Writing Public Submissions: A Short Guide

I’ve spent the majority of the past few months responding to public submissions. We do a lot of this sort of thing: reviewing public submissions, analysing them and summarising key themes, responding and making changes as required. I admit that it becomes tiring after a while. At first every submission seems unique and interesting. I find it endlessly fascinating to view a project through the eyes of other people, and public submissions are one of the instances where people practically where their heart on their sleeve. When you see the way people interpret facts, you get to see a glimpse of how they interpret the world. Consistent with the many variations of environmental worldviews* , you find people believe in the power of nature to ‘work itself out’ whilst others believe the right sorts of human interventions can help the environment achieve its full ‘potential’. Some people believe nature has inherent value, whilst others believe it only has value when it is put to use by humans. It’s a spectrum, but it’s a spectrum with extreme ends. When put this way, it isn’t surprising that people can so passionately disagree with data collected in an environmental assessment (in this case, I am referring the surveys and investigations that are done as part of the environmental approvals process). Data is not just data when it is interpreted by a human being. It either fits within their worldview, or it does not, and when it does not, the conflict has to be resolved. This is not unlike the risk perception issues I highlighted in this post.

Still, however fascinating I might find this process, there only so many times that you can read different submissions that use the same phrases, the same words and the same arguments before I grow frustrated. I get frustrated because proponents (or their consultants) create documents that the public has trouble interpreting (if they can even find the time – or the internet access – to swim through the piles of reports). But I also grow frustrated because the process of public comment is not well-understood, and when I see a member of the public craft a lengthy submission that communicated intense passion, it breaks my heart. While I’ve always wanted to believe that a good idea, particularly when stated with confidence and passion, will be heard, the reality is that public comment periods usually don’t work that way. The reality is that policies and decisions are not made by the public. Of course the public plays a role, and their views are considered as part of the broader decision-making process. But it’s also true that more influential people and groups get more say in big decisions. It’s also true that whether or not a project is politically tenable, and whether it can meet standards and regulations, plays a very big role.

I vacillate on this: some days I think that people over-estimate the impact public submissions can have and some days I think they completely under-estimate it. Until recently, I thought the role of public comment was better understood, until I read this book** and realised I may be subject to the ‘curse of knowledge’ in this instance. The curse of knowledge, as defined by Chabris and Simons, is when we have trouble switching our point of view to consider what someone else might know, mistakenly projecting their knowledge onto others. Just because my job has helped me to become intimately familiar with community consultation, this does not mean that everyone is as familiar. This is always apparent when I attend meetings of small community organisations. Full of well-intended, intelligent individuals who have organised around a common issue, their passion often exceeds their knowledge and they are all too aware of this. It’s frustrating for them, and it’s frustrating for me, as I am all too familiar with feeling in over your head.

So today, the Public Environmental Review for the Roe 8 Highway Extension is out for public comment. This road will put a highway through one of the last remaining wetland chains in Perth metropolitan area, and it is a road that will essentially lead to nowhere. You can read more about it on the Save Beeliar Wetlands Site.

At the 'No to Roe 8' Rally in October 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can probably tell from my tone (and pictures), I recognise the potential conflicts when my own environmental worldviews and data collide. I am not in favour of this road, and this will very likely influence my interpretation of the data, even though I will try my best to read it with an open mind. Even for a skeptic, it’s hard to allow data when you can’t even agree on the validity of the premise.

So…to ‘celebrate’ this release (and to help me prepare for my meeting tomorrow), I will offer a few words of simple advice for any member of the public who wants to write a public submission, but wants to write the most effective submission they can, given the existing system. I am focusing on Australia here, but the fact is that the process isn’t all that different in the US.

