Public Involvement Techniques
4.C.b - Teleconferencing
What is a teleconference?
A teleconference is a telephone or video meeting between
participants in two or more locations. Teleconferences
are similar to telephone calls, but they can expand discussion to
more than two people. Using teleconferencing in a planning process,
members of a group can all participate in a conference with agency
Teleconferencing uses communications network technology
to connect participants’ voices. In many cases, speaker
telephones are used for conference calls among the participants.
A two-way radio system can also be used. In some remote areas, satellite
enhancement of connections is desirable.
Radio can also be a component of teleconferencing,
especially in areas where there may be impediments to other methods
of public involvement. For example, to address the need to involve
the largest number of citizens possible when updating the STIP,
the Alaska Department of Transportation often uses radio call-ins.
This method helps gather input from areas in which no public meeting
is held and from people in remote areas of the state that may not
even have electricity.
Video conferencing can transmit pictures as well as voices
through video cameras and computer modems. Video conferencing technology
is developing rapidly, capitalizing on the increasingly powerful
capabilities of computers and telecommunications networks. Video
conferencing centers and equipment are available for rent in many
Why is it useful?
Teleconferencing reaches large or sparsely populated areas.
It offers opportunities for people in outlying regions to participate.
People participate either from home or from a local teleconferencing
center. In Alaska, where winter weather and long distances between
municipalities serve as roadblocks to public meetings, the State
legislature has developed the Legislative Telecommunication Network
(LTN). As an audio teleconference system, LTN can receive legislative
testimony from residents or hold meetings with constituents during
“electronic office hours.” Although its main center
is in the capitol building, it has 28 full-time conference centers
and 26 voluntary conference centers in homes or offices of people
who store and operate equipment for other local people. The system
averages three teleconferences per day when the legislature is in
Teleconferencing provides broader access to public meetings,
as well as widening the reach of public involvement. It gives additional
opportunities for participants to relate to agency staff and to
each other while discussing issues and concerns from physically
separate locations. It enables people in many different locations
to receive information first-hand and simultaneously. (See Public
A wider group of participants means a broader range of
ideas and points of view. Audio interaction makes dialogue
more lively, personal, and interesting. Teleconferencing provides
an immediate response to concerns or issues. It enables people with
disabilities parents with child care conflicts, the elderly, and
others to participate without having to travel. (See People
with Disabilities.) In response to requests from residents in
remote rural areas, the Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT)
held two-way video teleconferences for its statewide Transportation
Improvement Plan update. Two special meetings were broadcast by
a private non-profit organization that operates ED-NET, a two-way
teleconferencing system. ED-NET provided a teleconference among
staff members in one of the DOT’s five regional offices and
participants at central transmission facilities in a hospital and
a community college in eastern Oregon.
Teleconferencing can save an agency resources.
Without leaving their home office, staff members can have effective
meetings that reach several people who might not otherwise be able
to come together. Teleconferencing often enables senior officials
to interact with local residents when such an opportunity would
not exist otherwise, due to distance and schedule concerns. A teleconference
may reach more people in one session than in several sessions held
in the field over several weeks. It can be difficult to schedule
more than two or three public meetings in the field within one week,
due to staff commitments and other considerations. Teleconferencing
can connect several remote locations saving several days or weeks
of agency resources.
Teleconferencing should not take away from the value of
face-to-face contact. While teleconferencing allows for
multiple meetings in a short timeframe and can provide access when
distances or other conditions limit the ability to travel, they
should not be used as a substitute for in-person public contact.
Does it have special uses?
Teleconferencing is useful when an issue is State- or region-wide.
The World Bank uses moderated electronic conferences to identify
best public involvement practices from front-line staff. The discussion
focuses around fleshing out and sharing ideas so that practitioners
in different locations can learn from the experiences of others
around the world.
Teleconferencing helps increase the number of participants.
People may be reluctant to travel to a meeting because of weather
conditions, poor highway or transit access, neighborhood safety
concerns, or other problems. Teleconferencing offers equal opportunity
for people to participate, thus allowing more points of view to
emerge, revealing areas of disagreement, and enabling people to
exchange views and ask questions freely.
