Monday, March 16, 2015

Developing a Comprehensive Community Engagement Plan

Developing a Comprehensive Community Engagement Plan is a fundamental component of any successfully environmental program and can provide great insight into any social or political barriers to implementation, as well as help identify key stakeholders, and tease out potential points of controversy and potential trade-offs. Typically the goal of any community engagement plan is to gain public and agency buy-in for a project, as well as identify potential problems that could derail the project or result in litigation.

A successful outreach campaign should include the following key components a) clearly defined driving forces, goals, and objectives; b) holistic understanding of the target audience including the demographics, attitudes and behaviors, barriers to action, and a strategy to package and distribute your message (e.g. websites, FAQ’s, talking points, etc.); and c) metrics to track the success of the outreach campaign, as well as a plan to adaptively management the outreach strategy for the duration of the outreach phase of the project.

The goal of a successful outreach campaign should be transparency and public buy-in. For these reasons, you must identify all of the relevant stakeholders and actively conduct outreach to them. In the following Case Study we targeted groups that were clearly opposed to the proposed project, in addition to those that were supportive of the project and willing to write letters of support or more. There are several reasons that I advocate for the direct engagement with opposition groups: First, it is a gesture to the group acknowledging their interest and potential influence over the outcome of the project. Second, it allows you the opportunity to understand the group’s issues, reservations, and potential areas of compromise during the planning process. And finally, direct engagement and compromise are the best methods to reduce the likelihood of litigation or injunction against the project.

As a case study, I have provided an example of the Community Engagement Plan that was cooperatively developed with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and partner NGO’s for the proposed mouse eradication project on the Farallon Islands. I was a key member of the core partnership and the lead author of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, as well as the project director for outreach and communications for select NGO partners. In the outline below, I have identified the key aspects of an effective strategic outreach plan with specific examples based from the Farallon Islands project. Please feel free to ask questions or provide feedback. Thank you,


Case Study: Farallon Islands Proposed Mouse Eradication Draft EIS Outreach Campaign

The Key Components of an Outreach Campaign Include:

A.      Defining driving forces, goals, and objective
a.       The primary driving force behind the proposed mouse eradication was to remove invasive house mice from the Farallon Islands to restore the ecosystems on the islands and protect native species including ashy storm-petrels, endemic arboreal salamanders, endemic cave crickets, and other species.
                                                                                       i.      The specific needs for this outreach campaign were to educate the public on the need for mouse removal, to clearly explain the differences between the use of rodenticides on the mainland for rodent control purposes and the use of rodenticides designed for conservation purposes on islands, and to gain support for the project.
b.      The goals of the project include:
                                                                                       i.      Conduct outreach with interested parties and gain support from permitting agencies, NGOs and individuals prior to the release of the DEIS, as well as during the public comment period
                                                                                     ii.      Educate the public and interested parties about the project and the Farallon Islands
                                                                                    iii.      Hold a public meeting that was well attended and prevented grandstanding
                                                                                   iv.      Work with the media to ensure that the project is projected in a good light
c.       The objects of the project include:
                                                                                       i.      Gather signatures for a letter of support for the project prior to the release of the DEIS
                                                                                     ii.      Conduct an embargoed press release to ensure positive press coverage of the project on the release of the DEIS and the announcement in the Federal Register
                                                                                    iii.      Develop a website, FAQs, fact-sheets, talking points, press releases, and more for the project
                                                                                   iv.      Give radio interviews that are well informed, provided insight to the project, and ensured that it is viewed in a good light

