There is a difference between community input and community engagement.
I learned that lesson many years ago while working with Doug Karson at the 102nd Fighter Wing at Otis ANG Base. It was the early 1990s. I was just out of college, working my first job writing press releases and fighter pilot biographies at our local military installation. Doug was the civilian public affairs officer managing the day-to-day media and community relations activities and holding down the fort for the military officers and enlisted personnel who manned the offices during the military duty periods. That’s when Rich Sherman, Richard Rouse, Lisa Ahaesy, Bruce Vittner, and the unforgettable civilian proofreader Doris Bousquet would create a bustle of activity in publishing the 102nd’s official newspaper, the “Seagull.”
Those were days of great education and enjoyment for me. I learned about the AP style guide from Rich, much about politics and public service from Richard, and enjoyed a wonderful collegial atmosphere that still today informs my approach to team-building and consensus.
When the Seagull wasn’t in production, though, Doug and I were dealing on a daily basis with a far weightier topic—the emerging issues of contamination and groundwater pollution surrounding the 22,000 acre installation that is today Joint Base Cape Cod (JBCC) but back then was the Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR). This was before the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence (today also renamed with another acronym) descended on the Cape, bringing throngs of environmental professionals and billions in funding to address the environmental issues threatening the water supplies for all four Upper Cape towns. On the front lines of informing the public were Doug, me, and a military public affairs officer from the Pentagon named Everett Foster. He would provide advice from Washington, DC and come to the Cape with some regularity, but generally it was Doug and me.
The public wanted information. We did the best we could. We created the “Environmental Update,” a publication inspired by the Seagull that shared information, decisions, and plans with the public. We thought we had achieved a breakthrough, but what we found was a breakdown. That publication revealed a critical shortfall in our approach. We tried very hard to share information, but were dumbfounded that the public still seemed agitated and in opposition to what were very sincere efforts to improve the relationship between the military and the public. What was missing was engagement prior to making decisions. What was missing was inviting the public in to actually participate in decisions and have a true seat at the table. What exists today with multiple teams of volunteers deeply engaged in the policy and scientific decisions at JBCC is the result of that painful time. Through protests, gate blockades, some yelling on both sides, dozens of letters to the editor, and lots of learning and relationship building on all sides of the dynamic, an environment of mutual skepticism and distaste became and environment of mutual trust and admiration— and our collective environment was the beneficiary.
There’s a critical lesson in that long but ultimately fruitful process that can be applied to a variety of public policy debates. It most surely can be applied to the current kerfuffle in Woods Hole with the proposed design and construction of a new terminal for the Steamship Authority.
Back in the day at the MMR, a proposal was provided to install a “pump and treat” system to pump out contaminated groundwater, treat it with activated carbon, and introduce it back into the aquifer. Great idea. Bad design. The impact would have been disastrous for the Upper Cape ecology, but the scientists from Texas who designed the system didn’t understand the history, the fragility, and the unique environment of the Cape. Thankfully, that’s when the change happened. The public was granted a seat at the design table, and the successful systems that still run today began to come to be.
The federal government realized that no matter how much money had already been spent, it was not worth proceeding with a project that would forever be a monument to the failure of a behemoth organization to turn a deaf ear to the people it existed to serve.
Today’s issue of design of the terminal building in Woods Hole is an identical scenario. Steamship management has resisted redesigning a more Cape-style building, citing money already spent on the current oversized design, which does not fit the character of the village of Woods Hole, nor does it conform to other terminal buildings on the islands, ones whose architecture and scale blend nicely into the villages they serve.
In a letter provided recently to Steamship General Manager Bob Davis, Rep. Dylan Fernandes outlined what could—and should—be a process of true engagement, rather than simply community input. In the letter, he noted that, “The objective of this memo is to create consensus between community members and the SSA on the terminal building in Woods Hole. Consensus is hard to build on any issue, especially one of design, which is inherently subjective, however, the group of 30 residents found unanimous or near unanimous agreement on the following principles…” Those principles include issues of size and design, location and the environment, all straightforward but also critical to constructing a building that fits within the character of a village that has a storied and world-renown history.
So we sit at another public policy precipice. The opportunity exists for Steamship leadership to exercise the kind of extraordinary humility and collaboration that military and environmental leaders did a generation ago at JBCC and start over. The opportunity exists for true collaboration. The opportunity exists for the Steamship to go beyond the window dressing of community input and achieve true community engagement.
Doug Karson still suits up and shows up at the Joint Base Cape Cod every day, still overseeing what has become a national model for going well beyond informing the public and actually engaging them in decisions and directions. If the military can do that, the SSA surely can. The leadership at the Steamship Authority should give Doug a call and ask him to share a little history—because without that lesson, it’s likely that the painful and sometimes ugly history of the MMR will repeat itself.
Mr. Clarkson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @TroyClarkson59