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Reaching Out, Reaching In
A Guide to Creating Effective Public Participation
for State Historic Preservation Programs

Barry R. Lawson, Ellen P. Ryan, and Rebecca Bartlett Hutchison
Web Edition 2002 (originally published in 1993)


Reaching Out,
Reaching In

Table of Contents
A Note on the Authors

Section 1. Reaching Out
Section 2. Preservation Vision 2000
Section 3. Reaching In

Sources in Public Participation

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If you are reading this guide, you are probably well aware of some of the values of public participation, particularly those reflecting the fundamental ideas of good and responsive government. Perhaps you recognize that reaching out to your constituencies - defined broadly here as those that are affected by or are interested in your historic preservation planning programs - is an excellent way to improve your total program. Undoubtedly, you have been stymied, frustrated, or disappointed at one point or another by efforts to engage the public in your planning program. Perhaps you feel that these efforts were ill conceived, improperly funded or managed, or simply just a waste of time and resources. You are not alone. There are a lot of unfortunate examples out there.

But you need not condemn the ideals and practical benefits of effective public participation on the basis of these occasional failures. Failures can be minimized, even eliminated, through thoughtful design, careful management, and conscious commitment. State historic preservation offices have traditionally been occupied in administrative and technical activities that do not require extensive public involvement. But the world is changing and increased public awareness demands new and effective responses. Public participation can be one of these responses.

What value can public participation have for the state historic preservation office? The following are some of the returns to be expected from a well-placed investment of time, energy, and money in reaching out:

  • The understanding of the state's historic resources can be extended to more people;
  • Through this understanding, broader based support for expanding state preservation efforts can be enlisted;
  • Indirectly and directly, local community preservation initiatives can be more appreciated and better supported;
  • By enlisting the participation and soliciting advice from select publics, more confident decisions can be made by the state historic preservation office staff;
  • By being aware of an informed public's attitudes toward preservation, more acceptance and support can be mustered;
  • This support can be used to leverage other support from (and generate productive partnerships with) other agencies of government;
  • Working in sync with other social and political forces can provide a reservoir of good will and potential aid should crises or unanticipated challenges threaten a program; and
  • Involving the next generation in understanding the important values of preserving our heritage provides an effective force for a tradition of preservation.
These values are derived by reaching out to specific types of people and organizations in three general types of activities. One of these, perhaps the most basic and essential, is information dissemination. The second is a public consultation program in which the concerns, opinions, and advice are actively solicited. The third is a series of support efforts for the information and consultation initiatives. These three program elements provide the basis for the design of a public participation program.

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Context is an important concept for historic preservationists, and it extends to the domain of public involvement. It is critical to the success of an outreach program to recognize and appreciate the context within which public involvement takes place. Two contextual arenas are of concern. One is the technical planning context that public participation can support and enhance. The second is the community, region, or state to which you will be reaching out.

What are the principal technical activities that comprise state historic preservation planning and what public involvement activities can support this planning to yield the values outlined earlier?

Who are the people and organizations that need to be informed of and involved in state historic preservation planning? What are the economic, social, and political contexts within which these people operate, and what preservation values do they now hold?

Challenge number one is to identify the first context: What are the activities likely to comprise the preparation of a state historic preservation plan? As the public becomes involved in the planning process, perhaps the focus of the plan may be altered or refined over time. One must realize that one by-product of reaching out can be the modification of your plans.

Understanding the second context - the public context - can be a greater challenge. This involves some research and can engage the historic preservation planner in activities for which one has not been specially trained. Fortunately, it takes only common sense to identify those members of the public who are interested in or directly affected by historic preservation planning. But one must go beyond these people to identify a spectrum of those whose acceptance and support - both short and long term - are essential for your program success. School children are at one end of this spectrum, political leaders are at another; but there may be others including land-use decision-makers, investors and developers, tourism specialists, and other community cultural leaders and organizations.

