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Communication Breakdown: Government Still Undervalues the Need for Legitimate Public Buy in

This past week my co-founder Manu and I headed to Sacramento for the annual California WateReuse conference, a policy/trade event that focuses on promoting the development of recycled water and desalination. Those in attendance included some of the industry’s best engineers, a wide array of public agencies and utilities, and of course, the public outreach consultants (yours truly). Civinomics (my company), had been invited to present our new outreach methodologies, namely our iPad interviewing application, so that others from around the state could get a sense of what we feel is the future of community engagement. So over the course of two days we met hundreds of cool, and extremely intelligent people, ate some of the best food in the state, and learned about some of the most cutting edge practices that are driving the industry and many communities forward.

Whew! So what were the big takeaways?

Well, first and foremost, I want to say that I have full confidence in our engineers to solve some of the most pressing and complex problems the world over. I just have little to no confidence in their ability to actually communicate what it is they are doing to the average person. And no, I am not alone. In fact, I had this same conversation with pretty much every person I spoke to.

“We definitely don’t value outreach enough” said the Vice President of an engineering consulting firm.

With literally hundreds of millions of dollars stake, backed by years of peer reviewed research on their side, it’s so strange that these obviously savvy people don’t make a greater effort to educate people about why their particular industry is so important. I mean water is really, really important! And it’s not like our water problems are going away anytime soon, just ask anyone living in Monterey.

So other than buying our totally awesome outreach services and web platform, (which is a great start), what should these agencies do?

Spend more time and energy on community involvement!

For instance, the stat that we normally use when estimated the amount of money spent just on outreach for any given project is about 1%. Yes that’s right, for a small scale project, such as the proposed desalination plant being pursued in Santa Cruz (115 million), less than 2 million will probably be spent on outreach. When considering the fact that the entire project, and the 20 years of planning associated with it, might be derailed by a ballot measure, you would think people would take community input a bit more seriously.

And not to just get on Santa Cruz’s case, THIS IS AN INDUSTRY WIDE PROBLEM. In fact, this issue plagues most private/public partnerships. For some reason, Government still undervalues the need for legitimate public buy in.

I just hope that with the advancements in technology we also see some advancements in cultural facilitation. Basically, I want public agencies to widen their ears and broaden their horizons. Realize that you are stewards of community, and get in there. People want to get involved, trust me. They just don’t know how.

Robert Singleton

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