Public Involvement Techniques

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1. Informing People Through Outreach and Organizationskip page navigation

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1.A - Including People Who Are Underserved by Transportation
1.A.a - Tailoring Outreach to Underserved People
1.A.b - People with Disabilities

1. Introduction

1.A.a - Tailoring Outreach to Underserved People Who are Underserved, and Why?

Many people in low-income communities, as well as those with low literacy and/or limited English proficiency, have traditionally been underserved by conventional outreach methods. Written notices in English language newspapers may not be read by everyone an agency wishes to reach. People may not feel safe or welcome at a meeting held in government offices. People may be unable to attend public events if they do not own a car, if they cannot afford child care, or if they work late shifts or more than one job.

What is low literacy? What is limited English proficiency? National surveys have determined that about 20 percent of Americans are "low literate;" i.e., they read and comprehend in English below a fifth-grade level. Another 25 percent of Americans have literacy skills below a seventh-grade level. The 2000 Census found that about 18 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home. Limited-English proficiency individuals have low English literacy and may or may not be literate in their primary language. In many cases, there is a direct correlation between low literacy, limited English proficiency, low educational attainment, and low income.

Failing to account for variety in cultural expectations, language, literacy, or income and affordability can create barriers to full participation. In order to have participation that can ultimately inform decision-making, agencies must identify the project area demographic(s) and develop an effective approach for outreach and communication. A participant at the National Congress of American Indians stated, "Once I allow you to capture my concern that way, you can trade it off against other concerns; and I will lose." Overcoming this fear of vulnerability can be a major challenge to getting people to work together successfully toward common goals. Recent efforts to include many different cultural or disadvantaged groups in transportation decision-making have been designed to assure basic, equitable access rather than to favor one group over another.

What guidelines apply to underserved groups?

Federal transportation law requires transportation plans to avoid a disproportionately high and adverse impact of transportation policies or investments on traditionally underserved communities. Sections 450.210 and 450.316 of the Statewide Transportation Planning; Metropolitan Transportation Planning Final Rule, effective March 16, 2007, require "a process for seeking out and considering the needs of those traditionally underserved by existing transportation systems, such as low-income and minority households, who may face challenges accessing employment and other services."

Executive Orders also direct Federal agencies to conduct their programs, policies, and activities to ensure that they do not exclude persons from participation in or benefits of the programs. Presidential Executive Order 12898, the Environmental Justice Order of 1994, requires Federal agencies to identify programs, policies, and regulations with a disproportionately high and adverse effect on minority and low income populations. Presidential Executive Order 13166, Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency, requires Federal agencies to create a system by which limited English-proficiency individuals can meaningfully access agency services. This can usually be done by modifying existing participatory programs.

What is tailored outreach?

Tailored outreach simply means selecting and adjusting public involvement techniques in order to effectively connect with the people affected by a project, whoever and wherever they are. Tailored outreach recognizes that "traditional" techniques are not always the most effective. Creating effective outreach requires knowing the constituency and taking steps to ensure that the public involvement process is accessible to everyone in the community. Agencies must also be sensitive to the limitations experienced by some individuals due to any number of reasons.

Agencies need input from the traditionally underserved to assure equity in the distribution of services and impacts. Typical meeting announcements in newspapers and on the radio, for example, may not reach underserved populations. Agencies need to understand how these populations get information. This could be via bulletins from religious centers, on grocery store or laundromat bulletin boards, or at community meeting places. (See Public Information Materials; Media Strategies.)

Tailored outreach has several objectives in addition to the basic goals of public involvement:

  • Convey issues in ways that are meaningful to all constituents;
  • Bridge cultural and economic differences that affect participation;
  • Use communication techniques that enable a wide variety of people to interact;
  • Develop partnerships on a one-to-one or small group basis to assure representation of all demographics; and
  • Increase participation by underrepresented groups so they have an impact on decisions.

Why is it important to tailor outreach to underserved groups?