Teleconferencing is used for training. It opens
up training hours and availability of courses for people unable
to take specialized classes because of time constraints and travel
costs. The National Transit Institute held a nationally broadcast
session answering questions about requirements for Federal major
investment studies (MIS). Over 1,700 people met at 89 teleconferencing
sites to participate in the meeting. Feedback from participants
was overwhelmingly in favor of the usefulness and practicality of
Teleconferencing is used for networking among transportation
professionals on public involvement and other topics. North
Carolina State University sponsored a national teleconference on
technologies for transportation describing applications of three-
and four-dimensional computer graphics technologies. They have been
found helpful in facilitating public involvement and environmental
Who participates? And how?
Anyone can participate. Teleconferencing broadens
participation with its wide geographical coverage. People living
in remote areas can join in conversations. Participation becomes
available even for the mobility-restricted, those without easy access
to transportation, and the elderly. Those with limited English proficiency
may not participate without assistance. (See People
with Disabilities; Ethnic,
Minority, and Low-income Groups.)
Participants gather at two or more locations and
communicate via phone or video. The event requires planning, so
that participants are present at the appointed time at their divergent
Participants should know what to expect during the session.
A well-publicized agenda is required. It is helpful to brief participants
so they understand the basic process and maximize the use of time
for their participation. For example, basic concerns like speaking
clearly or waiting to speak in turn are both elements of a successful
How do agencies use teleconferencing?
Teleconferencing elicits comments and opinions from the
public. These comments and opinions become part of a record
of public involvement. Agencies should plan to record and provide
access to public comments, as well as to respond to comments and
community input and to address specific concerns
Teleconferencing offers immediate feedback from agency
staff to the community. This feedback is a special benefit
for participants in both time savings and satisfaction with agency
actions. To assure immediacy, agencies must have staff available
to respond to questions at the teleconference.
An agency can tailor its efforts to respond to a range
of needs or circumstances, with broad input from diverse
geographical and often underserved populations. The Montana DOT
will use a teleconferencing network in the state as it updates its
Agencies use teleconferencing with individuals or with
multiple groups. The range of participants varies from
simple meetings between two or three people to meetings involving
several people at many locations. Simple meetings can be somewhat
informal, with participants free to discuss points and ask questions
within a limited time.
Who leads a teleconference?
A trained facilitator, moderator, or group leader runs
the meeting. A moderator needs to orchestrate the orderly
flow of conversation by identifying the sequence of speakers. A
staff person can be trained to open and lead the teleconference.
Community people can lead the conversation. The
moderator need not be an agency staff person. If the teleconference
is taking place at the request of community people, it is appropriate
that a community resident lead the session. Agency staff members
should feel free to ask questions of community people to obtain
a complete understanding of their point of view.
Each individual meeting site must have a person in charge
to prevent the conversation from becoming chaotic. A teleconferencing
facility coordinator can train agency staff or community people
to lead the process. Appointment of an individual to guide conversation
from a specific site should be informally carried out. Community
groups may want to have a role in this appointment.
What are the costs?
Teleconferencing costs vary, depending on the application.
The costs of installing a two-way telephone network are modest.
For complex installations, including television, radio, or satellite
connections, costs are significantly higher. Hiring outside help
to coordinate equipment purchases or design an event adds to the
For modest teleconferencing efforts, equipment and facilities
are the principal costs. Higher costs are associated with
higher performance levels of equipment, more transmission facilities,
or more locations. Agencies may be able to rent a facility or set
one up in-house. The San Diego Association of Governments is building
its own central teleconferencing facility to provide increased opportunities
for the agency to use this technique.
It is possible to share teleconferencing costs among organizations.
Many States have teleconferencing capabilities in State colleges.
States may have non-profit organizations with teleconferencing capabilities.
Outside resources include cable television stations or donated use
of private company facilities. Agency staff time devoted to the
event may be a significant expense.
How is teleconferencing organized?
One person should be in charge of setting up a teleconference.
That individual makes preparatory calls to each participant, establishes
a specific time for the teleconference, and makes the calls to assemble
the group. The same person should be in charge of setting an agenda
based on issues brought up by individual participants.
Equipment for a telephone conference is minimal.
