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Public Involvement Network News

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Building Community Involvement in Virginia

By Bill Hayden, Public Affairs Director, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality

In 2004, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) launched an ambitious initiative:  to improve how the agency communicates with the public and to strengthen how the public participates in the agency’s significant environmental actions.

This “community involvement initiative” began in response to DEQ’s recognition that communication with many of the main conservation organizations in Virginia was no longer effective. In some cases, there was no communication at all. This resulted from many years of DEQ’s following basic procedural requirements on such issues as environmental permits and regulations.  Several organizations believed that such procedures did not provide adequate opportunity to gather and address public input.  

DEQ had long believed that by following the rules and adhering to public participation requirements, public concerns were receiving appropriate attention. As communication deteriorated to a rocky low, however, DEQ determined that something needed to change.

The first step was to put together a task force of individuals representing conservation organizations and key DEQ staff members.  Initially, the task force was intended to improve communication between the groups and DEQ, but it was quickly evident that DEQ could do much more. Under the leadership of DEQ Director Robert G. Burnley, the Community Involvement Task Force listed several dozen actions DEQ could take – many immediately – to help reach the goal of involving the public more meaningfully in important environmental decisions. These steps ranged from improving the way information is presented and retrieved on the agency web site, to simplifying the language used with lay audiences, to making a few extra calls to determine who is interested in a particular decision.

The first task force meetings focused necessarily on building trust. Through a series of candid discussions, led by a neutral facilitator, members of the task force found that strengthening their trust of each other could become a foundation for making significant improvements. The DEQ and conservation members of the task force also recognized that what was really at stake went far beyond basic communication between two sides on important issues. Burnley set building community involvement as a top priority goal for DEQ and the public to achieve as partners.

The task force met at least once a month for six months in 2004, and then agreed to meet about twice a year. In addition to the list of communication improvements that DEQ implemented, the task force suggested a series of community meetings sponsored by the DEQ staffs in each of the agency’s seven Virginia regions. These “open house” meetings, held in the fall of 2004, were designed to give individuals and organizations that had not developed a relationship with DEQ an opportunity to learn more about the agency and how the public can become involved in environmental decision making.

DEQ sent hundreds of invitations to dozens of community, environmental, civic, religious, academic and government organizations from across Virginia. More than 350 people attended the meetings. For most of the DEQ staff, this was a first: The agency opened its doors to anyone who wanted to stop by, discuss their environmental concerns and learn what roles they can play in protecting the environment.

During the year that followed these meetings, DEQ maintained its contact with Virginia’s communities. Smaller follow-up meetings were held to address locality-specific environmental issues, and new stakeholders were identified to participate in ongoing discussions with DEQ. In 2005, DEQ held similar community meetings to expand on many of the ideas raised at the previous meetings. In addition, each regional staff put together its own community involvement plan to outline the steps it will take each year to foster community awareness and participation.

Another product of the Community Involvement Task Force’s work was the development of a community involvement policy for DEQ. Burnley had asked the group to propose a policy to him, and he accepted that proposal in December 2004.

The DEQ community involvement policy now provides the philosophical framework for the agency’s efforts to communicate more effectively and to bring concerned citizens into the decision-making process. DEQ’s policy highlights these four actions:

Perhaps the key to this policy is DEQ’s dedication to bringing people into the process much earlier than in the past. Armed with more diverse points of view, DEQ is certain that its environmental decisions will be stronger and will protect the environment better.

Results came quickly, in 2005 DEQ has held several neighborhood meetings in advance of required regulatory hearings. This has enabled community members to learn about a project or permit early, have their questions answered and their concerns addressed. By the time the hearings took place, the community had few questions and expressed satisfaction with the actions DEQ was taking – actions in which the community participated.

DEQ also expects notable improvement in areas such as sustaining the confidence of the community; a reduction in tensions when disagreements arise; and more productive two-way communication.

To date, DEQ has not incurred significant costs with this initiative. The agency is focusing on doing its job differently, rather than on doing more things on top of its regular job. This means, for example, identifying who in the community might be interested in a permit application and giving those people an opportunity to review and discuss it before the permit is drafted. This generally takes less time than cataloguing the complaints of angry citizens after a permit is proposed and determining how to address those complaints. Other examples, or “best practices,” are being developed for the staff to use, depending on individual job responsibilities.

People expect government to work for them. DEQ takes this expectation seriously and has identified concrete, effective ways to meet it. With an enthusiastic response from the public, DEQ is making community involvement practices a normal part of everyday business.

DEQ has placed much of the information about the community involvement initiative in documents and photographs on its web site. For more information visit DEQ's community involvement website (http://www.deq.virginia.gov/community).Exit EPA Disclaimer

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