Public Involvement Techniques
1.B.c - Citizens on Decision and Policy
Who are citizens on decision and policy boards?
Community people serve on policy and decision-making committees
and boards.They represent groups organized around civic, environmental,
business, or community interests, or specific geographic areas,
or they serve as individual experts in a field. They need not be
elected officials or agency staff. The Connecticut Department of
Transportation (ConnDOT) appointed a community committee to develop
and recommend alternatives for reconstruction of a large I95
Some boards make decisions; others help formulate policy.
Regional residents sit on the decision-making Great Falls City/County
Planning Board in Montana, and on Washingtons Puget Sound
Regional Council. The head of Georgias Chatham CountySavannah
Metropolitan Planning Committee sits on the Metropolitan Planning
Organizationss Project Committee. Citizens on such boards
are distinct from purely advisory groups, such as civic advisory
committees, that are often part of planning and project development.
(See Civic Advisory Committees.)
These boards are established by statute, regulation, or political
decision. Ad hoc committees are set up by legislative acts or
executive decision to investigate specific subjects. They may be
temporary or permanent. In Portland, Oregon, a committee of community
members works with the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO)
staff to develop scopes of service for projects and to review and
select consultants. For the U.S. 301 corridor study, Marylands
Governor created a 76-member task force to address regional transportation
issues, develop and evaluate possible transportation and land-use
solutions, and recommend public policies. The majority of members
were private citizens.
The composition of a board varies, depending on its assigned
task. A board may include citizens and elected or appointed
officials or be composed entirely of citizens. It may be assisted
in its task by staff members assigned from elected officials or
agency representatives. The Airport Policy Committee of the San
Diego, California, MPO has a mixed representation of citizens and
professionals. The Metro Council, MPO for MinneapolisSt. Paul,
Minnesota, has both citizens and elected officials on its 30-member
Transportation Board, including 10 municipal elected officials,
7 elected county officials, 9 private citizens (including the chair),
and 4 representatives of State or regional agencies.
People are appointed to boards in a variety of ways. They
are nominated or appointed to these positions by public officials,
or they volunteer or are elected by their peers. The ways they come
to serve depend on the rules and nature of the policy body.
The boards role establishes the amount of influence these
citizens wield. The 76-member task force overseeing the U.S.
301 Corridor Planning Study in Maryland has virtually total decision-making
power. Composed entirely of citizens appointed by the Governor,
Arizona DOTs Transportation Board has final say on the States
five-year plan, the transportation improvement program, and State
transportation planning projects.
Why are they useful?
Community people bring new points of view, new ideas, and a
community perspective directly into the decision-making process.
Little Rock, Arkansas, MPO found that people were able to integrate
political and technical engineering issues in solving problems.
They focused on whether an idea made sense to them, their neighbors,
and the people most affected by the decision.
Ad hoc committees help local people participate in decision-making.
For the Albuquerque, New Mexico, MPOs Urban Area Truck Route
Task Group, membership was solicited through more than 300 letters
to neighborhood, advocacy, and business groups. Volunteers worked
with technical staff from the city and a neighboring county to develop
a commercial vehicle network plan processed as though it were an
Decisions have greater legitimacy if residents are involved.
Including local people in decision-making demonstrates an agencys
commitment to participatory planning. At the contaminated U.S. Department
of Energy site in Rocky Flats, Colorado, a community committee directed
the planning of an off-site hazardous waste sampling program. In
essence, such empowerment validates the principle that people want—and
should be able—to decide what is best for their community.
Do they have special uses?
Citizen committees oversee specific aspects of complicated programs.
For the Hudson River Waterfront Alternatives Analysis/Draft Environmental
Impact Statement in New Jersey, local residents directed agency
staff in implementing air quality monitoring.
Community representatives work directly with project design
consultants. For proposed construction of I70 through
Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, the Governor appointed area residents
to work with the States highway planners and the principal
design consultants to address public concerns from the beginning
of preliminary engineering and highway design. Along with frequent
public hearings, local representation served to satisfy public demand
for a greater voice in the project.
Local people facilitate communication between decision-making
bodies. The Airport Policy Committee of the San Diego, California,
MPO worked with officials to forge consensus on several controversial
issues. These people provided a free flow of ideas, unconstrained
by concerns for existing policies, and were able to help overcome
Community representatives serve as informed spokespersons for
an agencys programs. Individuals from the Boise, Idaho,
MPO citizen committee host public meetings, speak to other organizations,
and attend neighborhood events. They use non-technical language
to make citizens more comfortable and willing to participate in
Residents help achieve an agencys goals. For the Dade
County, Florida, rail system, a decision-making committee was appointed,
composed of elected officials and neighborhood representatives.
These citizens subsequently provided leadership on two referenda
supporting funding for the new rail system.
Civic outreach committees assist with public involvement programs
and provide advice based on what they hear in their own discussions
with the public. Seattles Central Puget Sound Regional Transit
Authority (RTA) appointed a group of people to assist in developing
a ballot proposal for regional transit.
Who participates on these boards?
People who serve on policy boards are drawn from many sources.
They include community and business leaders, leaders from special
interest groups, and interested individuals. Length of tenure varies,
depending on tasks, but is generally one to five years.
It is important to recognize special interests. The Hartford,
Connecticut, MPO agency-wide technical committee includes representatives
of four private groups: the American Lung Association, the Chamber
of Commerce, a construction industry association, and a ridesharing
corporation. The board of the Port Authority of Allegheny County,
Pennsylvania, has long included representatives from the Sierra
Club and the League of Women Voters.
What are the costs?
