Don’t Be Afraid of Public Involvement

Speaking to groups of people can sometimes be a challenge for engineers. Some of us are introverts, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in the details of a project. But sometimes it’s necessary and very important for us to communicate technical messages to the public. Though it may be a challenge, it’s something we’re happy to do.

This often comes into play when a project is federally funded. Public involvement is required to complete the environmental document phase. Since a lot of the transportation work Sain Associates does is federally funded, we have been involved in many of these meetings. In other instances, we’ve had clients request a public involvement meeting to inform their communities on upcoming improvements and to give the public a chance to comment prior to the project getting designed.

Our job as the engineer of record is to take responsibility for gathering a full understanding of the subject matter and communicating clearly with the public. We can get so wrapped up in the details, it is very challenging to step back and explain the project in a way that is understandable to all people. It is also a practice of self-control because it’s important that we not allow ourselves to get upset or defensive when someone questions our design or approach to a project.

Public involvement is a very important step in the development of infrastructure projects. Citizens can provide important insights into community values and concerns. They also bring a fresh perspective to reviewing design plans because they are often everyday users of the facility being studied. A good engineer learns not only to convey information to the public, but also to listen to the public and assimilate their concerns into his or her design.

Following are some best practices we’ve developed over the years for preparing for a public meeting and conveying technical messages:

  • Know your audience. Use language that is easy for them to understand. Do not use jargon, acronyms, scientific or engineering terms or any other language that may be confusing.
  • Utilize graphics. Any graphics and maps presented should be easy to understand.
  • Test it first. Have a non-engineer that knows nothing about the project review your maps, graphics and handouts to check that you have made the information easy to understand.
  • Be prepared. Have plenty of handouts and displays so people can easily navigate the room and find the information they seek. Have several people who are involved with the project in attendance to greet people and assist in answering questions.
  • Arrive and set up early. Be prepared at least 30 minutes before the meeting is scheduled to begin. If the project is high profile, people will start arriving early, and you don’t want to be scrambling to get things in place.
  • Take the right people with you. Have people from your team attend who can handle discussions about each different aspect of the project.
  • Schedule a pre-meeting. Always have a pre-meeting with the team before the public arrives to ensure everyone is prepared with the correct information to address questions from the public.
  • Encourage public officials to attend. It is important for public officials to hear feedback first-hand and to show their support for the public involvement process.
  • Be ready for strong opinions. It is human nature to be passionate about a project when it affects you personally. Designers need to be prepared to handle the emotions that may be encountered during your discussions with the public.

Sain Associates, Inc., is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with offices in Pulaski, Tennessee and Mandeville, Louisiana. Sain is a site engineering, traffic/transportation engineering and planning and land surveying firm with experience in more than thirty states.  

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