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Reaching Out, Reaching In
A Guide to Creating Effective Public Participation
for State Historic Preservation Programs

Barry R. Lawson, Ellen P. Ryan, and Rebecca Bartlett Hutchison
Web Edition 2002 (originally published in 1993)


Reaching Out,
Reaching In

Table of Contents

A Note on the Authors

Section 1. Reaching Out
Section 2. Preservation Vision 2000
Section 3. Reaching In

Sources in Public Participation

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Section 1 set forth a structure for designing a public participation work program, using tried and tested techniques from historic preservation planning as well as from other planning arenas. The Maryland case study presented in Section 2 provided a demonstration of how one state created a public participation element to support the revision of its historic preservation plan. Maryland's outreach program was well thought out, carefully implemented, and successfully concluded. It was also well funded, had the support of devoted staff, and was blessed with enthusiastic participants. Maryland's approach is, of course, not the only way to achieve outreach goals, nor is that approach necessarily the most appropriate with limited funding or staff, overriding political challenges, or a different planning context.

Section 3 addresses some of the real world problems that historic preservation planners face, and provides suggestions to consider n solving these problems. Again, these are suggestions only. More important, perhaps, than the actual technique(s) selected are the ways in which the challenges confronting the public participation staff are viewed within the context of the goals and objectives of the state preservation program. For this, we draw heavily on the approach outlined in Section 1 for guidance.

Section 3 is divided into two major elements: a discussion of how to approach some of the more challenging problems that can confront an agency, and suggested responses to four situations, each of which calls into play problem assessment and strategy development and implementation.

Among the most challenging problems are limited or declining resources (staff and/or funding); how to cope with hostility from an individual or group; how to use an advisory committee or ad hoc group most effectively; and how to leverage your office's resources with other agencies and organizations to achieve your goals and to become more integrated into the broader state agency planning context. Each of these can be particularly difficult for the public participation specialist. The suggested responses provide guidance in addressing them.

The situations presented are only a few of many situations that can engender frustration, require creative response, and provide experience and confidence to address the inevitable and the unexpected.

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Not having enough resources is a frequently heard lament among many planning offices and is not a problem facing historic preservation planners exclusively. Public participation and public education are often undervalued by people assembling budgets, developing plans, and seeking acceptance and support. It is often thought that the important support is political support and that if you have the right person(s) supporting you at the right time and in the right position, the plan's efficacy can be assured. Some believe that historic preservation, in particular, is the interest of the elite, a group often seen to be capable of supporting a program on the basis of who knows whom, and of the well spent dollar. A strong historic preservation background, this belief continues, must assuredly be the minimum requirement for anyone working with the public in historic preservation planning; therefore, communication skills are secondary - a nice complement if you can find it.

From years of experience, we now realize that long-term public acceptance and support comes through public awareness and understanding. No matter the amount of resources available, the principle holds that the information function is the basic building block of reaching out to the public. The challenge is to find the most effective methods for soliciting information from, or disseminating information to, the people who can ultimately provide the acceptance and support you need for a sustainable and growing program.

Two most effective ways to communicate are to use the personal contacts of the office director or other staff to disseminate a periodic newsletter or informational material regularly to all interested and affected people whose acceptance and support can make the difference in the success of your program. A newsletter (or something comparable) should be produced at least twice a year, and contain the essentials about your program (e.g., program elements, priorities, project successes, and ways that the public can participate and help). With the availability of desktop publishing and computerized mailing lists, this type of communication is within the grasp of every office. And it keeps your efforts in front of your constituency, builds credibility and acceptance, and can yield the desired long-term public support.

Personal contacts also develop important relationships, keep you informed and able to respond quickly and effectively to opportunities, and develop mutually beneficial programs.