Outreach to traditionally underserved groups helps assure that all constituents have opportunities to affect the decision-making process. It sets the tone for subsequent project activities, promoting a spirit of inclusion. The greater the consensus among all community members, the more likely the position will aid in decision-making for that plan or project. Tailored outreach efforts are particularly useful because they:

  • Provide fresh perspectives;
  • Give first-hand information about community specific issues and concerns of which an agency may not have been aware;
  • Flag potential controversies;
  • Provide feedback on how to get these communities involved; and
  • Provide solutions that best meet the communities' needs.

Understanding the full range of a community's needs enables an agency to create more responsive and even innovative plans. Interacting with community members yields insight into the reasons why they agree or disagree with proposed plans or projects. The perspective of traditionally underserved people can inform the goals and outcomes of planning and project development. Such individuals can suggest fresh approaches to transportation issues that otherwise would not be raised. However, input from underserved people is not "separate" from other input or given more weight; rather, to be most useful, it is integrated with and balanced by the needs and concerns of all interests.

Examples of how tailored outreach has benefitted the process include:

  • Participation establishes trust and openness in the decision-making process. The St. Louis, Missouri, MPO works in close collaboration with minority, ethnic, and low-income groups from the beginning of planning and throughout the transportation decision-making process, fostering a sense of ownership of the outcome.
  • Local leadership may become more active. For the past 15 years, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County in Houston, Texas, has had a good working relationship with all segments of the community, especially underserved populations. As a result, their leaders have been very active in the decision-making process.
  • Agencies can address issues specific to a particular demographic. At the inception of its long-range plan, the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) had special forums for minorities so the planning process could address their concerns from the outset.
  • Agencies may discern new or improved transportation options. Input from predominantly Mexican-American communities led to a hybrid option for transit in the Los Angeles Metro Red Line Eastside Corridor. In a mid-range of cost, the new option has the highest potential ridership and offers significant service advantages. The region's leadership and project planners agree that the new alternative is the best solution and readily admit it would not have been identified without the help of ethnic constituents.

Considerations when tailoring outreach to underserved people

Traditional public involvement techniques, e.g., formal meetings, may not be effective in engaging underserved populations. A variety of public involvement techniques may be needed when working with underserved populations. In order to have active participation, it is valuable to hold meetings and conduct outreach in the community itself. Practitioners can identify activity centers as meeting locations and venues for informal outreach. When disseminating information to the public, agencies must recognize the need to communicate with those who have limited English proficiency by instead communicating in their native language. Announcements in minority or ethnic news media can also heighten interest in a process.

Effective outreach approaches should be identified to overcome potential barriers. Outreach efforts should not rely exclusively on traditional communication such as written media (newspapers, email, and websites). Meeting times and locations can be established to meet the transportation and child care limitations of the constituency and to recognize that low wage earners may work second and third shifts or multiple jobs. Presentations may need to rely on verbal communication and visual explanations and avoid the need for participants to read or write. One starting point in effective interaction is asking people how they want to be referred to (e.g., Hispanic or Latino; American Indian or Native American).

Effective outreach approaches must be matched to the characteristics of the community being contacted. The transportation agency must initially determine the most effective communication techniques for reaching the community affected by the project. A variety of techniques may need to be employed to reach more than one underserved group. Agencies may first need to learn about the constituency, both in general (e.g., demographics) and, more specifically, the individuals in the local community (e.g., how many are recent immigrants). In addition, agencies should discover whether the group is literate in its own language or in English or neither. Agencies should also talk with community leaders to find out the best techniques for working with a particular group (e.g., which approaches to use, where to hold events, how to recruit people, what to avoid doing). Once contacted, the community can suggest alternative times, places, and methods.

Identify which underserved groups require special attention for a transportation plan or project because of its impact on them. Careful research about the communities potentially affected by a plan or project may be necessary to identify a diverse group of community leaders. This can be done by contacting local governments to determine the leaders in the community, through word of mouth, conducting interviews, and by being alert to advertisements/fliers for community activities. It is also important for practitioners to maintain up-to-date contact lists for community-based organizations and key individuals in the community, who can be tapped for discussions. Human service coalitions, such as the United Way, colleges and universities, and national organizations, often maintain similar contact lists.

