Surrounded by the natural beauty of the coastal Northwest, Bari Schreiner needs no reminders about the importance of her job as an environmental planner for the Washington State Department of Ecology in Olympia, Wash. Among her duties, Schreiner helps oversee public engagement regarding rule changes and other proposals affecting the state's environment. She sat down with SmartComment to discuss how citizen outreach has changed during her career at the agency and why her team is turning to digital technology to transform its comment management process.
SmartComment: Thanks for talking with us. Let's maybe start by talking about how long you've been at Ecology and how you ended up in your role?
Bari Schreiner: I started at Ecology in 2001. So I've been here for 17 years, working all that time in our Rules and Accountability Office. In college, I studied public administration and really wanted to work on things related to policy and program development. I saw an ad for the Department of Ecology and it sounded interesting, so I applied--and I've been here ever since.
SC: When you were in college did you have an interest in the environment specifically or were there other fields you would have been open to going into?
BS: I wasn't specific about focusing my work on the environment--in fact I started my career at a completely different agency with a different background. But I really like the work we do here. I like the variety and the scope of projects and the different opportunities we have to work with the public.
SC: Speaking of that, what are the biggest considerations that go into developing a new rule or proposal at Ecology? What kinds of things factor into a given decision?
BS: A lot of our rule-making is the result of legislation that may have passed the previous year. So we always start out with an understanding of the legislative intent and what lawmakers meant with the direction they gave us to develop the rule. And then it's really about understanding the science and technology related to that content and getting input from people who are going to be impacted by the rule. When we're drafting the actual proposal, we really want to craft the most efficient version of it and figure out ways to incorporate the feedback from people who are going to have to comply with it while still meeting the goals and objectives of the statutes.
SC: How many periods does Ecology manage each year?
BS: It really varies. Our comment periods can be broad-reaching and apply across the state, or they can be really targeted toward a particular site or facility. In the past year, we had a couple comment periods that generated hundreds of thousands of responses--and then we had hundreds of others that maybe only had five or fewer comments. So sometimes it's as much about handling the number of projects as it is about the number of comments, and SmartComment really allows us to manage all of that. We can quickly open a webpage to take input for a new comment period, set it to close on a given date, and see all the comments as they come in--what they're about, what people are saying--and begin to categorize them. That way, we can focus our time on thinking about what those comments are really saying and how to respond to them rather than having to figure out how to physically handle 100,000 individual comments that come in one at a time.
SC: I know your agency has put a big premium on using innovation to improve how you interact with the public. How has technology changed your public engagement process in the time you've been there?
BS: When I started here, the internet wasn't as prominent a source of information as it is now. Email wasn't even used as frequently so getting the word out involved a lot of paper mailing. Now, we're able to use our website to do that even if we don't have a physical address for someone. Also, how people want to receive information is constantly changing. People wanting information on their mobile phones wasn't even heard of in 2001; it was the flip phone era back then. So figuring out how to appropriately use social media and other new technologies is a big challenge, but it's also a big bonus to the agency because we can reach out and engage more people than we could in the past.
SC: If you don't mind, could you walk through the step-by-step process that happens when you open a public comment period and then what you're responsible for doing when that comment period closes?
BS: When we're getting ready to issue a rule proposal or draft permit, usually the first step is to ensure we have the right technical expertise in place on the team for that project. It might require someone from water or engineering, and we may bring in some communications staff to help us identify the people who are going to have to comply with the rule. Then it's about who will be interested in the project and the best way to reach those audiences. Is it holding public meetings in person? Is it an online forum where they can ask questions over the phone or through a webinar? And we always emphasize that written comments receive the same consideration as oral testimony, so offering people the ability to submit their comments to us electronically is really useful to our process. Once the comment period closes, we have a period of time where we read through the comments, and start using SmartComment to categorize them by theme so we can identify the things that we're hearing, start writing responses, have conversations with our management, and make a decision about next steps. For some projects, it may be going out and gathering more information and maybe revising what we put out there, or it could be we're ready to go forward with a final decision. I think our digital process allows us to adapt--whether there are five people who are interested in the project or 300. You always want to apply the same process and figure out the right approach for a given topic.
SC: What do you think is the biggest misconception the public has about the environmental process? Do you hear those old complaints where some people think a project is going to go forward anyway no matter what they say? What's the best way to combat that perception?
BS: We do hear that sometimes, but we work really hard to make sure we have a transparent process and that people understand where the opportunities are to provide feedback. Some communities really prefer that we come and meet with them face-to-face, while some communities prefer webinars so they don't have to drive really far to attend something in person. Some communities have regular venues that they're used to going to so we try to use those as much as we can. And we try to make sure people can talk directly to the members of our staff that are working on the project--from the person who designed the materials to who created the report. Sometimes we'll bring in facilitators and do a round-table format so we can hear from people that way. It's important to just give people that one-on-one time so they can ask questions and get more into the weeds with our technical staff about how decisions were made and why. The final decision has to balance the comments we've heard, while still meeting the goals and the objectives and the authorization we were given. But we want the public to feel that the process was conducted in a way that took their opinion into account. I think that brings people back, so the next time we go out with a proposal they're more eager to participate. And that's what builds relationships over time.
SC: You live in a beautiful state with so many different topographies. What's your favorite part about your area?
BS: Being in the Olympia area, you're really close to Mount Rainier so we can go hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter. And we're not that far from the ocean so you can get out there and spend time on the beaches. Seattle is also nearby so you have all the options that come with that while still feeling like you're out in nature. It's just a very nice atmosphere that you don't get a lot of other places. And that's why we're doing a lot here in the state to preserve that natural beauty.