Okay, so I know we say there's a new era of public engagement going on out there. But there's really not. In fact, most people have been performing effective, modern public engagement for years – with the friends and family in our personal lives. After all, we all know how we want visitors to our homes to feel. We want them to feel wanted, not just welcome. Attended to, not just noticed. So we happily put in that little bit of extra work to ensure their experience is a good one. Give a little, get back a lot. The only thing that's new in public engagement is applying this same standard to the way decision-makers interface with their clients, stakeholders and customers.
And perhaps nowhere is this more important than for the federal, state and local entities tasked with upholding the environment.
Yes, effective public engagement is important for any community organization. But ask anyone at an environmental agency and they'll tell you: in their business, it's personal. The stakeholder coming out to comment on a proposal is there to protect the best interests of his land and family. The citizen coming to their website with a question wants to be treated with the same urgency as a member of the media – or you're likely to hear about it on their fishing/hunting/rafting blog.
For our blog entry, we looked at the websites of the 50 state environmental agencies to point out some of our favorite examples of effective online public engagement. In some instances, it was a little thing. A department page with every staff member's name, title, phone number and email. An easy-to-understand public notice format. But most times, what caught our attention was an effort by the agency to include the public right alongside their extremely serious obligations to the air and water. You know, that little extra work.
Our biggest pet peeve with any website – private or public – is when a piece of commonly needed information is buried somewhere, forcing us to dig through layers of discombobulated digital loam to find it. It goes back to the personal interaction thing. If you knew your neighbor was coming over to borrow your mower, you wouldn't hide it in the bathroom and make them go through every room in the house to find it, would you? Well, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality sure wouldn't! Because for visiting citizens, there's a prominent "Connect with DEQ" tab right on the main page that includes a Community Involvement tab which we found to be second to none as a public resource. In addition to public notices and a public meeting calendar (common to any environmental agency website, but particularly well-organized here), the page features more than a half-dozen links outlining their public participation policy, as well as general public participation concepts and even a guide to making effective public comments. Public notices are broken down by topic (air, water, energy) and provide an email link right to the relevant DEQ contact. For public engagement nerds like us, it's digital nirvana.
You know how you develop an eagle-eye for certain words or phrases when you have a personal connection to them? That's kind of how I am with the word "public" these days (thanks, job). When I'm looking for a foothold on a particular site, the word "public" jumps out at me like an eagle in one of those hidden-image illustrations from the '90s and always leads me to the right place. So it was on the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency website when I clicked on their "Divisions and Offices" tab and – boom! – my eye went straight to their Public Interest Center like the letters themselves had tractor beams. And I was not disappointed by what I found. Because there laid out like the menu of some fine public engagement eatery were the names, titles, phone numbers and emails of the entire staff, including a public interest chief and a four-person public involvement section. Actual people! With actual titles and ways to reach them! And along the side of the page? A public meeting calendar, fact sheets, and even a portal to submit a complaint. It's enough to make me start singing like Chrissie Hynde: "Ay-oh way to go, Ohio!"
Ah, New Hampshire. Not a big state. And yet full of people so forward-thinking they hold their presidential primaries nine months before the actual election. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services shares this ahead-of-the-curve flair, offering a tidy "Public" tab right on their main site with links to public notices and comment periods, as well as their dedicated Public Information and Permitting Unit (PIP), whose page is full of fact sheets, reports, and a comprehensive FAQ index for those interested in applying for various permits. In the end, it proves you don't need to be a gigantic state to make a big impact for citizens trying to use your site.
It takes a little poking around in the "About Us" section, but the Washington Department of Ecology has a cool public involvement page featuring a short video of various agency employees talking about the importance of public involvement. Now does that mean they do a better job of public engagement than other agencies? Beats me. But it kind of makes you feel like they do. They also have a short and sweet FAQ on the public comment process, as well as a frequently updated blog. And you know how we at SmartComment like our blogs. All in all, very cool Washington. Heck, at this point the only thing you could do to raise your stature in our eyes is hire us to handle your public comment periods. But that's for another conversation.
I gotta give the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection props. Besides their "Public Participation" tab right on the main site, they were also the only environmental agency that I found with their own electronic public comment software. In the words of Ron Burgundy: "I'm not even mad. That's amazing!" I mean, sure if they ever decide to break up with their software, we'd be open to hanging out and stuff, but we're rooting for them. I mean, just look at them together! If everyone cared about their public like that, the world would be a better place, right? Seriously, we're not jealous, like, at all, you guys...
PLEASE CALL US, PENNSYLVANIA!!!
Arkansas has a lot of lakes and trees. It also has a dedicated Public Outreach & Assistance page with names, emails and phone numbers for the entire staff, as well as links to permit hearings and meetings, press releases and more. All in one place. We likey.
The Louisiana DEQ markets its permitting and public meeting staff as a dedicated Public Participation Group and offers a nice slate of public resources, including a staff directory and a pretty helpful little FAQ.
Right on the main page of the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, you'll find a handy Public Participation tab that takes you right to a whole slew of public notice links and a particularly helpful Environmental Permitting Handbook with information on all aspects of their permitting process.
Okay, so it may be a small thing, but their request-for-comment notices are just darn pretty. No small type or uninteresting (and unending) block print here. It's all nicely laid out with the full information of the relevant agency contact broken out on the side. As far as public notices go, these are Picassos.