, email, and webinar technology. While the transition to virtual public participation is not seamless, it is charting the course for a more participatory and inclusive approach after we contain the virus.

We are grateful to many of our partners who are guiding this transition, including Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in the Central Valley and OurWaterLA in Los Angeles. Their work has helped public agencies, such as the California Department of Water Resources, update their practices.

While remote participation may be easier for some people, it is harder for others. To help communities and governments adapt to these new circumstances, the Local Government Commission recently published a set of best practices for virtual engagement. Still, there are technological and comfort challenges to online participation that mean many people are working hard to learn new things and shift their lives around in order to engage in public decision-making. The FCC estimates that at least 21.3 million US residents do not have wired or wireless broadband internet, while studies by BroadbandNow Research estimate it is at least 42 million.

We must continue to make local, state, and federal processes more transparent, more inclusive, and more responsive to every form of participation and community decision-making. This will also mean that public agencies need resources to respond to immediate needs and to keep improving. (For some guideposts, check out the International Association for Public Participation’s Core Values.)

Here, we share some best practices for public agencies based on recommendations from our partners and our team.

Share Meeting Dates and Materials Early

As the California Environmental Justice Alliance noted in their recent report, Rethinking Local Control, “community-led decision-making does not simply mean the most minimal levels of outreach, such as providing public notice and conducting a hearing.”

This was true before the COVID-19 emergency, and it demands greater attention now when people are grappling with new restrictions, fears, and stresses.

  • At minimum, public agencies should share meeting dates and materials at least 72 hours in advance. Those notices should be in every language used by potential participants and should include instructions on how to participate. There should be an email address and phone number for agency staff who will respond to questions about how to participate.
  • When an agency is holding a series of meetings, those dates should be scheduled as far out as possible and shared as soon as they are scheduled.
  • For projects that involve construction, community engagement and public participation should start before the design period. For example, at the Salton Sea Recreation Area, KDI, Alianza, and California State Parks have scheduled monthly meetings for the next year and a half to get community member feedback and input throughout the entirety of the work, from design to siting to physical construction.

Meet People Where They Are

Information about public participation and engagement processes and meetings should be created and shared in the places where residents and other stakeholders already get their information.

  • Public agencies should post this information in all relevant languages on their websites but should not stop there. Some residents may rely on texting to get information, other people may check the bulletin board at a community center, and others may use social media like Facebook and Instagram. Agencies should post to as many venues as possible to maximize public engagement.
  • Public agencies should proactively use the expertise of community-based groups and nonprofit organizations who can help get the word out and make sure residents have what they need to meaningfully engage.

Show How Public Comments Are Used

In all public agency communications before, during, and after a public participation process, agency staff should explain how public comments will be used to craft the final decision.

  • Before the process starts, meeting notices and instructions on how to participate should explain how public comments will be used and confirm where submitted public comments will be made publicly available.
  • During the public participation process, meeting conveners or facilitators should read emailed or written comments out loud. Comments left over voicemail should be played out loud. All comments should be included in a publicly available written compilation.
  • When the public participation process ends, agency staff should explain to participants how public comments will shape their decisions.

All public comments, no matter how they are shared and received, should be part of the official record and subject to public records rules.

Value and Support Video Conference, Phone, Written, and In-Person Participation

The California Department of Water Resources recently noted that “with the expansion of online and telephone resources, we have enhanced opportunities to engage and participate from home in ways we never have had before.” We should build from this moment and keep growing the ways in which people can participate, ensuring that all forms of participation are treated with equal value.

  • In every type of participation, services should be provided in all of the languages potential participants speak, and each agenda item should have a dedicated comment section. Anyone who wants to attend a meeting should be able to participate, and there should be a public list of the people who signed up to participate to help ensure everyone gets their turn to speak.
  • Over video conference, participants should be able to share their comments over video and in chat boxes. Public agencies should provide instructions, not just links, to help people join and participate. They should partner with community-based organizations who can help train interested residents in advance of public meetings.
  • Over phone, participants should be able to share their comments live and with the support of translation services. If participants leave voicemails before a meeting, their comments should be shared out loud and recorded as official comment.
  • Over email or mail, participant comments should not be limited by word count. Emails or letters should be read out loud during the meeting and recorded as official comments.

Set Schedules and Deadlines to Maximize Participation

As Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability recommends, “local and state bodies should consult with community-based organizations and should keep equity, justice, transparency, and accountability at top of mind when determining action on postponing or cancelling meetings and action items.”

The ultimate goal of public engagement should be to encourage and solicit meaningful input that results in more inclusive and better-informed public policy.

  • Public agencies should proactively talk to potential participants from all sectors and constituencies to understand what people need to meaningfully participate before setting meeting dates and formats.
  • Public agencies should consider the complexity and length of materials under review when determining public comment deadlines.

We expect there will always be ways to keep improving public engagement and participation. As we move forward, residents, public agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations must continue to talk to one another about what is working and what needs fixing – and act based on those insights.