Agencies should select approaches that will empower people and ask them to help identify processes to participate effectively. Thoughtful consultation with the local community enables agencies to identify specific barriers and find effective ways to overcome them. For example, Orange County, California experienced high attendance by all sectors of the affected population except Mexican-Americans at a series of introductory open houses for a major investment study. In subsequent meetings with leaders from this community, county planners learned that these constituents were uncomfortable with the open-house format and intimidated by one-to-one interaction. Supplementary, informal, small group meetings in Latino neighborhoods eventually brought increased participation.

Concept mapping is a technique that involves mapping the ideas of residents and using those results in strategic plans. It includes a brainstorming activity and is very inclusive in the sense that no idea or input is excluded or "edited" in the final result. Underserved people can be invited to participate in civic advisory committees, task forces, and other policy bodies. (See Civic Advisory Committees; Citizens on Decision and Policy Bodies.) Such inclusion empowers these communities and provides access to the whole participatory effort.

Community organizations and their leaders are invaluable in building communication between agencies and underrepresented groups. Canvassing key community leaders individually may help determine the best ways to conduct outreach within their communities. These community leaders play an important role; they often represent their communities in the process, especially when those working long hours cannot attend grass root events. For example, the Albany, New York, MPO uses the Albany Service Corps (a job training program for disadvantaged youth that is part of the national AmeriCorps group) to distribute information to low income communities. In many cases, agency staff can easily identify and reach out to community leaders as a first point of contact. The Virginia DOT distributes materials through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to reach minorities. Working with leaders also increases the credibility of the participatory planning process. Respecting ethnic tradition, the Alaska DOT has found it helpful to meet first with Alaskan native elders to establish a rapport prior to presenting projects to whole communities.

Community groups provide access to individuals and can serve as forums for participation. Agencies sometimes focus initial attention on active community groups to prepare for later approaches to the general public. Community groups, like Civic Advisory Committees, can provide an underserved community with a meaningful way to participate, as well as a sense of empowerment. Often, community organizations reflect community-wide concerns and can advise an agency on useful strategies for interaction. MPOs in Portland, Oregon and in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, for example, work through established neighborhood organizations. In Arizona, Tucson's MPO involved several Mexican-American neighborhood associations in updating its long-range transportation plan. In Chicago, Illinois, the Center for Neighborhood Technology brought minority groups into the existing regional citizen coalitions. Sometimes working through an established organization can increase an agency's effectiveness and efficiency. Agencies need to be cautious, however, about presuming that any one group represents an entire community.

Religious organizations are often an effective way to reach a particular local community. Most religious organizations have civic as well as religious activities and interests along with a strong geographic base. Religious organizations have broad constituencies and often have a strong ethnic or cultural focus. They are particularly good avenues for reaching people who are not active in the community in other ways. For example, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has established communication links with African-American, Latino, and Asian religious institutions in order to increase participation of underrepresented groups. The Little Rock, Arkansas, MPO also works to establish good relations with, among others, the African-American Ministerial Alliance in its region.

Agencies need to consider the times at which members of a community are available to participate in the transportation decision-making process. Agencies should discover whether work schedules interfere with evening and weekday meeting times. Many low income people do not have private transportation and are limited to times and locations accessible by public transit. In addition, issues of child and elder care can impact an individual's schedule. In winter months, many elderly people can be reluctant to drive when it is dark outside. It is important, therefore, to consider expanding hours of operation for public meetings and other functions that might be typically held in the evening. For some informational meetings, expanding hours of operation might consist simply of staffing a desk with informational materials, perhaps even showing a short informational video or slide presentation on the project, and offering an opportunity for individuals to ask questions and provide oral and/or written statements. In addition, individuals can be offered an opportunity to put their names on a mailing list for additional information or to be included in the formal review process for a particular project. A more formal public meeting can be held in addition to these open hours; however, it should be emphasized that all input taken during the open hours will be considered.

