Gwen Happ recently took on the job of secretary of IAP2 USA. “I was part of the early years with IAP2,” she says. “I was there during a period when the organization was experiencing slow steady growth and then… a stall… and declining membership. I’m so glad to see the organization turning it around and membership growing to where we are now.”
So now, let’s meet Gwen (Happ) Howard.
NAME Gwen (Happ) Howard
POSITION Issues Manager, Colorado Springs Utilities – energy and water
How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?
I’ve been involved with P2 directly 14 plus years. I’ve been with IAP2 on and off for the past 13 years, and with Colorado Springs Utilities, a municipal four-service utility (water, wastewater, gas and electric) serving an area of 500- to 600-thousand people, for well over 25 years.
What turned you on to P2 in the first place?
I had been managing and training in our leadership development department when I was asked to join a new group under the Public Affairs division called Issues Management. Our CEO at the time was a visionary and saw a tremendous need for Utilities to have more visibility in the community and increased public engagement. This came after we had a couple of highly contentious projects halted by citizen groups upset over our lack of public input. We lost significant dollars on these projects due to project and public rework.
I was asked to be a part of this new group because of my leadership, communication and people skills. To put it in perspective, a friend of mine once said that I “could talk the birds from the trees”. In other words, I know how to talk to people and make them feel listened-to; I can be empathetic and put myself in their shoes and will often ask, “If it was me and I was in this position, how would I feel?”
To have people share their meta-values with you is big, and one of my skills is to mine for that information, and to do so quickly. Finding out what people are really feeling early in a project or process helps us to build those perspectives into our projects and approaches.
Having this information as early in the process as possible meant preventing our public from showing up angry to utility board meetings or other public forums.
One of the best moves in my career! In my previous role I enjoyed the “people” aspect of the training, but working on public engagement was something different. It’s energizing to be one of the people that the public begins to trust and share information with. And assuring when you are working with your public on difficult projects and they say, “I’m so glad you listened and I’m so glad you’re here.”
Have you had any “big wins”?
I’ve had a lot of big wins, but I think one of the biggest was the public process for our integrated water resource plan. It was our 50-year planning strategy for water acquisition, storage and conveyance. What was nice about this process was that it was the first time I was able to employ a comprehensive public approach with our internal and external stakeholders.
l used many known techniques like Open Houses in addition to many meetings with homeowners’ associations and civic groups who wanted to know more about our water planning processes. We created newsletters, set up a webpage, had full employee and leadership engagement. But I was also able to be creative and set up “water outreach centers” which was a collaboration with libraries, community centers, colleges, and grocery stores, to have places to house our materials so people could collect, read and be better educated on where their water comes from. I wanted true and encompassing outreach.
I also set up a citizens group made up of people from across the community: large water users, parks, hospitals, landscapers, military, colleges, etc. I would assemble the group on a monthly basis and our subject matter experts would share information regarding the science, operations, and decision processes around water planning.
We were using state-of-the-art modeling to determine risks and what the future holds in our water planning efforts. We looked at climate change, regulatory changes, water rights and other risks. We took the advisory group through those processes.
Our public process was comprehensive and very well received. I made sure information presented to our public was both interesting and understandable because the technical aspects were complex.
Through not fault of our own, the project stretched out for more than four years for a process that should’ve taken only two. At the time we had another tough project underway with political and public contention so we had to be careful the projects did not overlap. Additionally we experienced leadership changes at the top with a new executive who had a different idea for how P2 should be done.
In the end, however, we had political, public and leadership backing for the project. We developed strong advocates through our advisory group for water planning processes. And a report that received full board approval along with recognition and accolades across the water planning communities.
Have you had any “golden learning moment”?
There are always small setbacks, but I would say a golden moment that really opened my eyes was back in about 2007, with a recreation access project I was working on. It was one of those moments when you realize the phrase “if it don’t fit, don’t force it” is a very real thing. It was a big project involving recreational access to one of our mountain slopes. I was tasked with assembling and leading a citizen group which included people who were very vocal in the community- a deliberate action on my part.
With this project we were trying to preserve an area that had been pristine and “private” for many years, but we were also working on a plan to allow access to other parts of the mountain area. We tried to force an approach that almost blew up in our face. In this situation, the public demanded access to ALL of the area stating it was public lands, not private lands and to let the public decide.
The citizen’s advisory group asked the right kinds of questions, but it was a rude awakening for me. I had many sleepless nights and some tears over this project. It opened by eyes in a big way to public engagement.
So I say “don’t force it”. I think of that often because sometimes I still see remnants of that approach today. With some projects going back to the drawing board resulting in project delays and creating unnecessary frustration.
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …
Be authentic. Take your time. It’s easy to want to rush the experience, but experience goes a long way when it comes to public process. You need to know how to manage groups, know how to read the room, follow up on questions and help guide the discussions..
Don’t give up. In marketing, they say you have to hear things a few times before you get it. It’s the same with public participation in your organization and with your leadership.
Take your time to understand both the needs of the organization and the needs of the public.
That’s what I love about IAP2. Many of us are in it for the love of the business and the love of public outreach.
I hope we are able to continue to build stronger foundations in public process because we still have work to do to show people that the process is your friend … not the enemy.