Already from the first project ideas, it is important to consider how the citizens can be involved optimally in all the phases of a project.
The whole process must be carried from the bottom, but controlled from the top.
Often it is appropriate to lay out openly the whole intended process and early to inform about the ideas and the project. It requires the presence at both public meetings and meetings in interest group /associations, in addition to the project information and decision-making meetings in the local area.
The time between meetings is also important in order to make the stakeholders to take ownership. Here the project can benefit by contacting key players and stakeholders and ask them to participate actively in the project, for example by taking part in working groups.
There is no fully developed recipe on how to make the citizen involvement work in practice.
However experience from Samsø, point out a number of areas it’s necessary to take into account - from the early concept development phase, up through all the phases of the project.
One of the key themes when it comes to successful citizen involvement is that the communication must be clear.
People need to understand the background of what’s happening.
It’s important to develop clear goals and messages.
For instance, a message like 100 % self-sufficiency within 10 years is understandable and easy to relate to.
It is important to be proactive and to inform early about the upcoming project in order to avoid misunderstandings and to align the partners' expectations.
At the same time there is a need to build network and to develop a communication platform. This will help the marketing of the project locally and within people's minds.
The marketing plan must include considerations about which stakeholders to contact – how and when – and what types of information channels and medias to make use of?
Commonly local newspapers and the municipal website are convenient to inform about public meetings, but new social media such as Facebook and Twitter might provide opportunities to reach out to broader groups in the local area.
Another option is to indent an article or a discussion paper in the local media to help framing the information and the discussions.
To make the communication act optimally, it is crucial to time and control it throughout the entire lapse of the project.
A wrongly timed press release or other information can immediately lead to large protests and objections to the project.
Therefore it is important in detail to consider; who to involve, what to communicate and especially when to send out the information.
Before the meeting
A public meeting is traditionally characterized by a small, but loyal group of active and engaged citizens who turn up every time a meeting is convened. To reach out for a wider group of citizens, it’s important that the project team act proactively from the very start.
Consider which key people to contact, and what strategic alliances that can benefit the project? The Key people often poses lots of important knowledge on how the local meeting are held and which persons or group that are important to contact.
It may be a good idea to select existing meetings held by networks and associations in the local area in order to get in direct contact with citizens and present the project ideas for them.
Depending on the nature of the project it might be considered to circulate invitations and even maybe to vote doorbells to mobilize the local population.
It is important to be well prepared before the meeting. Possible scenarios of what might happen at the meeting must be thought through. At the same time it’s important to set up success criteria for what has to be achieved.
The good meeting
A good public meeting is characterized by different parties feeling they have got something out of it. Especially the citizens must feel that they have been informed and consulted, in a dialogue between the different parties.
To be successful, it requires good management and ample time setting for the meeting.
It’s often a good idea to make use of an independent chairperson to plan and control the meeting and to usher the dialogue.
In the beginning of the meeting the various stakeholders should be presented and their roles must be clearly stated. A massive participation from authorities and municipalities can help indicating, that public opinion is taken seriously and that the project are willing to take technical and political position to questions from the audience.
A varied program, mixing between speakers & technical contributions, response from the audience as well as discussions and talks in smaller groups, can enhance a constructive dialogue. Here, the moderator plays an important role, when it comes to summarize the decisions taken at the end of the meeting.
Make sure that the meeting is well documented and that there is taken minutes from the meeting, that can be circulated to the participants, if needed.
In between meetings
In many cases it is necessary to hold many meetings, often very different in character; from general information sessions over meetings with stakeholders to meetings where working groups are set up and the decisions are taken.
The time in between meetings is extremely important for people to take ownership of the project. This project can benefit by contacting key players and stakeholders in order to encourage them to play an active part in the project, by for example forming working groups.
The trick is to stand in the wings and at the same time trying to help the progress of the organization and involvement of the citizens.
Large infrastructure projects like installation of wind turbines or establishing of a biogas plant are often met with public resistance.
Part of the resistance origins from fear of noise, smell or maybe increased traffic. All legitimate concern, but part of the resistance is often based on perceptions and myths; like biogas is always smelling and wind turbines are always too noisy.
To help defuse such beliefs, it might be a good idea - at some point in the project - to organize a bus tour to similar projects for anyone interested.
This will give stakeholders the opportunity to see for themselves and to hear the experiences from others who have gone through similar processes. Thus, the tour will help to create a common reference point for future discussions.
In addition, the transport time gives a golden opportunity to bring different stakeholders
(citizens, politicians, government officials, investors) together and maybe even to hold public meetings rolling to and from visiting the site.