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International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Tools to Inform the Public

Tools to inform the public include techniques that you can use to provide members of the public with the information they need to understand the project, the decision process, and also to provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision.  These tools take many forms and are applicable to all levels of public participationStakeholders do not have to be physically present for inform tools to work well. In fact, one of the most popular tools to inform, the public meeting, is actually one of the least effective in that it reaches very few stakeholders and is often not designed to meet the needs of those who are present.

Tools to inform involve a wide variety of venues and approaches. However, when considering which public participation tools to use, you need to be mindful of the unique cultural attributes of the communities the sponsor agency serves and select the tools accordingly. Some factors to consider might include:

  • What existing communication networks are available to share information?
  • What forms of information are more likely to resonate with the target populations and therefore be most effective?
  • Are there multiple languages in the community? How will you accomodate these languages?
  • What is the literacy level of the community? Will they understand the information you are trying to convey?
  • Are there types of communication that will not work with the target audiences?
  • Are there communication vehicles or media outlets that are considered to be more trustworthy than others and that would be good vehicles for sharing information?

In selecting and designing tools to inform, it is important to consider the following:

  • Who needs the information?
  • What is the target audience’s current level of knowledge and understanding about the project?
  • What information is needed for the public to be able to understand and provide meaningful input to the project? What are the most direct and effective ways to communicate this information?
  • What are the public’s preferences for receiving information?

A low-trust situation may call for an entirely different tool than one where trust is abundant. In extremely low trust situations, you might want to consider partnering with a trusted third party individual or group to help create and distribute information. Your choice of tool will also be influenced by the number of involved stakeholders or participants and the specific location or point in the decision process.

When trying to inform a large group of people or an entire community, you may need to rely more on mass media and the internet to ensure full access to information. However, in some settings trust in mass media is lacking and internet access problematic, so other ways of reaching the public may be more appropriate. When working with smaller groups involved in consensus-building efforts, you are more likely to use in-person and hands-on types of communication.

In most cases, you will need to use multiple tools to effectively reach all audiences.

In-person Tools to Inform

If you determine that you should have an in-person event to provide information to the public, consider the following questions when selecting your tools.

  • What is the purpose or goal of the event? Purpose or goal should always drive your choice of tool.
  • How many attendees are you expecting? Smaller numbers of attendees allow for more flexibility in the design of the in-person event and can provide for more interaction among attendees.
  • Do you want attendees to interact with one another to share information and ideas, or only with the sponsor? If attendees want to interact with one another, then the event should allow for small group conversations and interaction.
  • How much time and/or other resources do you have to prepare for the event? All in-person events require time and planning. Typically, more time and resources are required to plan and implement tools that involve more intensive interaction among stakeholders.

The following table lists some basic in-person public participation tools for informing sharing.

In-Person Tools to Inform
Tool # of Participants Best Suited for
Public Meetings Limited by room size. Smaller communities and communitise where stakeholders are willing to attend meetings.
Briefings Generally designed for smaller groups. Reaching out to established groups.
Telephone Contacts Generally one person at a time. All projects, but require sufficient manpower to answer and/or return calls.

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Remote Tools to Inform

If you determine that you do not need to have an in-person event to provide public information, consider the following questions when selecting your tools.

  • Who are you trying to reach and what are the best venues and formats to distribute information?
  • To what degree do interested stakeholders have access to and/or use the internet?
  • What resources do you have to distribute information and what is the most efficient use of those resources to reach the maximum number of stakeholders?
  • What opportunities or partners exist in the community that could assist in the distribution and/or development of information?
  • What languages and literacy level are most appropriate?

The following table lists some basic remote public participation tools for informing sharing.

Remote Tools to Inform
Tool # of Participants Best Suited for
Printed Information
(Fact Sheets, Newsletters and Bulletins)
Unlimited, but printing and mailing costs could be a consideration Projects with manageable numbers of stakeholders if printing and mailing are to be done. May not appropriate where literacy is an issue.
Web Sites Unlimited All projects and audiences where access is available. Literacy issues acn be overcome by using voice and video.
Information Repositories Unlimited, but can be geographically constrained by location. Localized projects where access to a physical site is possible. Repositories can also be established on-line.
Information Hotlines Unlimited All projects and audiences, especially those where internet access is an issue.
Information Kiosks Unlimited, but geographically constrained by location. Local projects.
Press and Media Unlimited Larger projects of widespread interest; use of press and media should form part of the overall communication strategy.
Social Media Unlimited Larger projects of widespread interest; social media use should form part of the overall communication strategy.

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Non-traditional Tools to Inform

In addition to tools commonly associated with public participation, a range of “non-traditional” tools exists for reaching the public. While these tools may not be considered traditional from a public participation perspective, they are in fact traditional information-sharing mechanisms in many social andcultural contexts.

The appropriateness of the tools described below is entirely dependent on the social context of public participation. These tools can be loosely grouped into two forms: performance and messaging.

  • Performance includes plays, dances, puppetry, poetry, song, and other formats that provide information relevant to important pending decisions, opportunities to participate in the decision process, and/or the importance of public participation. Performance tools use story-telling as the basis for creating and communicating information. Unlike many conventional public participation tools, performance often involves an affective or emotional dimension to information sharing. As such, it communicates by appealing to intuition and feelings rather than by strict logical persuasion. Performance is often effective in that it brings information directly into the community, it entertains as it communicates, and often engages people directly in the process.
  • Messaging involves using mechanisms to reach people “where they are.” These mechanisms include the use of vehicles with public address systems to broadcast messages as they drive through the streets or the use of electronic signs that are posted at strategic locations. Both vehicles and electronic signs impart important information about pending decisions, locations where more information can be obtained, and/or opportunities for providing input to the decision process.

(More resources on tools to inform the public)

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For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:
Shereen Kandil
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460