Identifying the Constituency

Step one in the design of an effective public participation program is identifying who in the public should be involved in your planning efforts. This is achieved through networking with knowledgeable colleagues and by making oneself aware of the planning and educational activities of other organizations such as tourism offices and land-use planners and the possible connections of their activities to state historic preservation planning. These contacts can, in turn, identify others with whom interviews and discussions can be equally fruitful. These interviews represent a major opportunity to reach out to a segment of the public and establish ongoing methods to exchange information throughout the planning process. Moreover, it can and should set the stage for other public consultation, information dissemination, and support elements.

In large states, or in circumstances where there is insufficient time to conduct personal interviews yourself, there are other options. One is to enlist volunteers from an advisory group or task force to conduct the interviews, working from a common set of questions or format. Another option is the mailed questionnaire survey or the polling of a broader range of people where closed- and open-ended questions can provide a non-threatening opportunity for them to express in writing their concerns and values pertaining to historic preservation. Useful ideas can come from any source, however unlikely. Consider any promising idea whether it comes from discussion or written response to a questionnaire.

The yield from interviews or surveys should include categorized lists of potential public participants in the state planning effort that become the basis for your mailing list, a most important support element of the outreach effort. You will emerge with lists of principal public concerns (particularly as they relate to historic preservation planning), of the ways in which people want to be involved in historic preservation planning, and of what it may require to obtain active plan support from these people. You may also discover potential opponents to aspects of your planning effort. This, too, is useful "intelligence."

Selecting Elements of the Public Participation Program

The second major step in designating an outreach program to support preservation planning is the selection of appropriate activities and resources. As mentioned earlier, these activities will fall into three categories: information dissemination, public consultation, or support.

Information Dissemination

Information dissemination is basic because, as a public official and agency, you need to inform your constituency of how you are spending public dollars and meeting publicly determined needs. Before one can accept and support your program, one must learn about it and understand it. So, using the list of audiences derived from step one interviews, you will develop possible information sharing activities to reach periodically the audiences to be kept informed. Recognize that some people only want to hear or read the most general information about your program from time to time, while others may desire greater detail on a more regular basis.

What type of information to provide, to whom, and how frequently, are challenging questions that are usually answered, in part, by the resources available. Pay special attention to the people who must be informed regularly because of their roles as advisors or financial or public supporters of your program.

How to disseminate information is the next question. To address this concern, consider a number of different types of methods, such as newsletters and fact sheets, radio spots, public meetings, and workshops. Meeting your objectives will require measuring tradeoffs between the commitments needed and returns expected. Chart 1 presents a number of information dissemination methods with suggestions and guidance in their use.

The choice among these methods should be made with explicit identification of the purpose(s) to be served by each outreach activity. While there are goals for state historic preservation planning and objectives for achieving these goals, neither of these is easily achieved without the careful consideration of the purposes for which each "reaching out" activity is chosen.

Public Consultation

A second major thrust of the preservation planning outreach effort is consultation with the public, especially with those interested in historic preservation or who have the ability to affect it. Consultation means that you are committed to two-way communication as a benefit to you and the public with whom you are consulting. There are several techniques available for this type of communication. In general, the more interactive the program, such as in workshops and open houses, the more you and your staff can meet and talk with individuals interested in preservation, and the more successful you will be. Occasions will arise when either larger meetings, public hearings, or surveys will be more cost effective. Major options are listed in Chart 2.


In order to utilize any of the information and consultation methods suggested above, a set of support services are essential within your organization. This is part of "reaching in" to develop and tap the resources necessary for a successful program. Five support areas are identified here: project management, mail or contact list management, desktop publishing, editing and graphics, and training and staff development.

Project management means designing, budgeting, monitoring, and evaluating the public participation program. Often, this responsibility resides with the person principally charged with the outreach program. People management is implicit, and the achievement of goals, objectives, and purposes within a defined set of budget constraints is the bottom line.

