FacilitatePro Powers Public Engagement in Charting Vermont’s Energy Future
“Dear Vermonters, …In the coming months, the Department of Public Service will be organizing a series of informational events, public forums, a deliberative poll, and web-based activities so that Vermonters will have an opportunity to help us chart our energy future. While our state has many experts in wide disciplines who continue to provide assistance and insight, this process is about you. These activities are designed and intended to access the collective wisdom of Vermonters, to better understand the choices you want your government to make.” —Governor James Douglas, Welcome to Public Engagement Process
Vermont is one of the few states to still have a regulated environment for electricity, which has resulted in lower prices for consumers. The state’s balanced energy portfolio includes sources such as hydroelectric power, nuclear power, wind, biomass and market sources, and is one of the cleanest in the nation. However, the long-term agreements with Hydro Quebec and the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Facility are set to expire beginning in 2012. Governor Douglas signed into law Act 208 and Act 160 requiring the Department of Public Service (DPS) to conduct outreach to determine where Vermonters want their future energy to come from.
known for its environmental sensibilities, Yankee frugality, and town-hall democracy, was facing some tough decisions and planning for the future of their energy supply. The Governor wanted broad and deep public participation in the process. .
Looking ahead to the 2012 expiration of long-term agreements for hydroelectric and nuclear power supply, Vermont enacted legislation requiring the Department of Public Service to conduct outreach to determine where Vermonters want their future energy to come from.
Governor James Douglas wanted to incorporate web-based activities in the engagement process. His team selected FacilitatePro web-based meeting software that provided easy access and encouraged broad participation. Its rich feature set includes tools for surveying, idea generation, prioritization, and ongoing documentation.
Clear preferences and concerns voiced by Vermont citizens provided valuable input to the Comprehensive Energy Plan draft released in 2008. The citizens and government continue to use FacilitatePro to gather commentary on the draft plan.
Casting a Wide Web for Public Engagement
Public engagement makes it possible for average citizens to get involved in deliberation and dialogue on public issues that they care about. When done well, public engagement includes those members of the community whose voices have traditionally been left out of the debate. Moreover it:
- helps people weigh a variety of perspectives and listen to each other's views
- builds common understanding and establishes direction for moving ahead on tough issues
- builds trust and improves communication between the public and leaders
The goals of Vermont’s Public Engagement Process were to:
- Increase public awareness about the energy supply challenges facing the state;
- Gather meaningful and informed input about values and preferences of Vermonters regarding where their energy comes from;
- Ensure broad-based public acceptance of the resulting choices.
Vermont Takes the Town Meeting Online with FacilitatePro
To make it possible for more Vermonters to participate in the process, Stephen Wark, Director of DPS, looked to technology. “Given the nature of the Internet and the increasing role technology plays in all Vermonters’ lives, we felt that a web-based approach was an innovative means of reaching out to people who may not have been able to participate in a traditional meeting,” explained Wark. “To accomplish this we selected FacilitatePro, a web meeting software package that facilitates the gathering and exchange of ideas.”
FacilitatePro makes public engagement possible over the internet by providing easy access, enabling rich idea exchange, and encouraging broad participation. FacilitatePro offers tools for surveying, idea generation and prioritization, with complete documentation of the entire process. Applications range from focus groups participating virtually in real-time to asynchronous online discussions that engage the citizens of an entire state.
Vermont’s DPS developed a four pronged approach:
- Education – materials about energy choices made available on line through the “Vermont’s Energy Future” portal.
- Deliberative Polling - a scientific polling method involving a representative sampling of Vermonters
- On-Line Meetings - web-oriented meetings, intended to broaden the reach of the overall public engagement.
- Regional Workshops - five regional workshops throughout the state to hear what Vermonters think.
Citizens Speak Out on Vermont’s Energy Future
Burlington Telcom provided online access to FacilitatePro from a portal aptly named “Vermont’s Energy Future”. To maintain as much consistency as possible, the online meetings mirrored the regional workshop agendas. Vermonters were invited to contribute their ideas over a period of several weeks by clicking on a link in the portal.
Discussion topics were set up to be open-ended and encourage idea exchange. All the ideas contributed to a topic were posted on FacilitatePro’s shared flipchart, where other readers could add comments. Wark moderated the discussions, asking clarifying questions and encouraging more discussion. All ideas were completely anonymous, with the exception of the moderator’s, which appeared in blue. One of the items on the agenda was a comprehensive survey asking Vermonters to select the elements of an energy portfolio based on their environmental, social and economic priorities.
After the general public meeting was concluded, similar online meetings were sponsored by various business associations, such as the Vermont Chamber of Congress, to further broaden participation. Following evaluation of public input, a third round of regional and online meetings was held to discuss closing the nuclear power facility.
The opinions collected online closely mirrored those gathered through regional workshops and deliberative polling. Clear preferences and concerns voiced by Vermont citizens provided valuable input to a Comprehensive Energy Plan draft released in 2008. Once again, FacilitatePro was used to engage the citizens of Vermont in commentary on the draft plan, which will be released in its final form in early 2009.
Positive Outcomes Generate Ideas for Future Virtual Outreach Initiatives
Steve Wark believes that online dialog is key to increasing civic engagement. “The use of online Internet conferences is unique to governance in Vermont. The technology can play an increasingly important role, if used and facilitated correctly. In this case, we learned lessons that will help future deliberations: shorter polling questions, better advertisement, and hosting by organizations that have the capacity and time to participate. As we proceed forward, the low cost of the software and its ease of use will help other state agencies and organizations engage the people of our state in a way not previously explored.”