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Public Involvement Techniques

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Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

1. Informing People Through Outreach and Organizationskip page navigation

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1.C - Providing Substantive Information and Establishing Methods of Communication
1.C.a - Contact Lists
1.C.b - Information Materials
1.C.c - Key Person Interviews
1.C.d - Briefings
1.C.e - Video Techniques
1.C.f - Telephone Techniques
1.C.g - Media Strategies
1.C.h - Speakers' Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers

1. Introduction
1.A
1.B
1.C
1.D

1.C.a - Contact Lists

What are contact lists?

Contact lists are names and contact information for people affected by, or interested in, a transportation plan or project, including organizations, residents, media, elected officials, abutters, agency personnel, interest groups, and others. They are important components of most public involvement programs. Lists include information for contacting people, such as their street address, email address, and phone numbers. Lists may include other relevant information such as demographic data or the project meetings attended and communications received from an individual.

Agencies use contact lists throughout planning and project development to reach the community with announcements of upcoming events, meeting invitations, newsletters, summary reports, and other information about its activities.

List size is affected by a number of factors, including stakeholder population and the scope of the project, study, or plan for which names are being collected. The use of spreadsheets and databases makes it easy to store, sort, and retrieve large numbers of contacts. The Atlanta Regional Commission's Family of Partners has 1,200 names. Some organizations maintain larger lists; Portland, Oregon Metro's list comprises 60,000 names. The Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) retains an outside list management firm to handle its large master list, while smaller, more frequently used lists are maintained in-house.

Why are they useful?

Contact lists help an agency organize its public communications, particularly when lists are kept up to date. New Jersey Transit, with approximately 1,000 names on its Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex Counties mailing list, identifies names and addresses, group affiliation, municipality, county, facsimile number, and committee membership. It can assemble a mailing to specific groups or committees by using search and sort capabilities. The master mailing list of the Portland, Oregon Metro includes names gathered by several of its divisions. These lists are combined and sorted by computer to avoid duplication when the agency wishes to contact the entire group.

Contact lists allow agencies to provide updated information quickly. As agencies become more active in reaching out to communities, people expect to receive continual updates on meetings.

An agency can monitor to whom and from whom information is sent and received, allowing the agency to measure its success (or lack of success) in reaching and gaining the interest of different portions of an affected community.

Contact databases can be coded to identify different subgroups for targeting and market analysis. Contacts can be individually marked for many attributes; for example, zip code, meeting attendance, comments submitted, how a person first heard about the project, and memberships in local organizations. An agency can cross-reference these attributes to discover whether particular subgroups have attended (or not attended) certain meetings or have requested certain information. This allows the agency to better understand who it is reaching successfully or who is responding to the project or the Information Materials. (See Information Materials.)

Contact lists' tracking abilities facilitate agency follow-up, thanking individuals for their involvement, providing information to the individuals and groups that want it, and building stronger relationships with stakeholders.

A database becomes a record of persons an agency has contacted. It can contain information from sign-in sheets, phone-call logs, and emails. New Jersey Transit uses its list as a record of meetings and events attended by individuals, as well as of their individual issues and concerns.

Agencies analyze contact list information to evaluate programs. Agencies examine the effectiveness of a public involvement program by comparing the names on its contact list with the names of people who have responded or participated. Areas where the population has not responded can be targeted for special attention.

Do contact lists have special uses?

Contact lists provide an immediate pool of potential committee and task force members, particularly if they comprise names of people who have signed in at meetings, emailed the project team, or expressed interest in an issue—in other words, people who may want to serve in an advisory capacity. (See Civic Advisory Committees; Collaborative Task Forces; Citizens on Decision and Policy Bodies; Hotlines.) In Georgia, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC)—a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO)—developed a Transportation Resource Bank of over 1,200 names of people who signed in at its planning meetings. For a subsequent major investment study, ARC contacted people on the list to develop a set of committee representatives with a variety of perspectives.

