Public Involvement Techniques
3.A.b - Hotlines
What are hotlines?
Hotlines are agency telephone lines that receive inquiries
from the general public. They offer updated information on a
project and general news regarding a special program, as well as
taking specific inquiries from callers. The hotlines are staffed
by a contact person or operate automatically with recorded messages.
Most hotlines have the following basic features:
- An established, well-publicized telephone number that operates—at
a minimum—during business hours; many hotlines offer 24-hour
toll-free communication access via an 800 number;
- An answering machine to receive calls when staff is unavailable;
- A staff person designated to receive and respond to calls; and
- A policy for ways in which agency staff should respond to calls.
Why are they useful?
Hotlines allow anyone with access to a telephone to contact
an agency. They are inexpensive and easy to use for informing
a wide range of individuals about a project or planning process
and for allowing them to ask questions or voice opinions. The Denver
Regional Council of Governments uses a hotline to announce public
meetings, hearings, and other events. The Maryland Department of
Transportation (DOT) uses an 800 number during project development,
and the Colorado DOT uses one during its planning process. The Central
Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) uses a hotline to announce
events and take questions and comments from the public.
Hotlines are used to deliver recorded messages, using one
or more telephone lines. Such operations provide specific information
to update community members on upcoming program events or announce
recent project milestones and decisions. Agencies check the line
regularly and make responses promptly. Messages are updated frequently,
so that information is current and callers are confident that the
agency is monitoring the system. Special technologies are available
to enable people with hearing and speech disabilities to activate
all hotline features. (See People
Hotlines are a useful method of two-way communication. They
offer both information and an opportunity to register opinions or
ask questions. Staff members give real-time responses. Answering
machines should include a mechanism to record callers names
and addresses as well as questions or opinions. The Twin Cities
Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in Minnesota has an automated
telephone response system. (See Telephone
Do they have special uses?
FAX-on-demand services can be provided by a hotline. The
Pennsylvania State Legislature provides a FAX-on-demand service
to its members and plans to do so for constituents as well. This
service provides a caller with facsimile copies of information (in
this case, legislative bills) from a prepared menu. A person calling
the hotline selects a desired document, provides a number for the
receiving facsimile machine, then awaits the agencys transmission.
This service eliminates delays that come from telephoning, requesting,
and waiting for a mailing, or the redundancy of agency staff answering
dozens of identical requests for a hot piece of information.
For short documents, FAX-on-demand is cost-competitive with traditional
mail services, particularly if transmissions are sent in off-hours,
when telephone rates are lower.
Hotlines are used prior to open houses or open forums. In
this way, they enable staff members to research answers and better
prepare for an event. (See Open
Forum Hearings/Open Houses.) New Jersey Transit uses a hotline
for its MonmouthOceanMiddlesex major investment study
to receive questions from the public prior to project open houses.
Callers are asked to state their questions in detail, along with
their names and the open house meeting they plan to attend.
Who participates? And how?
Anyone with access to a telephone can use a hotline. Blanket
publicity is the key to making sure that the telephone number is
well-known. New Jersey Transit hands out refrigerator magnets with
its hotline number at all public events. Members of a project technical
team hand out magnets when they meet people in the field.
TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf) services make hotlines
accessible to people with hearing or speech disabilities. These
callers contact a TDD-compatible hotline through their own service.
The service then contacts the hotline. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation
Authority regards this service as an essential component of its
compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (See
People with Disabilities.)
Staff people must be available to respond. Hotlines with
recorded messages do not offer callers immediate personal contact
with a staff person. A member of a project or agency staff calls
back once messages are retrieved. Answers to information requests
need to be timely and responsive in content.
To be effective, hotlines must be well-publicized. Publicity
is particularly crucial, since people must know about them and know
the telephone numbers before they can make use of them. Publicity
can be in print media, at meetings, and on public documents. (See
Public Information Materials;
How do agencies use the output?
Agencies gauge public opinion about a project. They identify
specific, recurring issues or questions. Calls received do not represent
a random sample, but they are an indicator of the opinions within
a community. If an agency receives several questions in a certain
subject area, it can adjust its outreach program to improve general
understanding of those issues. Changes may be in order in the content
of analyses and plans to respond to participants concerns.