Agencies also need to recognize communication and decision-making expectations of whatever community they are communicating with. Agency staff members can learn about traditions and behavioral patterns by careful observation or by tactfully and privately asking group members what is going on. In some cultures, for example, it is considered improper to disagree with authority. As a result, agency staff attempting to assess community response to different alternatives has found it difficult to move beyond polite agreement with all alternatives. In other cultures, discussion with the entire community precedes decisions by its leaders, and elders may have a particular role in decision-making. In some groups, speaking up is interpreted as "making trouble." Group members familiar with mainstream culture are particularly good sources of such information. The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department reports getting a cool reception to its initial attempts at outreach through local churches. Research discovered that this was because its spokesperson addressed local congregations from the main pulpit—a place of honor reserved for the ministry. In subsequent visits, the representative moved to the regular platform, the audience relaxed, and constructive dialogue took place. In communities where there is reluctance to disagree or criticize, opinions may only be expressed after prolonged consideration or in very indirect ways.

Agencies can create small groups to better engage certain demographics. In San Francisco, California, the MPO created a special Minority Citizen Advisory Committee as a result of a lawsuit in the mid-1970s. It includes African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. The Wisconsin DOT created focus groups for American Indians, African-Americans, and Latinos.

Federally recognized Indian tribal governments have a unique relationship with the United States government as a result of treaties, legislation, and Executive Orders. Their status as sovereign nations entitles them to a direct government-to-government relationship with the Federal Government, independent of the States or local jurisdictions where these tribes may reside. In transportation, for example, tribes work directly with the Federal Government to receive allocated funding for roads on their reservations. These allocations are independent of any funding they may also be eligible to receive through the States or Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs).

Agencies should identify Native Americans' cultural concerns, transportation needs and related plans, projects, and outreach early in the process. Many tribes currently reside at locations distant from their original homelands. Therefore, they may attach religious and cultural significance to sites that are associated with their original home and history well outside of any current reservation boundaries. Agencies should be aware of sites that may hold historical or cultural significance. In addition, agencies are required to identify and consult with tribes who may have concerns about potential effects to these areas even when the tribe no longer resides in the immediate area or even in the same State. Expert guidance (for example, from members of an intertribal council) should be sought in developing relationships with tribes, tribal leadership, and individuals. Since tribes are eligible to apply for and receive Federal funding through the State and MPO, transportation practitioners should consult with both Federal transportation agencies and local tribes to coordinate plans and projects.

To illustrate one example, the Nevada DOT, as part of its long-range planning effort, sponsored meetings with the tribes and used surveys to make initial contacts with tribes throughout the State. These contacts helped to identify representatives of tribal governments and assisted in administering a more comprehensive survey of transportation needs and concerns on the reservations. The survey questions covered the condition of roads and access to public transportation as well as services for the elderly and handicapped. Representatives from each of the 24 tribal governments in Nevada responded as did the executive director of the Nevada Association of Nations. This process not only met Federal requirements to consult with Indian tribal governments during planning, but it also resulted in a more informed planning process and the selection of some projects that were identified by the tribes as priority projects.

Informal techniques are especially useful in reaching out to a community. They include developing relationships with underrepresented groups and networking within communities. During a corridor study in East Los Angeles, the transit agency's Spanish-speaking staff walked through the neighborhood, personally inviting people to attend, which resulted in high turnout. Creating partnerships between state DOT staff and community members helps increase access and familiarity on both sides. Working together, they can develop successful strategies for outreach, anticipate the issues and concerns people are likely to raise, identify appropriate locations for meetings, and jointly sponsor ways for the community to get transportation information.

Small meetings may be more attractive and comfortable to people who are new to the public involvement process. They are less intimidating and more conducive to interaction. Many agencies use small groups as part of their public involvement process, including departments of transportation and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Division Offices in Alaska, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. For example, the FHWA Oklahoma Division Office found that Native American tribes in the state were poorly informed as to what the highway trust fund meant and what services were available. The Division Office worked with the Oklahoma Tribal Transportation Council and state partners to establish a platform to bring consistent information to the 37 recognized Oklahoma tribes. This activity culminated in three workshops conducted to explain the highway trust fund and to gain cooperation, coordination, and communication among the tribes; state, county, and city officials; and the Federal agencies (FHWA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs). (See Small Group Techniques.)

