Friday, August 28, 2009

Public input and other dangers

I watched with interest in recent weeks when politicians held public hearings or workshops regarding the health care legislation which is being bandied about in Washington.

Some of the politicians, including the President, seemed genuinely surprised that people were vocally opposed to their plan and were more than willing to be rude and belligerent in voicing those opinions.

I recalled my days in Miami when I was moderating public meetings for the Florida Department of Transportation.

I quickly learned a few things: people who come out to public meetings usually do so because they are against the project and want to tell someone about it. Second, the pent up frustration with government in general is often manifest when the average citizen actually finds him or herself in front of a real life government official.

That government official, even if he is from the White House, represents all the agencies and government programs that have intruded into his life.

While moderating meetings in Miami I faced open hostility and what appeared to be deep-rooted disdain. I didn't take it personally. I would listen attentively and then thank the person for their input.

I think my lack of reaction to insults and threats made them even more frustrated.

I like what the Chicago Transportation Authority is doing. They installed a series of sidewalk chalkboards and are encouraging people to jot down their suggestions for improving CTA's system and service.

People seem to like the idea of having this chalkboard forum to make their suggestions.

Another thing I learned on the firing line in Miami: most people just want someone to listen to them and treat them with respect. Most realize they may not influence a major government project, but they do want the opportunity to try.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked with the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

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