Within the public consultation arena, there are few outreach techniques that have the potential payoff that a well-managed advisory group can provide. Regular meetings (at least quarterly) can give you face-to-face contact with people with advice and perspectives, a potential source for volunteer assistance, and another form of information exchange. Keeping a committee sufficiently interested and motivated works toward the second of your main goals - turning awareness and understanding into acceptance and support. You must make a commitment to this committee, and staff it sufficiently to make the committee assignment a pleasure rather than a burden to members.

The minimum resources needed to accomplish these three programs are relatively small - demanding mainly a commitment of time on a regular basis. With these elements in place and functioning and additional resources available for more outreach, you can begin to design other programs for special audiences or constituencies, become more sophisticated on education programs, create cooperative projects with the media, and undertake interactive workshops and programs to bring larger numbers of people into your circle. Creative financing can bring many of these elements into a modest program - through voluntary effort of an advisory group, other interested organizations, and co-sponsors.

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Few people relish confrontation with arrogant, unreasonable, shortsighted, or ignorant members of the public. Nine times out of ten, the result is hostility or avoidance, neither of which is conducive for effective collaboration and progress. As a practical matter, hostility is a less pervasive phenomenon in the historic preservation planning field than in some others, such as those types of public and private projects that attain NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) status. But it will occur, and every day spent in hostile relations sacrifices several more in remedying the damage. The first defense is to anticipate and eliminate the causes for hostility; the second is to reduce and minimize hostility once it has occurred.

Always be prepared, anticipate, and assess the conditions or context of your work. Develop sources of intelligence that will forewarn you of dissatisfaction, frustration, and anger that may be aimed at you in the media, at meetings, or in personal communication or correspondence.

The secret to managing hostility lies in anticipation and in your reaction. Many a potentially hostile scene can be reduced to encouraging cordial relations with a thoughtful telephone call, selecting an appropriate location for a meeting, making and keeping a commitment not just to listen, but to understand the basis for someone's anger. Then consider optional decisions or approaches to recognize and respect the points of view of all parties, including those with hostile personalities.

Once hostilities have broken out, your place is to remain calm and respectful, permitting the aggressor to state his or her case, to listen respectfully, to demonstrate that you understand the concern, and to explain slowly and patiently that you wish to address this and other issues of importance to your constituency. Recognize and acknowledge people's perspectives and suggest, at a minimum through your own calmer reaction, that there are ways to address issues in a less charged atmosphere. Your attitude is the key, and it can set the tone for discussions or issues of concern. Although it is natural to assume a defensive posture, this can only intensify the conflict and anger.

It is helpful to be aware and deal with potential sources of conflict and hostility, especially prior to meetings or other gatherings where the hostility can be displayed in front of larger audiences - and therefore become even more damaging. One-on-one, face-to-face meetings hold the greatest promise for correcting misunderstandings, listening to concerns, and, after considering the facts and your options, making a personal commitment to address issues on which you have some effect. It may require diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise, or it may only require clarification and awareness. But getting to the bottom of the issues as early as possible, and in an atmosphere that you can have control, is critical.

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Historic preservation planners are familiar with working with ad hoc groups, task forces, and review boards. These groups can provide, over the short and long run, a wealth of information, advice, and linkages to a broader public than is often possible to reach individually or even with a large staff. Many people enjoy serving on these committees because of the opportunities they provide for understanding and influencing policy and program initiatives, and for exposure to other influential people and organizations. A well managed advisory group can be one of the most cost effective techniques of public participation, and deserves serious consideration, management, and support.

These public groups provide multiple ears-to-the-ground, allow you access to diverse viewpoints, serve as sounding boards for new ideas prior to implementation and, perhaps, as the most significant form of support for your program. They can, if not managed properly and sensitively, undermine your ideas and efforts, detract attention from your high priority items, become a forum for dissent and hostility, and cost you valuable and limited staff time. Forethought, preparation, personal commitment, and management control are essential to avoid these pitfalls.