Agencies can reach all property owners who are affected by a project or program. The New York State Department of Transportation (DOT), known as NYSDOT, uses tax maps to identify holders of property within a certain distance of a project. The NYSDOT then sends them mailings about the project and associated hearings.

Contact lists are used as a basis for surveys. Larger lists are better in this respect since they take a larger sample of a population. Lists comprising registered voters provide a random sample, while lists of people who are interested in a project define a self-selected group. A survey to this type of group is still useful since the respondents are more likely to be well informed. However, such a survey should not be regarded as statistically valid (i.e., it does not represent the opinion of a representative sample of the population). (See Public Opinion Surveys.)

How are contact lists created?

Agency staff develops a list of people who want to receive information. An agency researches the current population of the area being affected to develop its initial list. A small, active list of people begins the process and then grows over time as more people become involved. Additions to a list are often keyed into agency actions or specific milestones in a project or planning effort.

People get added to a list by signing in at a meeting. People also participate when they email or phone in comments or suggestions to an agency if the agency makes a record of the caller's name and address. Agencies offer mail-in coupons in newsletters or local newspapers to encourage people to get information by joining the mailing list.

Contact lists can and should be shared among offices within an agency and perhaps with other agencies and organizations. Outreach is enhanced as the number of names increases, and sharing information helps keep the costs of list maintenance reasonable. The Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC)—the Albany, New York, MPO—has assembled lists from other groups, including NYSDOT , the New York State Thruway Authority, freight industry organizations, the Women's Transportation Seminar (WTS), the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), the American Planning Association (APA), and Delta Nu Alpha (a fraternal organization of transportation professionals). For 10 projects along San Francisco's waterfront, the city established a shared mailing list of more than 3,000 participants with interests of individuals coded by project.

What are the steps to organize and maintain a list?

2: Structure the information to be maintained. In a database or spreadsheet, each individual's information constitutes a separate record, which is organized in categories called fields. A basic set of fields might include:

  • Name
  • Email address
  • Street number
  • Street name
  • Post office
  • State
  • Zip code
  • County
  • Home phone number
  • Cell phone number

Optional information could include:

  • Occupation
  • Household size
  • Adults in household
  • Affiliation (government official, interest group, etc.)
  • Meetings attended
  • Mailings sent
  • Statements or other responses made
  • Membership on committees
  • Source of information if names are an assemblage of other mailing lists

Some fields may remain blank for some individuals. Most records include only names and addresses. A new field may be added at any time when a mailing list is used for a specific purpose, such as keeping track of attendance at a particular meeting.

Step 3: Gather names and addresses. A variety of information gathering methods allows an agency to reach a large portion of the population. Organizations use websites to build their contact lists by having a place for people to provide their email address and other useful pieces of information. (See Project Websites.) Agencies might work with an organization that reaches most or all of the population via services such as motor vehicle registration, voter registration, tax returns, or utility billing. The Minnesota Department of Transportation cooperates with utilities to send mailings out via utility bills. Albany's CDTC used the local phone book to identify stakeholders and interest groups for a survey of the freight community. The Portland, Oregon, Metro linked tax assessor's information and addresses for all property owners in the region to its geographic information system (GIS). Metro uses this program to inform people within a specific geographic area, municipality, street, or census tract.

Step 4: Enter the data into the spreadsheet or database. This is a continuous process as new people attend meetings or use hotlines, addresses change, or an agency takes steps to broaden its constituency. A website or electronic newsletter with links to update one's contact information greatly facilitates this process. (See Project Websites.) Albany's CDTC and the San Diego Association of Governments send out return mail postcards to people on its list. Recipients are asked to return the cards, updating the information if they wish to remain on the list. Those who do not return the card are dropped from the list, thus making it more cost-effective.

Step 5: Use the list for mailings. A list can be provided to an electronic newsletter service or to provide periodic emails. A list can also be printed out directly on envelopes or on labels for newsletters, announcements, and flyers. It can be mail merged to send a personalized letter. Specialized lists may be developed from a master list by sorting the records according to a parameter within a single field. To conserve expenditures in agency staff time and energy, private services such as mailing houses can handle large mailings.

