Public Involvement Techniques
4.B.a - Improving Meeting Attendance
What does this mean?
For many agencies, getting people to attend meetings is challenging,
if not daunting. Often, despite an agencys concerted efforts,
people simply do not come, and the level of effort seems unjustified
by the results. Low attendance is especially common for State and
Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) planning activities that
do not focus on specific project details. How can agencies summon
their resources to get more people meaningfully involved in the
process of transportation planning and project development?
A first step is to understand why people do not participate.
They offer numerous reasons for not attending transportation meetings:
- They are not aware a meeting is taking place;
- They receive inadequate notice;
- They have other commitments;
- They have a negative perception of the sponsoring agency;
- Public comments are not taken seriously;
- Decisions have already been made behind closed doors;
- Meetings are too time-consuming or boring; and
- Meeting sites are too far away, inconvenient, or inaccessible.
Underneath these very real and very valid reasons lies a deep-seated
cynicism: generally, people today do not believe their input makes
An agencys fundamental weapon in countering such cynicism
is to make public input count in decision-making—to "walk
the talk," as popular wisdom has it—and to let people
know that expressing their opinions has a real, tangible effect.
People participate if an agency offers meaningful opportunities,
plans strategies and logistics carefully, and has a history of using
the output to make better plans and projects. According to a telephone
survey of 2,000 households in Colorado, people want to provide more
input into the "transportation decision-making process, if
they will be listened to...by officials."
Good meeting attendance, then, is closely linked to an agencys
responsiveness and receptivity, commitment to the process of
public involvement, careful advance planning, and good communication
strategies. High turnout with productive results is possible. A
Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) survey indicated that
several States were able to attract large numbers of participants
in their last round of long-range plan updates. These included Wisconsin
(7,500) and Florida and New Jersey (6,000 each).
Why is improved meeting attendance desirable?
High meeting attendance helps ensure a broader range of input.
This, in turn, enables staff to identify additional issues and see
new perspectives. The more inclusive a process, the greater its
credibility—and the more likely it is to produce usable input.
Widespread participation enhances public awareness about a plan
or project. When people get involved in a meaningful exchange
of ideas on transportation issues, they are likely to spread the
word to friends and neighbors. It is also crucial when an elected
body such as a legislature or MPO board must ratify a plan.
Broad participation from the beginning of a process aids consensus-building
at its end. When people are instrumental in shaping the vision
for a project or plan and have been involved in working through
issues and alternatives, they are more likely to be supportive of
the final results. In Portland, Oregon, a recent 64-percent vote
in favor of a bond to support extensions to the light rail system
demonstrates the value of highly-inclusive planning. Several years
prior to the election, a broad-based public involvement program
began with the MPOs 50-year plan for the region, including
numerous community meetings, focus groups, surveys of preferences,
and speakers bureaus. Information provided by participants
was integrated by proponents and culminated in an extensive public
information and meeting program immediately prior to the election.
All community segments benefit from increased meeting attendance
because their interests and viewpoints have a greater probability
of being voiced. These include elected officials; agencies; organizations;
residents; businesses; minority, ethnic, low-income, and disabled
constituents; and special interest groups that focus on specific
issues such as freight; bikeways and trails; pedestrian safety;
taxes; clean air; growth and development; and quality of life. Central
Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) invited key groups
to an important meeting, prepared an agenda with specific time slots
for each group to present its position, and sent the agenda to participants
What are the main keys to success?
A positive and responsive agency attitude is essential.
This is reflected in the level of care, attention, clarity, sincerity,
and honesty its staff displays in contacts with the public. Outreach
efforts before, during, and after meetings are opportunities to
assert a positive attitude and improve rapport with the public.
The Environmental Defense Fund trains staff members who regularly
deal with the public in the importance of a positive attitude. The
Spokane, Washington, MPO makes special efforts to explain why its
meetings are important and that the organization cares about what
people have to say.
It is important to stress that an agency involves people because
their input is valued and useful. New Jersey Transit, for instance,
states, "Its not something we have to do, but rather
something we want to do—to ensure that our services and products
meet the publics expectations, to serve as a quality check
on our performance, and to help us find answers and set priorities."
The public quickly detects when an agency is engaging in public
involvement simply because it is required to do so—and they
will stay away.
Equally important is an agencys record on translating
community input into real decisions. The National Resource and
Defense Council advises that people will not attend meetings if
they perceive that their views will not be heard. Many agencies
confirm this. When the Portland, Oregon, MPO attracted more than
300 participants to a series of outreach meetings, it attributed
the success to a "track record of credibility." The transit
agency in Houston, Texas, believes the most important factor is
"developing and nurturing a trusting relationship" between
the agency and the public.
