Public Involvement Techniques
HOW TO USE THIS GUIDE
This is a reference work that makes a wide variety of public involvement
techniques available to transportation agencies. It includes the
14 techniques originally published in Innovations in Public Involvement
for Transportation Planning. There are four chapters with subsections
that group techniques thematically by function. Each chapter ends
with a final subsection called "Taking Initial Steps."
To assist practitioners in coordinating a full public involvement
program, each technique is cross-referenced to other related techniques.
The organizing principle for each technique is a series of questions,
such as "Why is it useful?" or "What are the drawbacks?"
For the transportation community, involving the public in planning
and project development poses a major challenge. Many people are
skeptical about whether they can truly influence the outcome of
a transportation project, whether highway or transit. Others feel
that transportation plans, whether at the statewide or metropolitan
level, are too abstract and long-term to warrant attention. Often
the public finds both metropolitan and statewide transportation
improvement programs incomprehensible.
How, then, does a transportation agency grab and hold people's
interest in a project or plan, convince them that active involvement
is worthwhile, and provide the means for them to have direct and
meaningful impact on its decisions? This guide gives agencies access
to a wide variety of tools to involve the public in developing specific
plans, programs, or projects through their public involvement processes.
Designing a Public Involvement Program
Developing an effective public involvement program is a strategic
effort that requires assembling a selection of techniques to meet
the needs of a given transportation plan, program, or project. Current
Federal statutes and regulations derived largely from the Intermodal
Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the Transportation
Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), and the National Environmental
Policy Act (NEPA) provide general guidelines for locally developed
public involvement processes and procedures. There is, however,
great flexibility available to transportation agencies in developing
specific public involvement programs. Every given situation is different,
and each approach to a specific public involvement challenge will
Whether designing a public involvement program for statewide or
metropolitan planning or for an individual transportation investment,
it is wise to pursue a systematic thought process based on fundamental
guidelines and following a series of steps. The five guidelines
- Acting in accord with basic democratic principles means that
public involvement is more than simply following legislation and
regulations. In a democratic society, people have opportunities
to debate issues, frame alternative solutions, and affect final
decisions in ways that respect the roles of decision-makers. Knowledge
is the basis of such participation. The public needs to know details
about a plan or project to evaluate its importance or anticipated
costs and benefits. Agency goals reflect community goals. Through
continued interaction with the entire community, agencies build
community support and, more importantly, assure that the public
has the opportunity to help shape the substance of plans and projects.
In summary, public agencies act as public servants.
- Continuous contact between agency and non-agency people
throughout transportation decision-making, from the earliest stages,
as one or more transportation problems are identified, through
defining purpose and need or planning principles, through the
development of a range of potential solutions, and up to the decision
to implement a particular solution.
- Use of a variety of public involvement techniques that target
different groups or individuals in different ways or target
the same groups or individuals in different ways. A single, one-size-fits-all
approach usually results in missing many people.
- Active outreach to the public means agencies search out the
public and work hard to elicit response. It is true that resources
are limited, and agencies cannot make anyone participate. However,
transportation agencies have repeatedly found that going after
the public and changing unsuccessful approaches brings greater
- Focusing participation on decisions rather than on conducting
participation activities because they are required. Decisions
include both the continuous stream of informal decisions made
by agency staff and lower-level management and the less frequent
formal decisions made by decision-makers. Timely agency response
to ideas from the public and integration of ideas from the public
into decisions shows the public that participation is worthwhile.
A focus on the wide range of possible decisions gets agencies
past simply offering the public passive opportunities to comment
on proposals just before formal decision-making.
The following five steps form one approach to systematically setting
up and implementing a public involvement program for a specific
plan, program, or project.
- Set goals and objectives for your public involvement program.
The goals and objectives derive from the specific circumstances
of a given transportation plan, program, or project. What decisions,
formal or informal, are to be made? When? By whom? What public
input is needed? Public input can be in the form of a consensus
on a plan or a buildable project. Consensus does not mean that
everyone agrees enthusiastically but that all influential groups
and individuals can live with a proposal. Public input can be
in the form of information used by staff or decision makers. Agencies
use the objectives to form the public involvement program. The
more specific the objectives, the better they will guide the involvement
- Identify the people to be reached. The general public
and those directly affected, such as abutting property owners,
are some of those who should be reached. Review who is affected
directly and indirectly, as well as those who have shown past
interest. Look for people who do not traditionally participate,
such as minorities and low-income groups. What information do
they need to participate? What issues or decisions affect which
specific groups or individuals? How can their ideas be incorporated
into decisions? New individuals and groups appear throughout a
public involvement program; there should be a way to identify
and involve them. Conceptualize the public as a collection of
discrete groups, individuals, and the general public; each has
different interests and different levels of energy for participation.
Usually, these two steps interact and are conducted simultaneously.
In addition to brainstorming and analysis by agency staff, ask
members of the public for their input on goals, objectives, and
names of people who might be interested. This can be done through
key person interviews (Chapter 1C of this guide) or focus groups
or public opinion surveys (Chapter 3B).
- Develop a general approach or set of general strategies
that are keyed to the goals and objectives of the involvement
program and the characteristics of the target audiences. For
example, if an objective is to find out what people think about
a given proposal, Chapter 3B offers several techniques for eliciting
viewpoints. Strategies fit the target audience in terms of what
input is desired and the level of interest or education. Chapter
1A addresses the underserved, minorities, and the disabled. General
approaches respect agency resources of time, money, and staff.
A general approach can be visualized in terms of a principal technique;
for example, a civic advisory committee (Chapter 1B). It could
be visualized as a stream of different activities keyed to specific
planning or project decisions. Alternatively, a general approach
could be viewed as a focus on one or more public groups or interests.
Be sure to check with members of the public for ideas on your
general approach and whether the public to be reached finds the
- Flesh out the approach with specific techniques. Consult
past experience for what works and does not work. Look at manuals
of techniques. The techniques in this report are arranged in thematic
groups. For example, Chapter 2 presents a variety of approaches
for meeting face-to-face with people. Look at the table of contents
and browse the groups that look interesting. Related techniques
are cross-referenced at the end of each technique's discussion.
Review the "Taking Initial Steps" sections at the end
of each chapter for ideas. See ideas from agencies who have had
successful experiences with public involvement. Choose techniques
that fit your specific purpose and your public. Target individual
groups with appropriate techniques. Approaches that fit the general
public often do not fit specific groups well and result in lack
of attendance at meetings. Do not isolate groups; provide a way
for them to come together and for the general public to review
what groups have contributed. If participation lags or you need
special approaches like computer simulations, look at Chapter
- Assure that proposed strategies and techniques aid decision-making
to close the loop. Ask agency staff the following questions:
Are many people participating with good ideas? Are key groups
participating? Is the public getting enough information as a basis
for meaningful input? Chapter 1C has many ways to get information
out to people. Are decision-makers getting adequate public information
when it is needed? If a consensus is needed for decision-making,
consensus-building techniques like negotiation and mediation (Chapter
3B) or collaborative task forces (Chapter 1B) may be useful. Ask
participants who is missing from the participation process. How
can missing participants be attracted? Do participants think discussion
is full and complete? Do they think the agency is responsive?
Is participation regarding? If not, why not? Continually evaluate
and make mid-course corrections.
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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).