Public Involvement Techniques
1.C.d - Briefings
What are briefings?
Briefings are information meetings with a community group or
leader. Elected officials, business leaders, the media, regional
groups, or special interest groups can participate. Briefings usually
involve issue-focused communication between agency administrators,
project managers, board members, or other staff and a specific group
or part of the community. They are organized in several ways:
- Some briefings are one-on-one meetings with key individuals—for
instance, between an agency representative and a specific community
representative or leader.
- Others are held for key groups to help establish rapport
between agencies and the community and lead to a free discussion
to clarify issues. The Burlington, Vermont, Tri-Center Transit
Study held a briefing for local business leaders to discuss their
concerns about alternatives for transportation improvements, including
high-occupancy vehicle lanes, transportation system management,
and a new light rail system.
- Briefings are held at critical times in a program application
or project schedule—either at the beginning of a project
or planning effort or at regular intervals to keep leaders or
the media informed.
- They are used for either one-way or two-way communication.
Often, agencies use them solely to convey information, but the
format can include a question-and-answer session or two-way discussion
as well. If an agency chooses two-way communication, it should
organize the briefing accordingly. Notices should make clear what
format will be followed. For its Regional Blueprint for Growth
and Development, Minnesotas Metropolitan Planning Organization
(MPO) met with government associations to brief them and generate
- Either an agency or the public initiates briefings.
When communities or individuals want information, they may request
that an agency hold a briefing.
Why are they useful?
Briefings provide immediate opportunities for focused communication.
They can be scheduled quickly to allow project leaders to communicate
with key community groups or leaders. Portland, Oregon, Metro tailors
its presentations to the interest of the group at hand, whether
students, a chamber of commerce, or a homeowners association.
The community gets advance notice of an important event.
By providing an opportunity for questions, briefings help allay
doubts or fears. An agency can "test the waters" with
a subset of the community concerning a specific issue. Within the
narrow focus of a briefing, community residents give an agency the
feedback and direction it needs to be fair and equitable. The Massachusetts
Department of Environmental Protection held a series of briefings
for companies to inform them how to comply with new employee trip
reduction regulations. The three-hour meetings provided a range
of information about requirements such as surveying employees and
implementing ridesharing programs.
Briefings are a good way to establish communication links with
affected groups. They help clarify issues and demonstrate an
agencys sensitivity to local concerns. Because any project
affects different segments of the public, an agency should discuss
the impacts and services with the people most affected. The Portland,
Oregon, Metro holds periodic briefings for geographic areas and
neighborhoods that are affected by a specific alternative.
Briefings help get candid feedback from the community. Community
people can comment off the record. Since they are not recorded,
these comments are relatively unrestrained—and therefore may
provide a truer picture of peoples opinions.
Do they have special uses?
Briefings break through temporary barriers to full public participation.
In circumstances where the communication process is difficult or
complicated, they help an agency reach specific groups. In Wisconsin,
the Dane County Regional Planning Commission held a series of briefings
with representatives of each town to discuss the preparation of
its 2020 Plan.
Briefings give critics a better understanding of a project.
They also give critics a chance to respond in detail, away from
larger meetings that dilute their participation.
Briefings repair damage. A misunderstood or misrepresented
agency uses briefings to get back on track. Briefings on critical
portions of a proposal are useful to open discussions. An agency
may signal its need for advice from community groups on ways to
build greater understanding or future cooperation. Poor communication
is improved if agency staff talks briefly and then listens attentively
to the responses.
They demonstrate agency initiative. Opening a process with
a series of briefings shows that the agency is organized and eager
to get the word out. When an agency targets specific groups, it
shows that it both recognizes their existence and values their participation.
To get more people involved, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council
in MinneapolisSt. Paul, Minnesota, recruited other agencies
to serve as co-hosts during its series of briefings.
Briefings help establish trust and credibility between an
agency and community groups. In Newark, New Jersey, elected officials
attended the Newark Transit Agency briefings on rehabilitation of
the light rail system to demonstrate their support.
Who participates? And how?
Briefings can involve any interested group—elected
officials, organization heads, appointed officials, community groups
or associations, business leaders, or professional associations.
When an agency initiates a briefing, it asks for participation by
specific individuals. When a community group requests a briefing,
an agency should ascertain the groups interests and send appropriate,
knowledgeable staff. Community groups may want a personalized presentation
of a proposal in relation to their neighborhood.
A briefing is usually a simple gathering held around a small
table, in an office, or in a conference room. Alternatively, it
is a conference call between appropriate people to discuss a particular
issue. Agency representatives should be well-informed about the
issues to be addressed, particularly as they affect the participants.
Participants ask questions.The format should address their
communications needs. Often, a briefing includes a presentation
on a plans status, followed by a discussion. Its design should
facilitate communication between an agency and participants.
How do agencies use the output?
Briefings reveal whether an agency is effectively communicating
with stakeholders. Agencies get feedback on the effectiveness
of their public involvement program. Before formal announcement
of an event, input from briefings helps agencies assess its potential
effectiveness and adjust plans accordingly to better meet the needs
of the community.
Briefings help prevent misunderstandings by the public by
supplying accurate information and helping to get a message out.