A few rules-of-thumb can assist when forming and/or working with an advisory group. The first is that members should be invited to serve for a specific length of time, to address a specific and explicit set of programs, and to participate in meetings where the rules of conduct are set forth by you and accepted by everyone else. The second is that you make a personal commitment to support and sustain the group, follow-up on their suggestions, acknowledge member contributions, and provide the administrative assistance appropriate for the smooth operation of the group. The third is that the group be representative of the affected and interested people and organizations (even if they may seem to be opponents of some aspects of your programs), that you establish a friendly and personal relationship with all members early, and that you be sensitive to the personal interests and concerns of each member.

It is wise to write a letter of invitation to each prospective member, spelling out the charges of the committee, explaining your goals and objectives for the group, and emphasizing your requirement that collaborative discussion of issues and advice and counsel are what you seek from the group. Explain how the information discussed at meetings will be used by you and your staff, underscoring the fact that you alone are responsible for the decisions you make and, as a result, you may accept some advice and reject other advice.

Seek agreement among the group on group leadership, agenda setting, and how debate and discussion will be managed. As convenor, you hold veto power on these issues, but it is wise to seek general agreement, or at least to hear and consider any contrary opinions that members wish to present. Remember they are serving at your request; but as they are accepting membership voluntarily, you should know the reason why they have accepted and to assist each in being as comfortable and satisfied with membership as possible.

It is not always best to designate an advisory group chairperson. A group facilitator is a viable option. This is a skilled meeting manager who is viewed as neutral and whose responsibilities include helping the group to set and follow a workable and relevant agenda, ensuring balanced participation from all members and staff, anticipating and dealing effectively with differences of opinions, and helping the group process to be as efficient as possible. A facilitator can play other roles (such as note-taking and recording, arranging meetings, keeping a wider mailing list of people informed of group deliberations and conclusions), but meeting management is the centerpiece of these contributions.

This approach takes the pressure off you as director of the office or lead person for public participation. It also allows for the advisory group to be a group of equals with no one person having greater access to you or influence by nature of group leadership. A facilitator may be found among the ranks of staff or the advisory group, but seldom is this as effective as someone with neutrality. This may cost money, or not, depending on the availability of people with facilitation skills and interest. Even if you must hire a facilitator, professional facilitation of four to six meetings a year is unlikely to break the budget, and can prevent a lot of aggravation, especially if there are potentially controversial issues or conflicting opinions among the group's membership.

Keeping the group to a manageable size (10 to 15 at a meeting) gives each person an opportunity to be involved and ensures that members can commit to attending meetings (this should be a condition of acceptance). Supporting the group by providing draft agendas and important meeting materials in advance of meetings, preparing and distributing minutes soon after meetings, and being available between meetings to answer questions and provide information to members are also significant steps you can take to make the advisory group concept work for you.

Managed well, the advisory group can be the most cost effective and productive consultation technique you utilize.

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Finding a way to increase your office's influence within state government and within the context of the organizations that affect the effectiveness of your efforts is the essence of strategy development and implementation. Increasingly, successful program managers are recognizing the importance of attention to strategic management. One aspect of this type of management is finding, producing, and using leverage to increase and multiply your effectiveness as an organization and as a program manager.

One key to leveraging lies in the identification of people who can help make things happen. Some of these people are in positions of political and economic power. They may reside inside or outside government, be elected or appointed, but they are the movers and shakers. Try to tap into their system, become recognized as an agency that can help or contribute to their success.

You must be able to attract attention with your programs and your personality, and show a willingness to work cooperatively and to the mutual advantage of both yourself and those that can help you achieve the success you seek. What is it you seek? A larger budget, access and visibility within the executive branch, support for an important program, an ear for your professional advice on a policy or project that can affect the goals of historic preservation?

You need to be clear what your goals and needs are, and be able to identify what you and your office can contribute - in short, to be able to sell the fruits of your labor as valuable to others.

