The resource professional as facilitator: Part 1

Part 1 of a two-part series on public input processes for natural resource professionals.

Be clear about the goals and purpose of including public input before the process begins. Photo credit: Georgia Peterson, MSU Extension
Be clear about the goals and purpose of including public input before the process begins. Photo credit: Georgia Peterson, MSU Extension

Once upon a time, professionals in natural resource fields were trained to work outside—either to manage wildlife, fish, trees or other plants. These well-trained individuals would often be hired into positions in public resource agencies to work toward caring for and sustaining those resources to meet societal and ecological needs. In the most recent few decades, however, members of the public—either as interest groups or concerned citizens—want to have a greater say in how those resources are managed. In response, those resource agencies have made adjustments to their public input processes, while still responding to increased demands on the resource itself (through outdoor recreation activities, forest, field and aquatic resources, etc.).

In agencies’ efforts to be more transparent and inclusive in its decision-making process, staff are more likely to be called upon to facilitate public meetings and lead work teams that include concerned members of the public. Agency staff may often feel ill-equipped to do these tasks, since formal education, at least until recently, rarely focused on the “soft skills” involved in including multiple voices when managing natural resources. What are some good first steps a resource professional can take to allow for public involvement productively?

Before any invitations are sent or announcements are shared, coordinating staff should be clear about their intentions and goals for involving the public. The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum of Public Participation outlines various goals for participation. This spectrum ranges from merely informing people about decisions or issues, to empowering members of the public to make crucial decisions themselves. More specifically, the IAP2 spectrum classifies participation by increasing levels of public involvement:

  • Inform: Letting members of the public know about actions, issues or decisions that the organization or agency is making.
  • Consult: Asking members of the public for feedback on potential actions or decisions.
  • Involve: Including members of the public early in a decision-making process or activity to get input from them at multiple stages, and ensure inclusion of that input in the process.
  • Collaborate: Inviting members of the public to partner with staff to work toward mutually-beneficial alternatives, from the beginning of a process to the final decision-making level.
  • Empower: Giving final decision-making responsibility to members of the public.

The important point of these distinctions is that staff should be clear with those who provide input on how that input will be used, and should always provide feedback on the role their input played in the ultimate decision outcome. If this is not clear from the outset, participants may feel they have been ignored at best, or at worst, deceived.

For more information on how to pursue these different participation strategies, consider attending the Conflict, Collaboration and Consensus in Natural Resources (CCCNR) program from Michigan State University Extension. In 2014, this program will be offered in two, two-day sessions: March 12-13 and April 9-10 at the Kettunen Center near Tustin, Mich. The cost for this program including materials, meals and lodging, is $495. 

Other articles in this series:

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