They also help prevent agencies from misunderstanding the viewpoints
of the target groups.
Briefings allow an agency to convey a message to the community.
By briefing a specific geographic, social, or professional group,
an agency reiterates a message or clarifies an issue. Planners for
New Yorks Long Island Expressway high-occupancy vehicle (HOV)
lane held briefings with local businesses to assess different elements
of the design.
Who leads briefings?
Well-informed, articulate agency staff people lead briefings.
Since a briefing is an opportunity to improve communication, agencies
send senior staff or others who know the project or program thoroughly
and are aware of participants interests or concerns. For discussion
of technical aspects, experts may be needed as well.
Agency staff may share responsibility with a community leader.
The agency need not lead a briefing alone. Community groups may
participate more freely if a community leader leads the discussion.
In such an instance, an agency representative participates both
to satisfy the groups need for information and to get its
input. Agency representatives should be prepared to lead a briefing
if a community group has no designated leader. In some situations,
elected officials or agency board members may take charge.
What do they cost?
A briefing is relatively inexpensive. The primary cost is
preparation time, travel (if necessary), and the meeting itself.
Research or presentation materials may be needed.
Special preparation costs may be limited. It is often possible
to use pre-existing presentation materials. An agency may use project-specific
presentation materials to maintain continuity. Staff may offer refreshments
at a small meeting as an icebreaker.
How are they organized?
Arrangements for a briefing are initiated by either party.
An agency offers a briefing to improve communication, or a community
group requests a meeting with the agency.
An agency must respond quickly to a request for a briefing.
Response time reflects an agencys commitment. Having to wait
several months to meet with staff seriously damages a groups
trust in the agencys sincerity. Every effort should be made
to provide a timely response. If an agency has no time to organize
a briefing, it may share documents, videotapes, or phone calls as
a substitute strategy. (See Video Techniques;
Briefings are customized for each specific situation. The
particular characteristics or concerns of a group suggest the best
structure. An agency must be sensitive to the groups needs,
nature, and purpose, and identify key people. (See Key
Person Interviews.) As a sponsor of the briefing, an agency
determines where the group would be most comfortable and what approach
should govern the meeting. Any good public involvement program includes
constant monitoring of the press, meeting feedback, and other sources
of intelligence about the community. When an agency knows a community
group well—why it exists and where its interests lie—it
can prepare well for a briefing and organize it accordingly. New
Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) officials met with owners
of local newspapers and broadcast stations to generate media interest
in an HOV lane project.
An agency sends its best representatives to briefings—perhaps
a team of people with complementary presentation skills. A high-ranking
staff member or technical specialist can answer questions and demonstrate
an agencys commitment to participation. An agency should exercise
care in appointing briefing staff. Not all staff members make good
public speakers, and good speakers may not function well in small
Agency leaders make certain that unanswered questions receive
a response. Such records also help form the basis for subsequent
meetings with other groups or the community at large. Massachusetts
Bay Transportation Authority representatives met with municipal
officials in each of eight cities and towns through which its proposed
New Bedford/Fall River Commuter Rail Project would pass to inform
them about the project and flag local concerns prior to holding
a series of open public meetings.
Communication between an agency and the community is continuous.
While either party initiates a briefing, an agency should continue
the communication process beyond a single session. An agency may
approach a briefing as the first in a potential series of meetings.
The Portland, Oregon, Metro has a policy of returning periodically
to neighborhoods to report on changes or findings since the initial
How are they used with other techniques?
Briefings are only one part of a larger public involvement program.
They supplement official and public interaction between community
groups and a public agency. Briefings should not be the only means
of communication, nor should they result from a groups frustration
due to lack of other opportunities for dialogue. Briefings are very
important supplements to larger public meetings, but they cannot
replace them. (See Public
Briefings augment other public education efforts. Briefings
are a good way to introduce a new program or delineate project principles
to a community already familiar with an existing project. They also
help assuage concerns about a project.
Briefings generate additional public involvement. After
a briefing, a community group may be willing to work with an agency
as the project or program advances. A community may want to participate
in subsequent meetings to safeguard its own stake in an agencys
What are the drawbacks?
Over-reliance on briefings lends an appearance of "back-room
deals" and therefore should be strenuously avoided. Holding
small, seemingly controlled briefings only in times of crisis or
when actions are critical to an agency may alienate a community.
Briefings may be viewed as an agency tool of little benefit
to the community. Community people may perceive that agencies
do not listen and do not absorb feedback.
Extensive use of briefings can consume agency staff time.
Are briefings flexible?
Briefings are held at nearly any time. Good timing helps
make a briefing successful. Agency staff must be flexible, since
community groups may request briefings on the spur of the moment.
An agency may find it beneficial to hold briefings at specific points
in a process of planning or project development; for example:
- Immediately before a major event or decision;
- After a crisis;
- After an especially unsuccessful agency effort; and
- Before introducing new strategies.
For further information:
|Atlanta Regional Commission, Atlanta, Georgia
|Dane County Regional Planning Commission, Madison, Wisconsin
|Orange County Transportation Authority, Orange, California
|Portland Metro, Portland, Oregon
|Twin Cities Metropolitan Council, St. Paul, Minnesota
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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).