This is an article by Sam Lytle, P.E. speaker for our upcoming CEC session: The Value of Positive Perception for Your Civil Project which you can find here
It’s hard to fathom now, but only months ago, groups of unmasked people gathering together to learn about a public works project was not only a common and important part of our democratic process, but a valuable opportunity to gain valuable public support.
Virtual public meetings have now become a viable alternative to pre-COVID gatherings. With this shift — and similar to many other industries in 2020 — has come a fundamental questioning of the very purpose of these public meetings. Has technology made meeting together unnecessary? Will these changes rewrite decades of written and unwritten rules about the necessity of public meetings to communicate project designs?
The questions — and answers — around COVID limitations and the virtual ramifications are interesting but largely moot in regard to outreach in relation to public works projects. The goal of outreach is to communicate (often complex) design to the public and stakeholders, and we are quickly learning that whether this interaction is in-person or virtual, it is still communication. Possibly different or maybe even more effective, but still communication nonetheless. The shift from in-person to virtual can be compared to the shift from hand-drawn to computerized renderings — more effective but still serving the same purpose.
Regarding the claim that virtual public meetings may be MORE effective than in-person meetings, just a few notes. First, in-person public meetings are limited in a variety of ways, largely time and geographical. To make it to a public meeting in person you need to have transportation and you need to be available at that specific time. Virtual meetings, on the other hand, can be accessed anywhere in the world and often for extended periods of time. The second point is that virtual meetings better leverage technology currently available, including images, videos, social media, and even public comment. I’ve attended in-person public meetings that also streamed the proceedings live via Facebook, and the virtual attendees outnumbered and out-participated those on site 10 to 1.
The discussion about the current shift to virtual public meetings (and possible advantages) out of the way, why should we care what anyone thinks about our projects anyway? Most projects are needed, well designed, carefully thought out and planned, and improve the world in a variety of ways. What does public support for or against such a project contribute to or take away from these infrastructure improvements?
A lot, actually.
First among the advantages of positive project public perception (please use a pop filter when saying that on your next Zoom meeting) is simply financial. Less opposition means fewer changes (including during construction change orders) as well as right-of-way negotiations. These savings can be tangible and quantifiable.
Other potential benefits of positive public perception include reduced friction with the public (including possible advantages to schedule due to limited pushback), increased project excitement, increased adjacent property values, and support from local news and media.
Conversely, poor public support and perception for a project can cause delays, ruined budgets, stress, and possibly even canceled projects.
Developing and executing a good public outreach strategy isn’t just a good lunch-and-learn topic — it is an investment that will pay dividends for many years to come.
About the Author:
Sam Lytle, P.E., founded Civil FX in 2014 to offer 3D visualization services for transportation and other infrastructure projects before selling the company to Parametrix in 2020. In addition to supporting Parametrix visualization efforts, Sam has since started a new company, Beyond CAD, to build visualization software for the civil engineering industry. Vision will be the first software published by Beyond CAD and will be available in 2021. Sam also hosts a weekly podcast as part of the CEMENT network called “We Make Civil Engineering Look Good.” Sam lives in his hometown of Alamo, Nevada, with his wife and four kids, where he is actively involved in his church and community. You can connect with him here.
If you’re interested in your firm possibly joining the Civil Engineering Collective, please contact us here or call us at 800-920-4007 ext. 800.
I hope you’ll join us.
Anthony Fasano, P.E.
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success