A second area is mail list management. In order to expand your constituencies and keep them informed of your programs, information needs to be disseminated on a timely basis (and to particular groups when appropriate). Many easy-to-learn and manage computer programs are available. Struggles with manual mailings must not be a barrier to effective outreach.

Desktop publishing also utilizes computer-based systems to make the production of attractive information and presentation documents more efficient and cost-effective. Periodic newsletters, timely information materials for meetings and workshops, and attractive visuals for presentations are now within easy and inexpensive grasp of every agency. An adjunct to this capability are graphics. In the historic preservation planning field, good graphics are expected and necessary for understanding, credibility, and acceptance.

The last area of support is training and staff development, essentially developing and maintaining the skills necessary for providing information, consultation, and support programs. Several skills should be available either on staff, or through auxiliary services or volunteer effort. These skills include:

  • Working well with people
  • Listening, writing, editing, and presenting
  • Meeting design, facilitation, moderation, and conflict management
  • Working with the media
  • Computer literacy with support program software
  • Budgeting and project management
Building a Timeline for Public Participation

One well-tested way to design a public participation element for a historic preservation planning program is to create a timeline of activities - of technical and administrative tasks, and of public participation tasks. The timeline might extend over one year and coincide, for example, with the annual operating program of your organization. Graphically, the timeline would resemble the sample shown in Chart 3. The technical and administrative tasks that drive public outreach activities are portrayed above the timeline, and the supporting public participation tasks are presented below the line. Both sets of tasks are in chronological order, and reflect the major goals and programs for the year.

In this oversimplified example, it is assumed that there are four major initiatives for the year: a training program for historic commission members, for which the groundwork has been laid in the past year; the process of preparing and submitting the annual grant application for federal financial support; the nomination process for a historic property to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and the preparation of the state historic preservation plan.

Let's assume that an agency advisory committee is in place, and will meet periodically to review and comment on all of these programs. Moreover, we recognize that official notices may be appropriate concerning the annual grant application as well as for the National Register nomination process. We may assume that a public meeting will be appropriate for the nomination process, and other public meetings and interactive workshops will be integral parts of plan preparation. Information materials for those workshops, other programs, plus a periodic newsletter may round out the principal outreach activities for the year.

The graphic presentation of a timeline is a simple, yet useful planning tool for determining and sequencing outreach needs. The next step is to develop a set of objectives for each of the selected outreach tasks, clarifying the purposes of each of the individual activities necessary for implementing these tasks. This provides the basis for justifying the activities selected (particularly in comparison with other program options) and is a framework for later evaluation of these activities.


These tasks must then be budgeted, and the benefits of your preferred public participation activities weighed against their costs. Trade-offs will have to be made. The eight-page newsletter gets scaled down to four pages, quarterly advisory committee meetings replace monthly meetings, and a set of four workshops focused on elements of the draft plan replace a series of eight state meetings addressing all aspects of your annual program. The example of a public participation program spreadsheet budget form (Chart 4)reflects one way to prepare alternative budgets and weight the financial effects of alternative programs.

In practice, a similar form can be used for each of the outreach tasks, or be consolidated to present the entire outreach program budget. In any case, the spreadsheet format permits rapid analysis of alternative levels of effort. It also makes explicit not only the out-of-pocket expenses for printing, travel, telephone, postage, etc., but also the costs of labor resources (as well as overhead costs that may be important to recognize). Each organization will handle these costs differently; therefore, the form is shown only as an example of how to make all costs explicit.

Final Word

In some ways, this is a common-sense approach to a critical element of successful state historic preservation planning. These simple tools, however, have served as the basis for many sophisticated public involvement programs.

Section 2 presents how one state, Maryland, approached public participation to support its plan revision efforts. Section 3 addresses typical constraints that face state historic preservation offices, and provides insights into more challenging issues that require "reaching in" to develop and utilize your skills, resources, and experience.

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Go To Section 2