Monetary costs are usually nominal. Local people appointed
to policy boards are seldom paid. Costs to support their participation
include agency staff time, postage, transportation, and occasional
meals. Many agencies economize by sending the same information packages
to both elected officials and boards that include citizens. Costs
of including community people on existing boards are likely to be
lower than those of forming an entirely new board or committee such
as a collaborative task force.
Staffing requirements may be very small. A 1995 nationwide
survey of transit agency policy committees showed that staff support
to the committees averaged 12.4 hours per month. Full-time staff
members with assignments including support to these committees averaged
1.2 people. However, even modest requirements of staff time may
pose a challenge to small MPOs.
How is this organized?
The first step is to determine the need for local representation.
Agencies may be aware of the need because of comment or criticism
from local people. The media sometimes call for local representation
when an agency undertakes a specific task. An agency also becomes
aware through discussions with peers in other areas.
Another step is to research legal requirements. State laws
may specify whether individuals may sit on MPO boards. Participation
may be limited by an organizations by-laws.
An agency devises a strategy for local representation, designing
community positions to suit the boards functions and objectives.
The Albany, New York, Capital District Transportation Committee
(CDTC)all elected officialsputs local people on many
task forces, along with local agency representatives and institutional
and business leaders.
An agency solicits local interest in a variety of ways.
The media help by opening the issue to public discussion. A letter
soliciting interest in participation on boards or committees might
be sent in a general mailing. For a long-range planning effort,
the Albany CDTC took a sample survey of local people to determine
potential interests in participating on planning and policy committees.
An agency seeks a balance of various viewpoints. The nature
of a task may draw volunteers who represent only one side of an
issue, yet a board should encompass many stances.
A formal appointment process is established. A simple letter
or a more formal event lends legitimacy to the process and gives
satisfaction and encouragement to an appointee. A written document
formalizes the time frame, responsibilities, and the expected products.
It is also important to point out the extent of the powers that
accompany the appointment and how the results of the task will affect
further agency actions.
Agencies involve elected officials and keep them informed.
Officials are often able to provide helpful insight. They may also
want to be apprised of the boards progress.
Agencies determine the nature of their involvement on boards.
It may take the form of representation, usually in an ad hoc and
non-voting capacity. It may involve board support, in the form of
staff services, meeting space, and use of equipment for presentations
and recording of proceedings. In some instances, agencies supply
meals, especially if participants travel long distances or a meeting
is held during a conventional meal hour.
A method of selecting a committee chair is determined. Often
a board selects its own chair, or the chair is appointed. If elections
are to take place, introductions of board member candidates are
appropriate, so that an informed selection is made. Introductions
can be informal or take a more formal approach, such as written
position papers that define an individuals expectations and
goals for the processes and products.
Meeting frequency is derived from the size of the task and its
deadlines. In order to accomplish an assignment, a board may
need to meet frequently. Many citizen committees meet monthly, but
specific projects or responsibilities may dictate different schedules.
Board members should play a major role in determining meeting frequency.
Communication is maintained between meetings. Minutes of
each meeting are kept for the record and distributed to remind participants
of past events and decisions. Issue papers are distributed prior
to meetings to help people prepare and to aid discussions. Many
agencies keep local representatives informed with periodic status
Decision-Making bodies need time to adjust to the dynamics of
public involvement. In some cases, important informal communication
occurs during breaks or outside formal meeting hours. For effective
communication among policy board members, the sponsoring agency
may take time to foster a positive atmosphere or use familiar procedures.
For guidance, many MPOs, such as those in Portland, San Diego, and
Phoenix, employ the commonly-understood meeting procedures outlined
in Roberts Rules of Order.
Ethical issues must be considered. Public agencies frequently
have established rules of professional ethics, and these rules extend
to community participants. For example, potential conflicts of interest
need to be identified and addressed immediately.
How is this used with other techniques?
Community representatives are important components of a public
involvement program and complement almost any other technique.
However, local representation cannot be the sole method an agency
uses to involve the public in the planning process. Community representatives
are most effective if they relate continuously with their constituent
groups and participate in an agencys other public involvement
Local representatives are ideal speakers. They are generally
well-informed and usually have extensive experience and exposure
to issues. They are good candidates for a speakers bureau,
but agencies must remain considerate of demands placed on their
time. (See Speakers Bureaus
and Public Involvement Volunteers.)
What are the drawbacks?
The selection and appointment process may be criticized,
especially if the appointees qualifications are questioned
or if the process is seen as closed or unfair. To counter such charges,
an agency can develop a strategy for the process that is comprehensive
Board members may not be fully representative. Selected
representatives may not share the prevailing opinions of the communities
they represent. An agency sometimes needs to expand the number of
representatives to bring in underrepresented interests.
Balanced representation of interest groups is crucial in avoiding
controversy. Disputes over representation require skillful diplomacy
to maintain the legitimacy of the process.
Agency culture sometimes presents barriers. Agencies that
perceive themselves as empowered with sole decision-making responsibility
are reluctant to share authority with non-elected citizens. An agencys
traditional organization or decision-making style may block efforts
to increase the influence of private citizens on decision or policy
For further information:
|Alaska Department of Transportation, Juneau, Alaska
|Capital District Transportation Committee, Albany, New York
|Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington
|Connecticut Department of Transportation, Newington, Connecticut
|Little Rock Metropolitan Planning Organization—Metroplan,
Little Rock, Arkansas
|Maryland State Highway Administration, Baltimore, Maryland
|Portland, Maine, Area Comprehensive Transportation Study
|San Diego Association of Governments, San Diego, California
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).