B.      Identify the target audience including the demographics, attitudes and behaviors, and barriers to action
a.       The target audience for the outreach associated with the Farallones project included:
                                                                                       i.      Animal Rights groups that oppose all of the potential alternatives proposed
                                                                                     ii.      Anti-pesticide groups that oppose all of the potential alternatives proposed
                                                                                    iii.      Environmental Interest Groups that understand the need for action, approve of the proposed alternatives, and support the project
                                                                                   iv.      General public that is uninformed about the project and need for action, as well as a need to provide information that will give them a better understanding of the project, understand the need to act, and the rationale behind the proposed alternatives
                                                                                     v.      Agencies that will be providing and approving permits, if the project is implemented
b.      The primary barriers to action include:
                                                                                       i.      Animal Rights groups and anti-pesticide groups could seek an injunction claiming that the FWS did not sufficiently evaluate all of the potential alternatives available to remove mice from the islands.
1.       To overcome this barrier we actively communicated with detractor groups, invited them to participate in public meetings, and comment on the DEIS.  We kept them in the loop with regard to outreach to interested parties. We also controlled their ability to grandstand during the public meeting and in the media through the design of the public meeting and outreach protocol.
                                                                                     ii.      Agency buy in to the project that will need to issue and approve permits
1.       To overcome this barrier we met with every agency that has a stake in the permitting of this project, gave presentations to their staff, and allowed them to comment on the project and identify the path forward to receiving a permit through their agency
                                                                                    iii.      Public trust is an issue because many citizens do not trust the FWS to act in the best interest of the public with regard to the management of public lands
1.       To overcome this barrier we worked with the public to answer any questions they had and allowed the public to feel like their input was going to be considered prior to choosing a preferred alternative. For this reason, the FWS and its partners did not choose a preferred alternative for the DEIS to allow the public to weigh in on the decision.
                                                                                   iv.      Activist groups mistrust the motivation of some of the partner NGOs and claiming that they advocate for pesticides for pesticide companies
1.       To overcome this barrier the NGO in question took a backseat during the public meeting to show that the FWS owns the project and that the NGO’s interests lie in the restoration and conservation of the island rather than the method used to remove the mice.  It was also made clear that this NGO’s role in this project was only in the compliance and outreach processes and not the implementation. Additionally, I crafted a policy statement on the NGO’s position on the use of conservation rodenticides, as well as submitted comments to Cal DPR in support of its proposal to restrict the use of second generation anticoagulants in California.
c.       Messaging - Creating, packaging, and distributing a message
                                                                                       i.      The FWS and its partner NGOs worked together for several years to determine the ideal messaging for this project.  We created several factsheets, FAQs, blog posts, and talking points that presented the project in the best light possible. Additionally, all of the partners were relaying the same message to the public, agencies, and interested parties. 
                                                                                     ii.      The partners framed the message in a way that would ensure that our message in support of the project was clear, transparent, and owned up to the risks rather than attempting to bury them.
                                                                                    iii.      We used several different media and outreach approaches to ensure that the project was branded properly and steered clear of potential conflicts through social media.

C.      Evaluating the campaign
a.       Metrics used to Track campaign success
                                                                                       i.      The campaign directly before and during the public comment period was highly successful at achieving it’s intended goals:
1.       The partnership received support from over 20 NGO groups and individuals on the sign on letter
2.       We held over 5 different radio interview that were highly successful Over 20 articles, blogs, and interviews were written and the majority of them portrayed the project in a positive light.
3.       We received buy in and support from all permitting agencies and approval of much of the DEIS and the planning processes.
b.      Adaptive Management Plan used as a framework adaptive decision making during the campaign
                                                                                       i.      We developed a framework for decision making that included a command structure, risk scenarios, tipping points, contingency plans, and adaptive protocols
1.       We developed potential risk scenarios based on perceived or known concerns with stakeholder groups, agencies, or other influential group
2.       Based on what we knew about the different stakeholder, we held regular meeting to discuss outreach to those parties and determine if our protocol had changed or if a tipping point in the campaign had been reached that would negative affect our preferred outcome.
3.       Risk scenarios were developed and modified throughout the implementation of the outreach campaign based on media, social media, agency, or public responses to the DEIS and public meeting. A tipping point, or threshold, was developed for each risk scenario, and a contingency plan was developed for each risk scenario.
4.       A chain of command was developed for decision making and adaptive management in order to ensure that decision were made in an orderly and logical manor.