The Issues Group – Connecting with Your Public
During my 25 years as an environmental/land use mediator and facilitator, I have often advised clients to create an issues group to manage their interaction with people concerned about their proposal. I have then often been the facilitator for the ongoing meetings of the issues group.
What is an issues group?
Landowners, developers, governments and companies make proposals for development projects all the time. These may be mines, roads, residential developments, landfills, parks, commercial developments or any of thousands of other uses. Nearly any of these uses can be controversial for some (often a majority) of their neighbors. I should note that the concept of a neighbor is defined by each individual. A neighbor may be just on the other side of the fence or miles away (or even come from another state). It depends upon the perceived effects of the project. For effective management of public information about a proposed project or public reaction to it, all of the neighbors need to feel involved. However, given the limits of practical facilitation, an issues group should not be larger than about 25 people. This means that one member may often represent many people of relatively like minds.
After one or more initial public information meetings, one way to remain in contact with the neighbors is to form an issues group. This group could include (for example):
- Project representatives (developers, attorneys, landowners, managers, etc.) – Vital!
- Next door neighbors (immediately adjacent to the project) – Very important!
- Homeowners’ Associations in the vicinity of the project
- Other vocal concerned citizens (even if they are not really “neighbors”) – Don’t forget them!
- Advocacy groups (Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, National Mining Association, etc.)
- Consultants for any of the groups above (air quality, landscaping, reclamation, blasting, etc.)
- Government representatives (local planners, County geologists, other regulators)
The issues group should be organized during the initial public information phase of a proposed project and then meet regularly during the application process. It is an informal group, but can choose to make recommendations to the applicants, the government or the public at large. If the project is approved, the issues group, in whole or in part, can be maintained to meet periodically to continue the connection between the neighbors and the project. In this way, a project remains close to its neighbors, regularly checking in with them to make sure its impact is positive, or at least as minimally negative as possible.
It is best to have a paid, neutral facilitator run all of the meetings of the issues group. A chairman selected from the members of a group always has a point of view about the project. A facilitator does not. He or she is a process person only, there to make sure each member is heard by the others. Conversations among the members can then be constructive, issues can be brought out on the table and the facilitator can make a record of the meeting (including recommendations and agreements reached by the issues group), which can then be made available to everyone.