Careful advance planning is crucial. Good organization assures
people that their time is not wasted and that the agency has a strong
handle on what needs to be accomplished.
- An agency clearly determines the meetings purpose,
what needs it will fill, how it relates to the overall public
involvement program and the larger transportation planning or
project development effort, and how the results will be used.
The more specific an agencys vision for the meeting, the
more likely it will generate feedback that staff people can use.
- The type of meeting, as well as its style, is based on
this strategic assessment. Agencies decide whether a meeting
will emphasize information or interaction and explore the menu
of options within these approaches. They also need to estimate
the number of participants and consider break-out groups if a
large audience is expected.
- Agency staff identifies desired participants and their
special needs. Factors such as familiarity with the plan
or project, the degree of sophistication, and the ability to understand
English all affect meeting planning. The agency also needs to
determine which staff members and resource people need to take
part, when, and in what roles.
- Successful meetings have clear agendas, including
the purpose, discussion topics, types of activities, names of
speakers, and overall schedule. For meetings on a corridor study
in East Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority
(MTA) based its agenda on questions such as "Whats
the project about?" "Whats its current status?"
"Whats the time line?" "What are the criteria?"
and "How can I give comments?"
- Meeting times and locations optimize peoples ability
to participate—for instance, after work hours, in
convenient neighborhood locations and comfortable settings conducive
to interaction. Participants can be consulted beforehand about
what times or dates are preferable. The Pennsylvania DOT holds
meetings both during working hours and in the evening. The Wisconsin
DOT finds that a 4:007:00 P.M. meeting time accommodates
most people. The Cleveland, Ohio, MPO and the Minnesota DOT schedule
their meetings from 5:007:00 P.M. The Ohio DOT has found
that people in urban areas prefer night meetings, while rural
residents prefer daytime. (See Non-traditional
Meeting Places and Events.)
- Thoughtfully prepared and coordinated meeting materials
convey the appropriate level and kind of information.
An agency must allow ample time for writing, editing, printing,
and collating. Presentation materials are particularly important.
Good visuals convey principal points, aid audience understanding
of a plan or project, and encourage people to ask questions. (See
- Sufficient notice well in advance of a meeting helps constituents
set aside time in their schedule for preparation and attendance.
Mailed invitations can take the form of a "save-the-date"
card or flier. The Kansas DOT sent out more than 5,000 fliers
to invite people to 10 informational meetings on its statewide
long-range plan. The Montana DOT sent 5,500 fliers that attracted
3,000 participants to its long-range planning meetings. Phoning
and in some cases FAXing meeting notices are other possible approaches.
Involving the community in planning a meeting enhances its chances
for success. Agencies can ask community groups about what issues
to raise and what meeting dates and places are likely to draw people
to participate. This consultation also helps determine an appropriate
format, depending on the communitys traditions or preferences.
This is particularly crucial when the community involves minorities
and ethnic groups whose cultural attitudes strongly influence how
they see and participate in a public process.
Offering a variety of formats increases the chances of attracting
participants and demonstrates an agencys intent to make
it easy for the community to take part. States use a blend of topics
and formats to attract broad involvement. The Montana DOT enlisted
3,000 participants in its long-range transportation plan through 6
open forums, 5 thematic forums, 9 open houses, and 7 forums with tribal
governments. Over 7,500 people attended Wisconsin DOT meetings on
its long-range plan: 16 forums, 9 informational meetings, 7 topical
review meetings, 1 meeting with 40 statewide organizations, peer review
meetings on subjects such as freight, 10 statewide groups, and 15
What else helps?
Agencies are experimenting with a broad range of strategies
and approaches to attract more participants and make the public
involvement process more meaningful and productive. Some of their
most successful ideas are discussed below.
- Follow up a meeting notice by mail, phone, or FAX
to make sure it has been received and to stress the importance
of attendance and input. The Los Angeles County MTA makes friendly
reminder phone calls to key leaders. The Bay Area Rapid Transit
District (BART) in San Francisco sends FAXes to between 500 and
- Survey communication preferences to find out what
works best for the community. One "size" does not fit
all. The Missouri DOT conducted a statewide survey asking, "How
can we best communicate with you?" Results indicated that
newsletters worked best for this audience and that electronic
meetings were not preferred. (See Public
- Focus each meeting on a special issue. If community
members clearly see how the specific issue affects their lives,
they more readily attend meetings. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation
in Maryland organized a meeting around the relationship between
transportation, affordable housing, and minority groups.