These steps constitute an ongoing process. As the list expands and changes, it can be reassessed for its value to the agency. New names and information are added to keep a list up-to-date. The Alaska DOT has kept a mailing list for 30 years. It includes members of the public but changes over time to reflect new elected officials and representatives from neighborhood and Alaskan native groups.

How do agencies use contact lists

Agencies send information to their contacts in a variety of ways. General information, such as newsletters, meeting announcements, or invitations, can go out to an entire list either digitally or by U.S. mail. (See Information Materials.) An agency may send a report summary to an entire mailing list, along with a notice that the complete report is available in several physical locations and online for general viewing while mailing hard copies of the full document only to a selected group. *When sending specialized reports and other documents, the Central Puget Sound RTA, the Southwest Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and Albany's CDTC all sort their lists to target specific stakeholders.

Agencies disseminate information and keep a record of interested parties. Agencies can keep records of comments received as well as personal profiles. Records of comments give agencies access to the opinions of a segment of their constituents. The San Diego, California, Association of Governments uses its mailing lists to keep track of the memberships of over 40 committees.

Agencies maintain a master database or spreadsheet, with subsets to contact on specific issues. Agencies add names collected during all outreach activities and sort the list for people interested in a particular issue for a targeted mailing. In Washington State, the Central Puget Sound RTA maintains a master list of all names and a priority list of people with a greater level of responsibility. If an agency is about to make a presentation to the governing body of a town, people from that town can be selected to receive notices or invitations.

Who leads the management and use of a contact list?

Contact lists need an organizer and caretaker to determine the fields to be included and to keep the list up to date. A skilled and creative clerical person with good computer skills and attention to detail can easily execute the work. Organizers of meetings and other public events can be enlisted to collect names and addresses of participants.

What do contact lists cost?

Building and maintaining a large contact list is a labor-intensive process that can be fairly expensive. Albany's CDTC allocates about 5 hours per week to maintenance of its database (approximately 900 names). Additional time is needed during peak periods when a large number of names is received or if a large mailing is underway. The San Diego Association of Governments dedicates approximately 10–15 staff hours per week to administration of its list (approximately 11,000 names). A Portland Metro staff person dedicates virtually all of their time to maintaining its 60,000-name mailing list.

Contact lists are labor-saving devices. They allow an agency to contact many people at one time with individualized emails, letters, or other materials. They save staff time on phone calls. A well-organized database simplifies clerical tasks related to correspondence, which can lead to a reduced clerical workload and an associated cost reduction.

Equipment requirements are fairly modest. Most agencies already have spreadsheet and database software. Even very large databases can be stored on a flashdrive or other portable device for under $50. Mailing labels or envelopes can be printed out on most standard printers.

Sending notices by email or electronic newsletter is not expensive. Emailing is virtually free and requires only an Internet connection. Electronic newsletter services charge low monthly fees to send multiple newsletters per month to contact lists of various sizes.

Postage and printing costs for physically mailing materials can be significant, but there are economies of scale. A typical newsletter is cheaper to print after the first 1,000 copies. Bulk mail costs vary, depending on the number of pieces sent to each zip code. If an agency wants to blanket a community, newspaper inserts are a good alternative to bulk mailings. New Jersey Transit recently used newspaper inserts to distribute 50,000 newsletters to key communities in the Burlington-Gloucester major investment study area and 25,000 newsletters to its Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex major investment study corridor. For smaller mailing lists, other options may be more attractive. Bulletins from San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) reach a list of about 500-600 businesses via facsimile machines.

How are contact lists used with other techniques?

A contact list is a basic building block of a good public involvement program. It allows an agency to stay in direct touch with people who have an interest in its planning and projects. Used periodically throughout a process to distribute information, mailing lists require and contribute to a record of people interested in transportation.

Contact lists are used to structure information information from other techniques for gathering names. These include websites, hotlines, other telephone logs, and communications logs. (See Hotlines; Project Websites.)