The route to finding leverage may be straightforward or roundabout, depending on your personal relationships and your office's place within state government. Advisory group members may be able to help identify and provide guidance and contacts that can be helpful. Personal meetings with colleagues in other agencies who share common interests and program commitment, public support generated by a public event, media coverage, and financial commitment from national groups, federal agencies, cultural organizations, and foundations are ways to attract attention.

A certain amount of public relations may be essential to publicize an event or occasion. The media can be a helpful resource but typically only after you have spent some time cultivating relationships with them.

Historic preservation has not always been seen as a major element of state government. By taking advantage of obvious linkages to education, tourism, land-use planning and development, and cultural affairs, however, you can begin to develop the collaborative relationships that can help you integrate your efforts within a larger realm. By working with and helping others, you can find others who will work with and help you.

Public participation is a key element in this strategy. You need to make sure that the right people receive your information, are aware of your programs, and can understand, accept, and support your efforts. Public support is influential in itself. Information dissemination, including the mass media, is key. Personal presentation skills, the ability to turn a public even into a community relations success, and effective work with your advisory committee can help lay the basis for successful leveraging.

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A host of predicaments at one time or another may confront the state historic preservation office. It is beyond the scope of this guide to address more than a few in these pages. We have chosen four situations, however, that represent common issues or challenges, and more importantly, call for perspectives and responses that have value for a larger number of concerns. In suggesting responses to these situations, we continually refer to the goals and objectives of your programs, your priorities, and to the basic building blocks for reaching out.

Situation #1

"My staff has recently been cut back from eight to six and it looks as though I may lose another position in about six months. To make matters worse, the person I will lose has been my public participation specialist and there is no way I can replace her in the foreseeable future. What can I do to ensure that this outreach and information function continues at a respectable level?"

Suggested Response

The loss of a staff position is a double whammy. Not only do you lose a person who knows the ropes and has wide personal contacts, but you lose valuable talents in the public participation arena. It is difficult to offset these losses gracefully. Nevertheless, you must proceed: consider some realignment of responsibilities, rebuild the mix of skills on the staff, and continue with the most effective public involvement program elements. This is the essence of "reaching in."

One place to start is to recognize your goals for reaching out to the public and to find the most cost effective way to attain them. Even if budgets are tight and tightening, it is important to maintain visibility, credibility, and continuity. These call for information programs and opportunities for public input, just as you have done in the past. The newsletter program, public workshops, and advisory committee participation are three areas that should be high priorities. Honing writing skills, speaking skills, and group facilitation and management skill is important. You will need to have these skills available, either through you, your staff members, or through volunteer services.

Perhaps some training courses are appropriate for members of the staff to learn and perfect new skills. There are a host of one-day self-improvement seminars offered these days, and increasingly colleges and consulting firms offer assistance of develop these skills in your office. Self-improvement is usually welcomed by staff members as new skills bring self-esteem. Realize that public participation is a priority item no matter how small your program or limited your resources. It cannot simply be dropped, because with it will soon go the awareness and support you have built up over the past.

Situation #2

"The chairperson of the legislative committee responsible for initiating historic preservation protective measures has determined that economic development is the highest priority and that new preservation measures would be counterproductive. In fact, she is considering or revising current measures to be less onerous on the real estate developers of the state. What can we do from a public participation standpoint to counteract or neutralize this chairperson?"

Suggested Response

There is an unfortunate impression that historic preservation runs counter to the economic goals of the state. Often these impressions are given credibility by the overzealous developers who view placing restrictions or conditions on development as contrary to economic goals. Clearly there is some educational effort needed here, as well as, perhaps, the development of alliances with some of the economic groups like the tourism office, cultural affairs offices, and planning organizations.

More to the point, this chairperson and the people who are adversely influencing her should become more directly involved in your programs, possibly receiving a personal visit from you and being invited to participate on your advisory committee. Consider sponsoring an interactive workshop in which all participants (including the legislative leader) can discuss and develop suggestions for a preservation initiative that is complementary to economic growth. The time may be ripe for a legislative briefing on significant aspects of your program, particularly if there seem to be misunderstandings about it among legislative leaders. The governor's office also can be an important force in running interference, as can members of the advisory committee who may be able to inform and influence this legislator.

