How can environmental professionals make the most of new online engagement tools?

Angie - Test Knowles, | April-24-14




As a result of recent advancements in online engagement tools, environmental practitioners now have a number of new options to inform and engage different stakeholders on a project. 
Discover the characteristics and benefits of these various tools in this article by guest writer Aimée Brisebois. 
Guest Post by: Aimée Brisebois, BSc., MRM
Note to readers: The idea for this article stemmed from Robyn Spencer’s article on online public consultation tools for planners in Plan Canada Magazine. My article follows a similar format to Spencer’s article, but focuses on the applicability of online public engagement tools for environmental professionals in the natural resource management sector.
Environmental professionals, similar to planners, must manage varying perspectives on proposed projects from different stakeholders and the public. Increasingly, online tools are used to broaden the scope of traditional public consultation strategies by providing an accessible and inclusive opportunity for the public to contribute to consultations. Online public engagement tools can be a valuable addition to your public engagement strategy, however deciding which tool is best suited for a particular consultation may be a challenge. 
Individuals and teams who provide public consultation regarding natural resources constantly strive to improve their outreach initiatives. This is because natural resource development, including heavy infrastructure projects, often evokes strong emotions in residents near, and sometimes far, from the proposed project. 
The following article provides a summary of the types of available online public engagement tools, including examples of tools in each category and useful applications for environmental professionals.

What kind of online public engagement tools are available? 

My goal is not to go into detail about specific public engagement tools, but to provide a starting point to educate environmental professionals about the variety of online public engagement tools. In her article, Spencer highlighted three categories of online public engagement tools: Scenario Planning, Process Ware Houses, and Issue Identification and Action Generators.  I’ll add Location-based Consultation Tools to this list.

(1) Location-based Community Consultation Tools

What is it?
This type of tool uses a secure platform and mapping based on neighbourhood, municipality, region, or province to identify and gauge responses from residents who are impacted by a spatially-defined project. The tool uses a multi-faceted approach and combines the information into one platform that can help assess scenarios, provide a process warehouse, and identify issues and subsequent actions to these identified issues. 
The one tool in this category also authenticates participants by linking them to an address. Their subsequent participation in a consultation provides reliable, evidence-based data to decision makers. User authentication also decreases online “troll” action.
What are the benefits for environmental professionals?
Location-based tools allow practitioners to gather evidence-based data from residents and use this data to inform decision-making. You can also gauge marketing efforts in specific neighbourhoods and refine your efforts based on results. 
Additionally, this type of tool helps environmental professionals inform and educate early during the proposal stages. This can be particularly useful to identify the general views of a specific neighbourhood. Finally, professionals can use the tool to divide maps strategically to gauge resident responses near proposed heavy infrastructure sites.
PlaceSpeak (*As far as we know, no other online public consultation platform provides all of the above-mentioned features.)


(2) Scenario Planning Tools

What is it?
Many Scenario Planning tools combine some GIS functionality and specific community goals to allow users to test development ideas and land-use scenarios. 
Some Scenario Tools can also effectively support projects that involve a multi-faceted issue and a large number of residents. Other Scenario Planning Tools cover more specific topics with a smaller engaged group. Some Scenario Planning Tools may be expensive and time consuming to facilitate. 
What are the benefits for environmental professionals?
Environmental professionals can use these tools to help select a development option that best fits a community’s social, environmental, and economical goals. This type of tool can also be used specifically to select a redevelopment option for a contaminated site.


(3) Process Warehouses

What is it?
Process warehouses can double as a “project website” and provide a central clearing house for the education, engagement, and reporting aspects of the public engagement toolkit. Spencer states that these tools are particularly effective in the “inform and educate” category of the International Association of Public Participation spectrum. Many of these tools allow you to add images, including maps, polls, and simple or complex surveys. 
What are the benefits for environmental professionals? 
This type of tool helps environmental professionals to inform and educate the public far in advance of any actual development. This is indispensable to gauging acceptance or challenges with the proposal, and to gain knowledge on issues that may arise in the future. 


(4) Issue Identification and Action Generators (IIAGs)

What is it?
This type of tool allows users to identify important issues and suggest actions to address specific challenges. IIAGs are similar to a gap analysis in which communication or policy gaps are detected. The difference with IIAGs is that they are issue-driven, with resident responses driving the solutions.
What are the benefits for environmental professionals?
Practitioners can use IIAGs to empower the public in the early stages of planning, ensuring that residents have the opportunity to generate and share ideas in initial discussions.

How to select an online public engagement tool
To select the best online tool to support your public engagement initiatives, start by thinking about what results you would like to obtain and check to see which of the platforms will provide you with the best data to help inform your decisions. 
Your tool selection will also depend on which stage of the process you, as the client, intend to gather public input.  For example, if the project was nearly decided, but you selected a tool that implies that the public still has an opportunity to shape results, public confidence in your process and your organization could be severely damaged.
Check out Spencer’s article highlighting the importance of a) identifying stakeholders and their needs, b) keeping the conversation honest by using platforms with verified users, and c) using online tools as a “value-added” component to your public engagement initiatives. 
Furthermore, selecting a platform which meets the majority of the IAP2’s public engagement continuum may also optimize your results. Consider these questions: Does the platform inform or educate, gather information, allow for discussion, engage, and partner with the public?

Overall, an online tool could enhance your public engagement strategy and public confidence in your process by increasing your points of contact with the community, and providing an accessible and safe way for residents to contribute to your consultation. 
Selecting an appropriate consultation process can also manage public expectations about their role and influence on the project. Heavy infrastructure projects involve community engagement on many different levels, particularly during the pre-application and application phases for municipalities. 
Many different tools exist and selecting an ideal option for your project and community should be based, among other reasons, on the results and information you would like to obtain at the end of the public consultation. 
Aimée Brisebois tackles strategic business development at PlaceSpeak Inc., a Vancouver-based online public participation tool, with a master’s degree in natural resource management (specializing in environmental toxicology with a certificate in urban planning). She has a keen interest in bridging the communication gap between developers, the public, and the environmental sector to see projects completed to a relevant and achievable triple bottom line. Connect with her on Twitter @AimeeRita