Contact lists are used to send out newsletters or other publications. Digital and print newsletters, pamphlets, or other emailed and printed matter update people on the progress and major milestones of a project or planning process. Announcements of public meetings, open houses, and other events are facilitated by a well-maintained contact list. (See Information Materials.)

Contact lists are a basis for on-line contacts with participants. Kansas City, Missouri's MPO, the Mid-America Regional Council, is developing its mailing list into a civic advisory network to reach people on the Internet as well as through postal services. (See On-line Services.)

Contact lists help set up civic advisory committees or other groups. The New Jersey Department of Transportation, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission in Pittsburgh use mailing lists to look for potential members of Community Advisory Committees, focus groups, or ad hoc task forces. (See Civic Advisory Committees; Collaborative Task Forces; Focus Groups; Citizens on Decision and Policy Bodies.)

Contact lists help in administering community surveys.Washington State Department of Transportation has used its mailing lists to distribute surveys. The Portland, Oregon, Metro mailed a survey to 400,000 people (60 percent of households in the metro area) and received 20,000 returns, a 5 percent response rate. As part of its Transportation Policy Plan Study, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation sent out a survey attached to its newsletter and received approximately 400 responses. It should be noted that mailing lists are usually not a statistically valid method of surveying. (See Public Opinion Surveys.)

Contact lists help in setting up speakers' bureaus. The Atlanta Regional Commission has used its mailing list to develop a speakers' bureau that consists of a number of volunteers who meet with interested groups to discuss transportation issues. This "Family of Partners" (a concept also being explored by Georgia Department of Transportation) was developed using ARC's list of meeting sign-ins. (See Speakers' Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers.)

What are the drawbacks?

The principal drawback is the amount of time needed to set up a list. This time commitment entails a significant labor cost. Postage and printing costs for large lists also put great strain on a budget.

To be cost-effective, contact lists must be kept current. Albany's CDTC and the San Diego Association of Governments send return postcards to help weed out names of people who are not interested in being kept on the lists.

An agency must be careful not to exclude a segment of the population. Relying on meeting sign-in sheets to generate a contact list can result in excluding traditionally-underserved populations. In generating its initial contact list, the agency must be careful to research current demographic information for the affected population and ensure that all groups are included on the contact list. (See Including People Who Are Underserved by Transportation.)

Trading names and addresses with other agencies is an issue. Some people are concerned about their privacy when agencies trade their addresses. Agencies need to inform people that lists will not be used for commercial purposes but for keeping people abreast of recent developments.

Contact lists are not a statistically-valid basis for surveys. Agencies should be cautious when using data received from surveys, particularly those from small lists. A list built from sign-in sheets and committee memberships represents a self-selected group, not a methodically-selected random sample of the population. (See Public Opinion Surveys.)

Sometimes agencies rely excessively on contact lists to maintain contact with the public. Often, the public treats bulk email and physical mailings as junk mail and ignores them. Agencies need to remember that mailings cannot replace direct contact through meetings, focus groups, drop-in centers, etc.

Are contact lists flexible?

Contact lists are applied to a multitude of tasks, including the building of committees, focus groups and task forces, distribution of surveys, and, of course, the distribution of notices, newsletters, and reports. They can be tailored to contain virtually any informational category. Lists can be sorted to make sublists of people based on location, occupation, issues, interests, or other criteria.

When are they used most effectively?

Contact lists are used throughout a process and for many purposes, but they should be linked to other public involvement activities. A contact list is meaningless unless an agency has newsletters, announcements, invitations, or other printed materials to send to the public (See Information Materials.)

For further information:

Alaska Department of Transportation, Juneau, Alaska (907) 465-6971
Atlanta Regional Commission, Atlanta, Georgia (404) 364-2575
City of San Francisco Chief Administrative Office (415) 554-5782
Mid-America Regional Council, Kansas City, Missouri (816) 474-4240
New Jersey Transit, Newark, New Jersey (201) 491-8077
San Diego Association of Governments, San Diego, California (619) 595-5300
Washington State Department of Transportation, Olympia, Washington (206) 705-7958

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