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Public Involvement Techniques

Foreward  |   Table of Contents
Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

3. Getting Feedback from Participantsskip page navigation

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3.A - Establishing Places People Can Find Information and Interact
3.A.a - Project Websites
3.A.b - Hotlines
3.A.c - Drop-in Centers

3. Introduction
3.A
3.B
3.C

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 with Disabilities.)

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 Techniques.)

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 agency’s 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 Monmouth–Ocean–Middlesex 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; Media Strategies.)

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 tasks.

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 Strategies; Public 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 Lists.)

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 agency’s 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 Strategies.)

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 (206) 684-1357
Denver Regional Council of Governments, Denver, Colorado (303) 455-1000
Maryland Department of Transportation, Baltimore, Maryland (410) 859-7367
New Jersey Transit, Newark, New Jersey (201) 491-8077
Pennsylvania State Legislature, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (717) 783-6430
Puget Sound Regional Council, Seattle, Washington (206) 587-9487

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