  • Consider joining a group. Named organisations receive priority in the public submissions process. Proponents, and the Environmental Protection Authority, will often directly address concerns in submissions from key stakeholder groups.
  • Encourage that group to ask experts to write submissions, but send those submissions in themselves, rather than as a tag-along to the group submission. Academics and experts in the field also receive priority when the public submissions are analysed. In short, groups and experts take first priority and will cause proponents and regulators to pause and carefully respond.
  • If you’d also like to write a submission yourself, do just that. Write it yourself. Those form letters on most major NGO sites and through groups like Get Up! and Move On are great for showing that a lot of people care about an issue; however, when it comes to a public submission, 1,000 form letters do not count as 1,000 submissions. They count as one, and they are responded to as one.
  • This is not a numbers game. Although the numbers will be analysed and reported, just because a lot of submissions are in opposition the project, this does not mean the project won’t go ahead. Although some people may find this frustrating, think of it like this: what if the level of popularity guided all of our public policy decisions?*** If we want consistency in decision-making (whether we are achieving that is another question altogether), then we need to act according to agreed upon principles. Though it’s often a crude tool, the principles prescribed by regulations and guidelines are the ones that are generally used by decision-makers.
  • Given the above, become familiar, to the extent you can, with the process in which the proposal is being assessed. You don’t have to read the regulations. Most agencies have short guidance documents and fact sheets. For the Roe 8 Proposal, it’s the Public Environmental Review process, which is explained on the EPA Website. EDO usually has great documents as well. Read the scoping documents, which are usually provided as an appendix. You don’t need to become a policy expert. Just arm yourself with a little knowledge about the standards the project (and documentation) must meet.
  • Limit and prioritise. I know it is tempting to list every single thing that is wrong with a document, particularly if you spend hours of your free time pouring over the documentation. However, the fact is that this is also not a numbers games. Just because there are a lot of little problems, along with some really big ones, doesn’t mean that together they automatically add up to a ‘fatal flaw’ (and please, also avoid using that phrase unless you are really sure it fits that definition.) My recommendation is to determine the most important points you want to make. Discuss those first, succinctly but factually.
  • If you really want to discuss every flaw in the paper, organisation is crucial. Have a sectionat the front of your submission highlighting the most important issues. Other sections might consider “secondary issues” or “other issues for consideration” and finally a section with “editorial comments”. This is where you can channel your inner grammarian and pick on their typos, desktop publishing, etc. If there are a number of categories that concern you, I would recommend putting those under headings as well. For example, put all the comments about specific species (e.g. the graceful sun moth), hydrology, air emissions, etc. in their own sections, clustered together, if you really have that many comments. I still recommend highlighting only the most important ones. The reason? People will be more open when reading your submission if you don’t appear petty, and nitpicking can easily appear petty in a written submission.
  • Ask questions – both of yourself and of the proponent. Of course I am partial to the process of inquiry, but I find that it really helps if I consistently ask myself “what is my real concern?” When I answer public submissions, I have to spend a lot of time deciphering what people are really saying in their submissions. When people make inflammatory statements or say things that don’t make sense, it’s often because there is a core concern that they aren’t sure how to express other than through anger or frustration. If you ask yourself why you feel a certain way, this can help overcome this problem, and even help you determine if it’s the facts or your values that are the source of your criticism. As far as the questions of the proponent (or government), that’s pretty self-explanatory. If you feel questions are unanswered, or information is unclear, ask. They have to answer every question.
  • Cite reputable sources where appropriate, but avoid reliance on too many secondary sources like newspaper articles. If an article piques your interest in something, consider investigating the truth of the matter, if you can find additional information. In many cases, articles reference reports that can be easily find online. Check the original sources when possible to see if the media indeed reported it correctly before hanging your hat on the argument.
  • Emotion: good for rallies, but not so much for a formal submission.

    Avoid emotion. If you are taking the time to write a submission, it’s likely you are extremely passionate about the issue. Whilst passion is an admirable trait in my mind, it doesn’t do much for the quality of a public submission. Proposals are assessed against criteria, and while the stress of a proposal is a social impacts, communicating that stress in a submission is unlikely to change the outcome of the regulatory approvals process. Also, avoiding emotions doesn’t mean you have to refrain from stating what is important to you. In the case of environmental issues, most emotions can be re-stated as management principles.****

  • If an issue is really important to you, try to read that section of the report, rather than just relying on the executive summary. I realise time is limited, but unfortunately people too often submit questions and comments that were addressed in other sections of the report. Unfortunately, this makes the question really easy to blow off when it is clear the submitter didn’t read the relevant sections of the report.
  • If all else fails, sign the form letter. If you don’t have the time or inclination, just sign the form letter online, via email, etc. It isn’t counter-productive. It just isn’t particularly productive. However, it still demonstrates that people care about the issue, and if combined with a lot of weighty evidence, it can provide some support. If you do choose the form letter, I suggest you make sure it goes to the Minister, rather than the EPA, as the ultimate decision will rest with them. Technically, the EPA provides expert advice to the minister on an environmental approval.
  • Form realistic expectations. As I said in the intro, I actually find it really disheartening that people believe that their criticisms can lead to a ‘no’ on a proposal. Proposals are assessed by ‘independent’ government agencies, but decisions are made at the political level. In the end, sometimes even the strongest factual case can mean nothing in politics. I don’t like it, but ‘them’s the breaks

As all good bloggers are supposed to do, I will end with a series of questions. What role do you think public opinion should have in public policy and development decisions? Have you ever made a public submission? Do you think I am being too harsh? Too cynical?

*Note: It was surprisingly difficult find a good, succinct article that covered the diverse range of worldviews for free on this topic, but there are many books out there if you are interested in reading more. A great one is Environmental Values and American Culture.

** I will write a review of this book in the next week or so. It’s a must read for everyone, in my opinion!

*** I was looking for a quote I thought FDR made on this, but either my memory or Google has failed me. There is obviously a wide range of views about the value of public opinion. Some are highlighted in these quotes, though all are obviously simplified.

**** I realise that sounds like bureaucratic doublespeak, but it really is quite simple. For example, if you are horrified at the thought of a project’s impact on future generations, rather than stating “You are going to destroy the environment, and our children will have to live with the consequences! You are raping the land for profit now, only to leave us with nothing later!” Try this: “Sustainability is about providing for our needs now without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This project cannot be considered sustainable due to X, Y and Z.” That first sentence is available on nearly every website that contains a definition of sustainability, so this doesn’t require expert knowledge.