- Do the legwork. Theres no getting around
it. The Houston transit agencys community relations people
know constituents and work the phones before meetings. They also
place fliers on doorknobs. New Jersey Transit hired drug rehabilitation
participants to distribute meeting announcements to downtown Newark
- Use other groups publications to announce meetings.
Sharing resources helps agencies reach a variety of potential
participants cost-effectively. The Johnson CountyIowa City,
Iowa, MPO has reached larger audiences this way. The Chesapeake
Bay Foundation develops partnerships by interesting leaders from
other organizations in its meetings and by publicizing them collaboratively.
- List meetings in a calendar of events. A little
research can uncover numerous places where people look for information
on whats happening—for instance, in local newspaper
weekly calendars or on public access television channels that
offer community bulletin boards. MPOs in Seattle and San Francisco
issue regular newsletters with a calendar of upcoming meetings
and events for several months ahead. The Alaska DOT gets local
clerks to list public involvement meetings on government calendars.
(See Media Strategies.)
- Engage support through local schools. Most parents
give thoughtful consideration to materials they receive through
their childrens school. The Portland, Maine, MPO and Los
Angeles MTA send fliers home with school children. The Florida
DOT created a special program for students to learn about its
EastWest Corridor Study by riding the Metro rail system
and writing essays to express their views on the project.
- Stir interest through name recognition tactics.
The more people see an attractive logo, easily-identifiable symbol
or slogan, or "teaser," the more likely they are to
be curious about whats behind it. To promote project name
recognition for Miamis EastWest Corridor Study major
investment study, the Florida DOT developed a sophisticated logo
placed on widely-distributed calendars and business cards.
- Establish information networks. Word of mouth
is a powerful tool. Houstons transit agency uses "leadership
groups" of residents and businesses that take direct responsibility
for informing other people about transportation issues and meetings.
- Offer low-cost meeting perks, ranging from food
and transportation to day care and entertainment for children.
The Missoula, Montana, and Spokane, Washington, MPOs offer light
food and beverages. The Pittsburgh MPO receives FAXed requests
for the kinds of cookies it should serve. The San Diego MPO offers
certain meetings in a luncheon setting. The Minnesota DOT provides
box lunches for day-long meetings. New Jersey Transit offers entertainment
and babysitters for children during selected meetings. The Alaska
DOT offers transportation to some meeting sites.
- Offer alternative modes of participating for individuals
constrained by time or distance. The Portland Metro, the
Los Angeles MTA, and the Savannah MPO give the public opportunities
to phone in comments regarding meeting topics. Technological advances
increase the opportunities for participating via teleconferences
or computer communication. Agencies sometimes use other techniques
such as community surveys to assure input and yet conserve peoples
energy and time, then target meetings for a stage in the process
when they will be particularly crucial.
- Spark interest by featuring well-known experts or political
candidates. If well-publicized, the presence of prominent
people enhances attendance. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation featured
elected officials as key attractions. The Missouri DOT survey
results indicated preferences for public meetings with elected
officials as guests. The Kansas DOT achieved a high level of participation
when it featured Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America,
at a statewide workshop. The Alaska DOT holds meetings in the
weeks before an election; when the candidates are scheduled to
appear, the agency gets good turnout.
- Feature agency board or staff members as guest speakers.
The active interest of high-level staff demonstrates the value
an agency places on public input. Senior managers at the Oregon
and Pennsylvania DOTs appear at meetings to enhance attendance.
Los Angeles County MTAs chief executive officer frequently
speaks at the agencys meetings. The Houston Transit Agency
brings board meetings into the community every three months for
a project and program status report. The Central Puget Sound RTAs
board is directly involved in meetings to show residents their
voices have value and their comments are not being "filtered"
- Evaluate outreach efforts after a meeting. Determining
what worked and what didnt helps assure that future meetings
will be more effective. When participants see that the agency
has improved its process, their enthusiasm is renewed. Reviewing
attendance lists can help track individual interests. The Portland
Metro, with attendance of over 300 people at meetings, evaluates
its outreach program every three years.
- Maintain interest through follow-up. When people
know their presence has been appreciated, they feel more inclined
to continue with the process. Follow-up includes thank-you letters,
reports, phone calls, surveys, and distribution of new information.
For invited participants, courtesy dictates a thank-you note.
