Thursday, October 13, 2011

What Is A "Constituency" For Puget Sound?

PHOTO: Doug Wilson
I was in a conversation earlier this week that brought up the finding from 2006 that three-quarters of survey respondents though Puget Sound was in good health. By 2008 things hadn't changed that much, and this year's series of focus groups found that most participants generally didn't think the Sound as a whole was that bad off.

Back in 2006, the survey results were interpreted to mean that there was not enough of a solid political constituency to support Puget Sound recovery, and that it was necessary to 'move the needle' above 25 percent and build that constituency to support funding and enhanced regulatory efforts.

I don't think that needle ever got moved nor the constituency built, and, if it were not for federal funding, there would not be what funding there is, no thanks to the recession and the state's budget crises.

Would it matter today if the needle had been moved and half or two-thirds of the people thought Puget Sound to be in not too good of a shape? Would it have been possible to move that needle? Would people be behaving differently today?

Maybe we were looking out of the wrong end of the telescope. People thought the Sound was generally in good shape and they still do. Michael Goldberg of Action Media who conducted focus groups this past summer points out that if you keep telling someone something they don't think is true ("Puget Sound is in bad shape"), they will shut your out and stop listening.

What people think is that Puget Sound is generally in good shape. Try looking at them as a pretty large constituency of like-minded people. Can they be organized to speak with one voice?-- "We've come a long way in improving the health of the Sound and there's still some important things that need to be done to keep the Sound a healthy place for us and for our children and their children."

Go ahead, tell me it isn't that simple.

--Mike Sato


  1. OK Mike! You asked!

    1st - it is not very easy to comment with Google's blogspot unless one already has a google account or one of those from some other social site - and Google's commenting protocol is sometimes bizarre to me! So maybe lot's read but few comment.

    2nd - when I first got involved with the Partnership, as a local educator, I expected that local environmental outreach groups would soon be provided with simple, consistent, classy materials that we would build into our events, presentations, etc. That did not happen. The closest we got is Puget Sound Starts Here, but it is very focused and I see that the visual materials from that program are stuck in about 2009 - bad message to those who take the time to look. So, what ever messages the big public gets about Puget Sound "health" are mostly mixed, inconsistent, dated, and amateurish. The reputable Non-profits do a much better job, but none have the overall public as a constituency.

    3rd - You ride a Ferry, you go to the watefront, you watch the media, ... Puget Sound is beautiful! Now and again I ride to Friday Harbor. I have to strain and strain to see anything that represents a "problem".

    4th - there seem to be two or three big issues and they need significant political and governmental will to fix (stormwater in the urban areas, over development near shorelines, hard armouring.) Fortunately it seems like these are recognized and the political climate will slowly improve those areas.

    5th - a kid knows that picking up your dog poop in Renton or not fertilizing your yard in Monroe or planting trees in Concrete, while good for the environment and what they want to do, is not going to do much one way or the other for some huge piece of water like Puget Sound. Unfortunately the folks who work at PSP don't seem to understand that.

    6th -I better go tend to the bunnies before I go ballistic!

    Have a nice day.

  2. Mike,

    This thread has rediscovered the public's awareness threshold on Puget Sound. A certain segment can be made aware of the grave threats to the Sound, but that segment attains a certain level and grows no further.

    No critical mass is achieved, and so Puget Sound as a political priority waxes and wanes over the years, and with it funding and long term progress.

    This ebb and flow follows news cycles. You and I have talked before about outreach, and I have tried to argue that environmentalists should not rely solely on reporters and editors to get the story right, and to get the word out on our schedule.

    I still believe the best route is an online environmental media operation focused on Puget Sound. We need an aggressive, daily drumbeat of news, expert commentary and discussion to get, grow and hold the public's attention.

  3. The "public" is unconvinced that Puget Sound is in trouble because they do not see dead fish washing up, a major oil spill, floating garbage, beach closures to swimming (who swims in P/S ?). Salmon and crab are being caught. They see gulls and cormorants on the piers. The public is not inconvenienced. The commercial fishing fleet, based here is centered on Alaska. What's the problem?

    Except for people in lower Hood Canal experiencing annual hypoxia events, there's no overt sign of what Puget Sound once was or could be biologically. Moreover, there's not much of a user community: kayakers, crabers, fishermen, swimmers, boaters, shellfishers, beach walkers. The situation here is very different from a comparable body of water; Chesapeake Bay, where "blue crab boils" are a way of life.

    "Cleaning up Puget Sound by 2020" is not going to happen because we haven't defined what "cleaning up" is, what the end points are, or described why they're important and to whom. Do most people care if the PCBs are removed from the Duwamish or storm sewer overflows are stopped? Lake Washington got cleaned up because it was a major health menace and totally bilogically dysfunctional.

    So, those who care could do several things: establish who benefits most from clean up and target that user group; articulate a goal and objectives for cleaning up and a message how the general public will benefit; maintain a low key public presence for clean up through blogs, banner advertisements in newspapers, and billboards; educate at the public school level by developing modules the schools can use in regular classroom assignements; educate the legislature on the economic benefits of cleanup.

    People respond to personal and economic benefit arguments and to a lesser extent to general aesthetic arguments. Thus far, it seems as if our efforts to clean up Puget Sound have been top-down (governmental decrees), inward-looking (environmental groups of the converted) and bureaucratic (Puget Sound Partnership.) None of those approaches resonate with people worried about their jobs and traffic conditions.

    We need a better defined goal, a better message and a more efficient way to achieve the goal.

  4. Hopefully this thread will continue and perhaps bear some fruit. Let's not quit on it yet ...

    Looking at the new PSP "Wheel" of indicators might give a start for a campaign that picks out and sticks to just a very few easily related-to ideas ... and then continues a steady drumbeat via many channels.

    But those must be significant ideas that can make a difference, and then presented in simple ways.

    For example, Stormwater. I think we have seen and heard a myriad of facts and messages about this topic - ranging from dog poop and rain gardens (easily understood but of little significance) to better treatment plants (off most people's radar/concern but of huge significance.) Let's find a couple three nice meaningful ideas and spread the word over and over.

    Anybody out there grab this and make it happen/move it on down the road a bit???


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