A Public Comment Primer

SmartComment’s Tips for Creating an Effective Project Comment

Thomas Mullen
July 23, 2015

When it comes to public comment management we at SmartComment don't play favorites. Every comment that comes into our system is a valued part of the proposal dialogue – from that 1,000-word comment entered into a SmartComment web site to a written comment from the public put in a box at a public hearing.

We look at each of these public comments like our children. Each and every one that's entered into our public comment software has a special place in our family. The loud one, the polite one, the thoughtful one, the rambunctious one – they're all accounted for, heard and responded to – all the while diligently funneled toward graduation into the proposing agency's final report or Environmental Impact Statement.

Fact is, we truly do appreciate and admire anyone who takes time out from life's other priorities to stand up and represent the public in matters that far too many people assume are being adequately considered and weighed by, well... someone else.

But as these tiles are formed into a public engagement mosaic, we can't help but notice that some submitted opinions simply have that special sauce. With the noticeable zing and the savory aftertaste. That way of getting their point across that makes us want to stand up and clap our hands. That blend of articulation and reason that we just know other people are going to notice too.

So with that ideal in mind, here are SmartComment's official tips for writing a truly effective public comment.

Study Up

We're not trying to play your middle-school English teacher here, but please allow us a brief analogy. When you're building an argument, opinions are the wood – plentiful, easy to process and (ideally) polished to a high sheen. Facts are the nails. You may only need a few, but put them in the right place and you've got yourself a public comment that stands on its own. Unlike opinions, though, you can't just make these babies up. You've actually got to go out and find them. Reading the full proposal you're commenting on is a great first step, of course. If you're looking to make a compelling case one way or another, you might want to dip into the dreaded  "additional reading material" (again, with the English teacher thing). Maybe Google a newspaper article or two. Or pull up a government study. We promise you won't even have to get up from your computer, which actually makes rounding up a fact or two easier than getting a pack of nails. Or maybe that's just our opinion...

Explain Yourself

Sure, you could just write up a comment stating your opposition or support to a proposal affecting your local infrastructure without offering a shred of elaboration. And, yes, your comment would be counted and heard like all the others. But then you're the person on the paintball team who took the time to drive all the way out to the range at 6 in the morning, got all geared up and psyched, signed for your air gun, waited for the battle to start... and then fired a single shot in the direction of the other side and sat down. What the heck, man??? You're trying to post a win for your side here, right? Is that really your strategy? We're not saying you should stay out of the battle just because you felt like burning the minimum amount of calories. Don't get us wrong: we sort of respect your sniper's approach to life. You don't like to waste your bullets. We get it. But the important battles tend to be won by those who follow up a hearty opening salvo with a consistent, effective layer of covering fire. So by all means, if you showed up to fight for your side, donÕt be afraid to spend a little ammo.

Provide Solutions

Like our mama said, talking about a problem and offering a solution will get you noticed. Not to take anything away from complaining of course. We actually happen to be terrific complainers. And pointing out the problem is indeed an important step in problem-solving. But it's the first step. All the other steps? They should lead toward an actual solution. And if all the great points in your public comment don't lead to one, well, don't expect anyone to magically infer one from your comment. By the way, the solution doesn't have to be complex. Maybe you're in full support of the current strategy. Maybe you liked an earlier draft proposal. Maybe you want the agency to do some more research. Those are all possible solutions. Just, you know, don't leave that part out.

Seriously, Leave Your Name. And Probably Your Address.

Will your comment be read and responded to without your full name? Of course. But it's like not wearing a nametag at one of those functions where they hand out nametags. Sure, you will be listened to and checked on the attendee list -- just like everyone else. But in a room where 99 percent of people are wearing the darn nametag, the people listening to you are gonna silently wonder what your deal is. Did you lose the darn name tag already? Refuse one on ethical grounds? Are you just too cool? On the lam? Either way, leaving your full name on a comment is good form. In fact, we're gonna go ahead and say you might as well just go ahead and leave your address and phone number on that comment too. Who knows? Maybe your comment has a legit impact on the public debate? Maybe the transit officials/environmental agency/county commissioners want to hear more from you? In the end, the public comment process is a two-way street of accountability. And nobody has ever come away from a group dialogue saying, "Boy, remember that one guy who walked up out of nowhere, didn't introduce himself, talked for a little bit and then vanished like a ghost? He had some really great points!"