Written responses are also appropriate to follow up unanswered
questions or unresolved issues.
- Target key individuals for special invitation to the next
meeting. Participants who are active in the community
should be encouraged to attend and bring neighbors. This not only
generates good will by showing respect for their role in the community,
it also has a rippling effect within their sphere of influence.
- Court press coverage and establish good media relations.
Agency community relations staff usually knows which reporters
have transportation issues as their "beat." Feeding
them choice bits of news and keeping them up-to-date helps assure
they will cover the story well and in a timely fashion. On the
other hand, agencies should avoid blanketing them with material.
Timing is all. The Wisconsin DOT maintains relations with 600800
media outlets and gets stories in the press prior to meetings.
The Portland Metro takes out eye-catching ads, and the Cape Cod
Commission gets a newspaper article "almost every day."
In Minnesota, the Twin Cities MPO has a two-pronged media strategy:
one focused on its regions editorial boards, another on
- Employ radio coverage as a cost-effective alternative
to reach broad segments of the public. Paid ads, public service
announcements (PSAs), and spot interviews can make more people
aware of a transportation effort and call attention to upcoming
meetings. The Montana DOT arranged interviews at local radio stations
before its long-range plan meetings. The Minnesota DOT developed
call-in shows and later distributed tapes to cable stations. The
tapes were played repeatedly, thus reaching a wider audience,
and a comment number was listed at the end of the tape.
Who leads the effort?
In-house staff usually initiates these measures, developing
strategies and techniques for improving attendance and tailoring
the approach to meet community needs as well as the projects
particular demands. The Roanoke, Virginia, MPO assigns a staff person
to devote the necessary time and energy to improving attendance.
The Denver Transit Agency looks outside its engineering staff for
meeting leaders who are skilled in describing technical issues in
Community leaders or elected officials can suggest what works
best in their communities, advising an agency on key strategies
and putting it in touch with others who are able to improve outreach.
Agency credibility is often improved when a community leader conducts
a meeting or introduces agency staff.
Professional facilitators help create a fair, neutral atmosphere.
For complex or controversial issues, they help attract people who
doubt they will otherwise be heard. They also contribute innovative
ideas on how to increase subsequent participation. (See Facilitation.)
What are the costs?
Costs depend on the number of people to be reached and the communitys
past involvement with agency programs. Direct expenses include
ads, graphics, visuals, mailings, translators if necessary, facility
rental, and equipment. Staff costs are incurred to plan and implement
a program, monitor progress, and make required adjustments. The
level of time and energy staff must commit to a public involvement
effort is closely linked to factors such as the complexity of the
issues and the communitys cultural heritage as well as its
history of response to the agency. Costs may be significantly less
for outreach to a community that has a well-established relationship
with the agency.
What are the drawbacks?
Establishing credibility is difficult. Agencies lacking
a track record in participatory planning sometimes have difficulty
establishing a process and convincing the public that efforts are
sincere. Agencies that previously made "token" efforts
without using the input to improve the plan or project may find
it doubly hard to engage the community. A reputation for an honest
commitment to involving the public is only built over time.
Preparations to increase meeting attendance are time-consuming.
Personnel who are savvy about engaging the community in public involvement
may be scarce. A trial-and-error period is sometimes needed to determine
what works. Agency inaction, errors, and poor planning compound
the difficulties of establishing credibility.
Groups not traditionally involved in meetings are often hard
to reach. Ethnic, minority, and low-income communities may need
extra contact and encouragement to keep them involved, since they
often have more barriers to overcome. People who have been put off
by an agencys insensitivity to their cultural heritage may
be reluctant to participate again. (See Ethnic,
Minority, and Low-income Groups.)
A larger number of participants increases the challenge of building
consensus. Success in attracting more people places extra demands
on staff, because more information must be prepared and transmitted.
A wider array of opinion sometimes creates polarization or prolongs
the process of narrowing down alternatives to reach consensus. Agency
staff needs to research potential issues and prepare focused agendas
for meeting discussions.
For further information:
|Alaska Department of
Transportation, Juneau, Alaska
|Capital District Metropolitan
Planning Organization, Albany, New York
|Central Puget Sound
Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington
|Florida Department of
Transportation, Tallahassee, Florida
Authority of Harris County, Houston, Texas
County Metropolitan Planning Organization, Lawrence, Kansas
|Los Angeles Metropolitan
Transportation Authority, Los Angeles, California
of Transportation, Madison, Wisconsin
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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).