Agencies can take meetings to the public to places where they are comfortable getting together. New Jersey Transit holds meetings in many unconventional places, including shopping malls, housing developments, senior centers, and work places. The Boise, Idaho, MPO reaches the underserved through group homes and head start centers. (See Non-traditional Meeting Places and Events; Media Strategies.)

Announcements in minority or ethnic news media can heighten interest in a process. In Seattle, Washington, the transit authority advertises in different languages in minority newspapers to obtain increased participation and greater trust in the agency's good will. The Twin Cities MPO in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, interests the owners of minority media in an upcoming transportation process or project and, through them, the broader community. The MPO not only places advertisements in minority media but also receives much free public interest coverage from such personal contacts. The St. Louis MPO also aggressively promotes public service announcements in minority media. Because radio is often preferred over newspapers, many agencies spend more funds and energy on this medium. The Sacramento, California, transit agency featured an interview and call-in show on a Spanish radio station. (See Improving Meeting Attendance; Focus Groups.)

Financial and other assistance may be used to improve attendance although Federal funds are not eligible for these uses. The Albany, New York MPO has provided scholarships for low income people to participate in its conferences. The Alaska DOT has paid airfare for some Alaska natives to attend meetings. In Montana, Blackfeet Community College has offered Native Americans college credits for attending community meetings. The Portland, Oregon MPO provides child care at large meetings, as does New Jersey Transit. Outside financial assistance may also be available. In connection with the New Mexico DOT's long-range planning, the Alliance for Transportation Research obtained a grant for a two-day conference for people not traditionally involved in transportation.

Methods to communicate in multiple languages

Agencies need to make special efforts to communicate with people who use languages other than English. Translation of material and bilingual speakers are often necessary to reach the non-English speaking population. For example, of the approximately 2.5 million households in Los Angeles County, 40 percent speak a language other than English as their first language and 13 percent speak no English. The Alaska DOT has produced radio spots in indigenous languages. In addition, translations to other languages, logos, and project terminology need to be carefully reviewed from a cultural perspective. A leading car manufacturer found that although a particular model sold well among the general population, it did not sell well among Latinos because "no va" in Spanish means "doesn't go."

Translators or interpreters are essential to reach people with limited English proficiency. Many agencies now provide interpreters when needed, as well as translations of some or all of their information materials. Examples include: The Florida DOT has a bilingual affairs staff and a bilingual newsletter. The Los Angeles, California MPO has "foreign language teams" for its region. The transit agency in Houston, Texas, prints information in up to five languages. For large meetings, the University of Massachusetts has tear-off pads saying "I need an interpreter" and provides translators in six different languages. In California, Orange County transit agency staff members wear blue dots on their name tags at open houses if they are bilingual. The Alaska DOT has local residents volunteer to interpret for Eskimo communities.

Translations must take into account variations in dialect and literacy of persons whose primary language is not English. Agencies need to make sure that translations are clear, easily understandable, and in a dialect native to the group to be reached. A Portuguese translation, for instance, must recognize that people from Portugal have difficulty understanding Brazilian Portuguese speakers and vice versa.

Understanding a culture is often critical. Dallas, Texas' transit agency finds it helpful to research an ethnic group's customs and language. Changing demographics in East Dallas led them to accommodate the language needs of Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Arab, Iranian, Ethiopian, and Nigerian communities. This outreach identified a need to provide training in several English-as-a-second-language programs on how to use the transit system. The transit agency found that the custom of bus travel was unfamiliar to some participants and practiced very differently by others

Who leads tailored outreach efforts?

Existing staff may lead outreach activities, provided they have the appropriate skills or training. To be successful, staff needs to have an open-mind, process skills, and sensitivity to cultural differences. They also must be committed to encouraging diverse group participation, not only because it takes persistence and creative thinking to foster inclusion of people who have historically been excluded, but also because lack of such commitment is easily perceived and undermines trust and credibility. To enhance the effectiveness of interaction, staff should come from a variety of backgrounds. As the Oregon-based Sensible Transportation Options for People (STOP) suggests, "Don't use all white men in suits" to interact with traditionally-underserved communities.