At a minimum, it is essential that the legislative leaders be kept informed of your programs (by you directly, whenever possible) and be made aware of the positive influence historic preservation can have on economic development.

Situation #3

"The advisory committee with which we have been working for the past three years has developed some strong animosities among its membership - with the divisiveness stemming from debates on which other state agencies we should work with cooperatively to accomplish our aims. Some feel we should work with the tourism and economic development departments, and others feel just as strongly that the goals of historic preservation would be compromised by their pro-development forces. How do we heal the fracture on this committee, and get people to work cooperatively again?"

Suggested Response

Several approaches may be considered for resolving this problem. One is to try to appease both groups, recognizing that some of what each has to offer holds some promise. After all, you do wish to work cooperatively with all members, and one never knows where support and encouragement, or leverage, is likely to arise. Another approach is to make a unilateral decision based on how you feel it is best to proceed and to thank those who have contributed their advice for helping you sort through the pros and cons.

A third approach reflects another consideration - that is, how do you get over this particularly sensitive hurdle and set the stage for better feelings within the membership in the future? It is well to review the principles behind the involvement of an advisory group presented earlier and, if necessary, restructure the group around the roles of advice and counsel. If the group has begun to think of itself as a decision-making body, you will want to reconsider the value to you of this group. Since the responsibility for making decisions resides within your office, you do not wish to cede this responsibility to others. You must remind the group of this fact, so that it is recognized clearly that the group's role is to provide advice, and that it is acceptable on occasion for there to be disagreement within the group on that advice. Controlled debate can be a useful way to illuminate different viewpoints and suggestions. But then the debate must stop and you must make the decision.

If certain members feel they cannot support you, for whatever reason, your credibility with them is suffering as a consequence, you must address the problem as soon as possible. Replacing advisory group members, while tempting sometimes, can be awkward and damaging as well. It should be a last resort only if their continued participation becomes so controversial and disruptive that the group loses its effectiveness.

For the group to be effective, members cannot allow differences in perspectives and opinions to be disruptive. As a good manager, you desire to hear different points of view. Advisory group members must realize that all one can expect is for a chance to give an opinion (and rationale) on matters on which you seek their opinions. You have no other responsibilities except courtesy and gratitude.

Situation #4

"Our office and most of the preservationists in our state have come under criticism as being elitist and supportive of the well-to-do, protecting their economic interests and shunning the interests of the broader population. It is true that our advisory committee is heavily laden with well-to-do types, and that some of the recent legislation we've supported is designed to protect resources that the wealthier and more educated classes most appreciate. We have tried to develop heritage parks and other historic areas where larger numbers of people can learn about the state's history. However, the criticism continues. How can we best turn people's impression around?"

Suggested Response

Historic preservationists are not the only interest group that has incurred problems in reaching out successfully to multi-cultural groups. The public participation program is the best place to change this impression, and actual program initiatives are the best way to proceed. Often, reaching out means just that, reaching out to your constituencies and not simply waiting for those interested and affected groups to self-select themselves and take the initiative. There are many reasons why the waiting attitude will not work. You must be proactive.

New program initiatives must be accompanied by awareness programs to make sure that the social, cultural, and economic interests of all social and cultural groups are reflected in your program. Again, we go back to the centerpieces of your public participation program - information dissemination, public consultation (including listening carefully to their perspectives, perceptions, and concerns), and support.

Here is a great opportunity to go to the schools and use the media to reach these groups. Field trips and workshops, where people from different backgrounds and perspectives can meet and share viewpoints, can be effective and enthusiastically supported. To make the information function effective, translation of selected materials into a more comfortable language for some participants can be seen as a generous gesture and provide the basis for understanding, support, and involvement by these groups.

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