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Public Involvement Techniques

Foreward  |   Table of Contents
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.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, Minnesota’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) met with government associations to brief them and generate feedback.
  • 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 agency’s 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 people’s 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 Minneapolis–St. 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 group’s 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 plan’s 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 York’s 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 group’s 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 agency’s commitment. Having to wait several months to meet with staff seriously damages a group’s trust in the agency’s 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; Telephone 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 group’s 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 agency’s 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 discussion groups.

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 briefing.

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 group’s 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 Meetings/Hearings.)

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 agency’s proposals.

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 (404) 364-2575
Dane County Regional Planning Commission, Madison, Wisconsin (608) 266-4317
Orange County Transportation Authority, Orange, California (714) 560-5725
Portland Metro, Portland, Oregon (503) 797-1746
Twin Cities Metropolitan Council, St. Paul, Minnesota (612) 291-6423

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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle Noch at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls at FTA (202-366-5362).

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