Special outreach coordinators can provide particularly strong leadership and demonstrate an agency's sincere commitment to responding to concerns of underserved communities. A number of agencies hire staff specifically charged with outreach to the traditionally underserved. MPOs in Madison, Wisconsin; Seattle, Washington; and Twin Cities, Minnesota, all have a minority affairs coordinator. The Cape Cod, Massachusetts Commission has two positions for minorities and one for American Indians. To enhance communication, the Pennsylvania DOT uses an intermediary when addressing Amish communities because this is the Amish community's traditional way of dealing with outsiders; only elders are allowed to speak with an intermediary. By communicating with an intermediary, state DOT staff better understand the community's culture, dress code, language, and beliefs, as well as their specific transportation needs and concerns.

Consultants with special expertise or skills can also enhance the process. For a major investment study in transit, South Sacramento, California, utilized consultants with experience working in the affected ethnic neighborhoods. The St. Louis, Missouri, MPO regularly contracts with the Urban League for focus groups and information dissemination.

What are the challenges of tailoring outreach to the constituency?

Staff time and resources may be significant. Administering an outreach program involves monitoring inquiries and responses as well as documenting and answering numerous requests for meetings or briefings. In addition, tailored outreach to specific groups may require substantial staff time and energy. For example, some people lack a tradition of participation in government and require extra staff effort to encourage their participation. Miami's Cuban-Americans were reluctant to participate in planning for a new rail system in the mid-1970s because public participation was not part of their cultural heritage. Planners turned to the Catholic Church and the Latin Chamber of Commerce to obtain the perspectives of the public. Now assimilated, two decades later, this ethnic group participates vigorously. In fostering grass-roots involvement, agencies need to reach out and identify the most appropriate channels for engaging the communities impacted by the project.

It takes time, effort, and sensitivity to develop relationships. Agencies should be aware that communities are usually complex entities; every individual in a community has their own way of viewing and responding to an issue. There may be a history of changing influence of one or more subgroups within a community. For example, a community leader identified by the agency may not actually represent the full range of views held by the constituency.

When is tailored outreach used most effectively?

Outreach should always be tailored to ensure a connection with the constituency. A key activity for agency staff is to learn about the affected constituency(s) and identify the most effective means of outreach and communication in the earliest public involvement planning stages. The Denver Transit Agency sends out meeting notices to schools for children to take to their parents. It also provides bilingual, educational coloring books as an incentive to attract children who, in turn, involve their parents.

Tailoring outreach efforts to the underserved starts early and extends throughout the process, including fine-tuning other public involvement efforts to most effectively reach the project's constituency, and can also be integrated with other public involvement efforts. Informing communities of events and providing status reports helps to establish a good working relationship. This approach is also very effective in diffusing potentially controversial issues by addressing concerns early.

The advantages of tailoring outreach early in both project development and long-range planning include:

  • Allowing more people to understand a process, plan, or project;
  • Broadening the range of approaches and project alternatives;
  • Enhancing opportunities for creative solutions for transportation needs;
  • Reducing the potential need to re-do an environmental analysis;
  • Establishing good relationships with underserved groups;
  • Getting people to help in the planning process;
  • Breaking down historical barriers; and
  • Improving opportunities for obtaining consensus.

For further information:

Alaska Department of Transportation Statewide Planning Chief (907) 465-2171
Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department Environmental Division (501) 569-2281
Florida Department Of Transportation West Project Field Office (305) 262-7033
Houston, Texas, Transit Capital and Long-range Planning (713) 739-4000
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Public Affairs Manager (213) 244-6891
Nevada Department of Transportation Carson City, Nevada (702) 687-3463
New Jersey Transit Executive Director of External Affairs (201) 491-7130
Sacramento, California, Regional Transit District Project Manager (916) 261-4785
St. Louis, Missouri, MPO Director of Policy and Programming (314) 4241-4220
South Carolina DOT (803) 737-1395
South Carolina Route 72 Case Study
Federal Highway Administration, Oklahoma Division (Proactive Outreach Process with Oklahoma's Native American population) Lubin Quinones
(405) 605-6170
Center for Neighborhood Technology
Transportation Research Board Committee on Public Involvement in Transportation
Concept Mapping

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