Speakerphones allow several people to use one phone to listen to
and speak with others, but they are not required. Individuals can
be contacted on their extensions and participate fully in the conversations.
While the basic equipment does not require an audio-visual specialist
to operate, a technician may be required to set up equipment and
establish telecommunications or satellite connections, particularly
in more sophisticated applications.
Video conferencing needs are more complex. Basic
equipment can involve:
- personal computers;
- a main computer control system;
- one or more dedicated telephone lines or a satellite hook-up;
- a television or computer monitor for each participant or group
of participants; and
- a video camera for each participant or group of participants.
More sophisticated facilities and equipment are required if a number
of locations are interconnected.
An individual or group rents a private or public videoconference
room in many cities. Private companies often have in-house
videoconference rooms and systems. The Arizona DOT is considering
establishing a mobile teleconferencing facility that can travel
throughout the State. Many public facilities, particularly State
institutions such as community colleges, have set up teleconference
Teleconferencing can kick off a project or planning effort
and continue throughout the process. Teleconferences are targeted
to a particular topic or address many areas, depending on the need
for public input and participation.
Adequate preparation is critical to success and optimum
effectiveness of a teleconference. The funding source for
the teleconference must be identified and a moderator designated.
The time and length of the teleconference must be established and
an agenda prepared to organize the meeting’s content and times
for speakers to present their views. Participants should be invited
and attendance confirmed. This is a critical step, since there is
little flexibility in canceling or postponing the event—there
just are no second chances. Also, less than full participation means
that important voices are not heard.
It is important to provide materials in advance.
These include plans of alternatives, reports, evaluation matrices,
cross-sections, or other visuals. (See Public
Information Materials.) For videoconferences, these materials
may be on-screen but are usually difficult to read unless a participant
has a printed document for reference. A moderator must be prepared
to address all concerns covered by the written materials. Preparation
smoothes the way for all to participate in the teleconference. Without
adequate preparation, teleconferences may need to be repeated, especially
if all questions are not addressed thoroughly.
The technical set-up is crucial. Teleconferencing
equipment and its several locations are key to the event’s
success. Equipment must be chosen for maximum effect and efficiency
in conducting a meeting between a central location and outlying
Equipment must be distributed well. Because equipment
is needed at each site, housing facilities for equipment must be
identified. If multiple parties will be attending a teleconference
or videoconference from one location. seating may need to be arranged
to maximize participation. A test-run of the equipment and the set-up
for participants is important. The moderator may want to arrive
early and practice using the equipment. Organizations can also subscribe
to teleconferencing services. These services have the ability to
host numerous lines and allow participants to join in from any telephone
with a correct dial-in number and passcode.
The moderator sets ground rules for orderly presentation
of ideas. The moderator introduces participants in each
location and reviews the objectives and time allotted for the meeting.
Participants are urged to follow the moderator’s guidance
for etiquette in speaking. They should follow basic rules: speak
clearly, avoid jargon, and make no extraneous sounds, such as coughing,
drumming fingers, or side conversations.
The meeting must follow the agenda. It is the
moderator’s responsibility to keep the teleconference focused.
In doing so, she or he must be organized, fair, objective, and open.
The conference must be inclusive, providing an opportunity for all
to register their views. The moderator must keep track of time to
assure that the agenda is covered and time constraints are observed.
It may be appropriate to have a staff person on hand to record action
items, priorities, and the results of the teleconference.
How is it used with other techniques?
Teleconferencing is part of a comprehensive public involvement
strategy. It can complement public information materials,
smaller group meetings, open houses, and drop-in centers. (See Public
Information Materials; Small
Group Techniques; Open
Forum Hearings/Open Houses; Drop-in
Centers, Public Opinion
Teleconferencing participants can serve as a community
advisory committee or task force meeting. It can cover
simple items quickly, avoiding the need for a face-to-face meeting.
For major issues, it is a way to prepare participants for an upcoming
face-to-face discussion by outlining agendas, listing potential
attendees, or describing preparatory work that is needed. (See Civic
Advisory Committees; Collaborative
Teleconferencing is a method for taking surveys
of neighborhood organizations. It helps demonstrate the array of
views within an organization and helps local organizations meet
and determine positions prior to a survey of their views. (See Public
Teleconferencing is used in both planning and project development.
