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The decision to include the public in public works and utility projects is often made without any real consultation with the public or consideration of the issues that the public will be interested in. Typically, an RFP is prepared or a technical project is planned, and technical experts, knowing that the public will eventually need to be notified, somewhat arbitrarily devise a “public involvement” program… “We'll mail a quarterly newsletter throughout the project, hold public meetings before, halfway through and at the end, and…”

This strategy may suffice for some projects, but there is a very real (and costly) risk involved in a strategy that designs the public involvement approach after the technical decisions have been made. After all, how can you know what approach to use when you have not determined what the public's issues are, let alone how to adequately address them? And, if the project becomes controversial, the technical scope is generally not flexible enough to deal with the issues AND continue on to completion.

Selecting the right amount and type of public involvement early in the project planning process can mean the difference between a successful project completed on time and within budget or a cancelled project after millions have been spent on design.


If you fail to include a public involvement program that incorporates key stakeholders into the solution, you may find that they insert themselves anyway — and become part of the problem. Your project can be hurt in a number of ways:

Your credibility may be damaged. Credibility reflects how much confidence your public — customers, elected officials, even regulators × has in your ability to get things done. Your organization needs credibility to gain support for your projects. Credibility is a form of capital that can be used to help achieve your technical objectives. It can be gained or lost. Once lost, it is very difficult to regain.

If your project is not supported, the money that you have spent on design may well be wasted. Whether your proposed solution was the right one or not is irrelevant.

Lingering distrust and resentment will overshadow future efforts to implement projects.

Eventually, the powers-that-be may determine that, given the controversy that attends your every endeavor, you are not capable of managing your operation, and they may turn that responsibility over to someone else.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2000

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  • Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation is an archive of papers published in the proceedings of the annual Water Environment Federation® Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC® ) and specialty conferences held since the year 2000. These proceedings are not peer reviewed.

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