• L. Darryl Armstrong

Public involvement and engagement is never easy

Recently we were informed by one of our contractors that our facilitation services were no longer needed.  They, or the client (a state and federal agency) had decided that the existing budget would not accommodate us.

Frankly, we were relieved as we were nearing the point of having to remove ourselves from the situation.

Telling a client they don’t  understand  our principles and philosophy of public involvement and advising them that therefore we can’t work with them is never an easy task, yet sometimes it is essential. We will not comprise our integrity or principles.

We are in the business of helping our clients engage and involve their stakeholders through facilitated processes; we are not in the business of trying to control or restrict the involvement or engagement of the stakeholders.

We take great pride in the integrity of our work.

Our philosophy ensures that the public is involved, informed and educated about how they can best participate especially in decisions that directly affect them and that are paid for with their tax dollars.

Candidly, we came to believe this client never had any intention of  really “involving” the public, they simply wanted us to run highly-controlled meetings that legally  met the terms of the regulations they operated under. This is not unlike many federal and state agencies, sadly to say. We are not controllers, we are facilitators.

We tried more than once to explain that the public has the right to “be engaged, involved and educated” not just “informed in a controlled environment.”

We equally tried to help the client understand the value of collaboration with the stakeholders. They would simply have none of it.

We predict that one day soon these agencies will bear the brunt of the wrath of the stakeholders either through being exposed by the media or by political involvement.

Which brings me to congratulate another of our clients, Lockheed Martin’s Environmental Remediation group, who recently went on a journey with interested members of the public who wanted to know more about remediation work proposed at the Middle River complex in Maryland.

This client truly wanted a “facilitated process” that would inform, engage and educate the client while providing a venue for dialogue and discussion leading to meaningful stakeholder input.

I will grant you that this journey required considerable work on the part of the Lockheed Martin team to ensure that information was prepared and delivered in a manner the public could understand and appreciate.

It also required stepping out in faith to actually engage in meaningful discussions with the neighbors who participated.  It required an attitude of wanting to develop relationships beneficial to everyone involved and a willingness to ask for input.

Three working sessions (and many hours of preparation) later the stakeholders demonstrated through their feedback and dialogue that not only did they understand the issues associated with the cleanup, they also understood the alternatives to cleaning it up and came to understand and even agree with many of the cleanup alternatives as was being proposed.

The public’s comments and inputs were solicited and will be used in developing the final alternative.

From the outset, Lockheed Martin made it clear that they in collaboration with the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) and the US-EPA would make the final decisions on the remedial cleanup.

Yet by involving, engaging and educating the public on the front-end about the environmental situation, listening carefully to the stakeholders’ issues and concerns, soliciting their feedback and input, answering their questions and taking the time to determine what they  valued all this led to the stakeholders developing a “stake” in the remedial cleanup.

By listening respectfully to their input and where possible taking their suggestions, the final decision on this cleanup will reflect the values and needs of the local community stakeholders and in the process meaningful relationships were developed that will ultimately lead to a successful path forward.

This, my friends, is the type of client we want to be associated with and we are appreciative.

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