It is useful during visioning processes, workshops, public information
meetings, and roundtables. (See Visioning;
What are the drawbacks?
Teleconferences are somewhat formal events that
need prior planning for maximum usefulness. Although they require
pre-planning and careful timing, teleconferences are conducted informally
to encourage participation and the exchange of ideas.
A large number of people is difficult to manage in a single
teleconference, with individuals attempting to interact
and present their points of view. One-on-one dialogue with a few
people is usually preferable. Widely divergent topics are also difficult
to handle with a large number of people participating in a teleconference.
Costs can be high. Costs are incurred in equipment,
varying sites for connections, transmission, and moderator training.
Substantial agency staff time to coordinate and lead is likely.
Teleconferences take time to organize. Establishing
technical links, identifying sites and constituencies, and coordinating
meetings can be time-consuming. Materials need to be prepared and
disseminated. However, teleconferencing saves time by being more
efficient than in-person meetings, and the savings may offset staff
efforts and other costs.
Staffing needs can be significant. Personnel such
as technicians and agency staff to set up and coordinate meetings
are required. Training to conduct a conference is necessary. However,
staff time and resources may be significantly less than if personnel
have to travel to several meetings at distant locations.
Agencies need to consider the difficulties in accommodating
people with hearing impairments or with limited English
proficiency with real time translation. Teleconferencing should
supplement, not replace, direct contact with community members.
Community people are alienated if a meeting is poorly implemented
or if anticipated goals are not met. People need to be assured that
the project and planning staff is mindful of their concerns. Technical
and management difficulties, such as poor coordination between speakers
or people being misunderstood or not heard, result in bad feelings.
Teleconferencing reduces opportunities for face-to-face
contact between participants and proponents of plans or
projects. It cannot replace a desirable contact at individual meetings
between stakeholders and agency staff in local sites. Effective
public involvement includes meetings in the community to obtain
a feel for the local population and issues. (See Public
Meeting Places and Events.) A teleconference supplements rather
than replaces direct contact with local residents and neighborhoods.
Video conferencing, by contrast, enhances opportunities for face-to-face
The goals of a teleconference must be clear and manageable
to avoid a potential perception of wasted time or frivolous expenditures.
Is teleconferencing flexible?
Teleconferencing lacks flexibility of location and timing.
A teleconference among several people must have a well-established
location, time, and schedule, publicized prior to the event. An
agenda must be set well in advance of the meeting, with specific
times set aside to cover all topics, so that people at different
sites can follow the format of the meeting. The New York State DOT
held a teleconference/public hearing for the draft State Transportation
Plan. The well-defined agenda scheduled registration and a start
time that coincided with a one-hour live telecast from the State
capital, which included a roundtable discussion with the DOT Commissioner.
Videoconferencing can be flexible if it is a talk
arranged between two locations. With few people, it may be as simple
to arrange as a telephone call. With additional participants, it
becomes less flexible.
Teleconferencing offers opportunities for participants
who can’t travel to become involved. Enabling people
to stay home or drive to a regional site offers flexibility in childcare,
transportation, and other factors that affect meeting attendance.
When is it used most effectively?
Teleconferencing is effective when participants have difficulty
attending a meeting. This occurs when people are widely
dispersed geographically and cannot readily meet with agency staff.
Teleconferencing also serves people with disabilities, the elderly,
and others who may have difficulties with mobility. (See People
Teleconferencing is effective when it focuses on specific
action items that deserve comment. Teleconferences aid
in prioritizing issues and discussing immediate action items. Detailed,
wide-ranging discussions may be more properly handled with written
materials and in-person interaction.
Teleconferencing helps give all participants an equal footing
in planning and project development. Teleconferences overcome geographic
dispersal and weather problems to aid contact with agency staff.
For further information:
Alaska Department of Transportation, Division of Statewide
|Alaska Legislative Telecommunications
|Iowa Department of Transportation
Minnesota, Jody Hoffman
|Montana Department of
|New York State Department
|North Carolina State
University Institute for Transportation Research and Education
|Oregon Department of
Metropolitan Planning Organization
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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).