New Jersey Transit keeps a database of comments received on its
hotline and at public events that can be referred to by subject
area or geographic area.
Recordings allow an agency to prepare a thoughtful response
rather than to put staff members in a position they might feel pressure
to shoot from the hip (especially when dealing with
an irate caller).
Who leads the technique?
No special background is needed to set up and operate a
hotline. The actual setup is coordinated with a telephone company.
Operation of the equipment is a fairly simple task, although the
person who records the greetings should enunciate clearly.
The person who answers the calls should be well-versed
in the specifics of the project and be able to answer follow-up
questions. The North Carolina Department of Tourism and the Wisconsin
DOT have trained State prisoners with no prior experience to staff
hotlines. In North Carolina, the prisoners receive extensive preliminary
training on the subject matter and on phone etiquette before staffing
phone banks, and they are equipped with brochures and materials
that assist them in answering questions. The system has been in
operation for over five years, and its sponsors regard it as a success.
What are the costs?
Hotline costs vary, depending on the complexity of the system,
use of a standard or toll-free telephone number, and the staffing
plan. A hotline can be as simple as a telephone hooked to an answering
machine, usually costing less than $100. The costs increase when
additional branch lines are added, requiring specialized equipment.
Staffing costs are linked to usage. Staff members only need
to dedicate time when they are actually on the telephone, with some
additional time needed for documentation and other administrative
How are hotlines organized?
Hotlines are easy to set up. Most long-distance companies
are able to provide assistance in organizing an answering system.
Special equipment is required to set up the answering mechanism
if multiple answering modules are to be employed. An alternative
approach is to contract with a telephone company to provide the
service and permit the agency to access it via an office telephone.
This arrangement works only for a system with recorded messages.
A toll-free number can be used, and telephone company's bill based
on its usage, so operating costs are closely linked to effectiveness.
An agency staff member checks messages regularly to assure
prompt responses. If staffing permits, a member of the project team
is designated to answer calls as they come in, at least during business
hours. This person should be well-versed in several aspects of the
project so that she or he can answer a variety of questions. Project
management may maintain a contact sheet of team members who can
answer detailed questions about specific issues.
How are they used with other techniques?
Hotlines are integrated with a variety of other techniques
in the public involvement toolbox. The Denver Regional Council of
Governments and the Central Puget Sound RTA use hotlines, along
with media advertisements and newsletters, to publicize public meetings
and events. (See Media
Information Materials.) New Jersey Transit uses its hotline
as an RSVP device for committee meetings. The hotline itself is
advertised at these events and in project newsletters. A hotline
can be used to build a project mailing list. (See Mailing
What are the drawbacks?
Callers may be frustrated if they receive a recorded message
rather than reaching a live staff member. An unhappy caller who
is already upset with some aspect of an agencys program becomes
more upset when unable to make immediate human contact. This problem
is alleviated if a staff member answers the telephone during peak
business hours or if the answering system at least gives callers
the option of reaching a person. If a satisfactory response to the
inquiry comes promptly, most callers overcome their initial frustration
at not having their call answered in person.
Hotlines require regular notice in agency newsletters and publications.
The Pennsylvania DOT has expressed some dissatisfaction with hotlines
due to the constant publicity needed to make hotline use effective.
Some agencies have been able to take advantage of word-of-mouth
notification through community organizations, but this method should
not be the sole means of publicizing a hotline. (See Media
Are hotlines flexible?
Hotlines can be changed to meet specific functions. Depending
on need, a hotline provides a calendar of upcoming events, heralds
project milestones, or offers a clearinghouse for questions from
concerned local people. Frequent adjustments to hotlines assure
the timeliness of information.
When are they used most effectively?
Hotlines are most effective when integrated with other techniques.
They are used as part of an outreach program that includes a variety
of printed, electronic, and personal media. Hotlines complement
other outreach techniques, providing a means of building mailing
lists and initiating more meaningful personal contacts.
For further information:
|Central Puget Sound
Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington
|Denver Regional Council
of Governments, Denver, Colorado
of Transportation, Baltimore, Maryland
|New Jersey Transit,
Newark, New Jersey
|Pennsylvania State Legislature,
|Puget Sound Regional
Council, Seattle, Washington
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at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).