Public Involvement Techniques

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1. Informing People Through Outreach and Organizationskip page navigation

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1.B - Bringing a Core Participation Group Together
1.B.a - Community-Based Organizations
1.B.b - Civic Advisory Committees
1.B.c - Citizens on Decision and Policy Boards
1.B.d - Collaborative Task Forces

1. Introduction

1.B.c - Citizens on Decision and Policy Bodies

Who are citizens on decision and policy boards?

Community people serve on policy and decision-making committees and boards.They represent groups organized around civic, environmental, business, or community interests, or specific geographic areas, or they serve as individual experts in a field. They need not be elected officials or agency staff. The Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) appointed a community committee to develop and recommend alternatives for reconstruction of a large I–95 bridge.

Some boards make decisions; others help formulate policy. Regional residents sit on the decision-making Great Falls City/County Planning Board in Montana, and on Washington’s Puget Sound Regional Council. The head of Georgia’s Chatham County–Savannah Metropolitan Planning Committee sits on the Metropolitan Planning Organizations’s Project Committee. Citizens on such boards are distinct from purely advisory groups, such as civic advisory committees, that are often part of planning and project development. (See Civic Advisory Committees.)

These boards are established by statute, regulation, or political decision. Ad hoc committees are set up by legislative acts or executive decision to investigate specific subjects. They may be temporary or permanent. In Portland, Oregon, a committee of community members works with the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) staff to develop scopes of service for projects and to review and select consultants. For the U.S. 301 corridor study, Maryland’s Governor created a 76-member task force to address regional transportation issues, develop and evaluate possible transportation and land-use solutions, and recommend public policies. The majority of members were private citizens.

The composition of a board varies, depending on its assigned task. A board may include citizens and elected or appointed officials or be composed entirely of citizens. It may be assisted in its task by staff members assigned from elected officials or agency representatives. The Airport Policy Committee of the San Diego, California, MPO has a mixed representation of citizens and professionals. The Metro Council, MPO for Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minnesota, has both citizens and elected officials on its 30-member Transportation Board, including 10 municipal elected officials, 7 elected county officials, 9 private citizens (including the chair), and 4 representatives of State or regional agencies.

People are appointed to boards in a variety of ways. They are nominated or appointed to these positions by public officials, or they volunteer or are elected by their peers. The ways they come to serve depend on the rules and nature of the policy body.

The board’s role establishes the amount of influence these citizens wield. The 76-member task force overseeing the U.S. 301 Corridor Planning Study in Maryland has virtually total decision-making power. Composed entirely of citizens appointed by the Governor, Arizona DOT’s Transportation Board has final say on the State’s five-year plan, the transportation improvement program, and State transportation planning projects.

Why are they useful?

Community people bring new points of view, new ideas, and a community perspective directly into the decision-making process. Little Rock, Arkansas, MPO found that people were able to integrate political and technical engineering issues in solving problems. They focused on whether an idea made sense to them, their neighbors, and the people most affected by the decision.

Ad hoc committees help local people participate in decision-making. For the Albuquerque, New Mexico, MPO’s Urban Area Truck Route Task Group, membership was solicited through more than 300 letters to neighborhood, advocacy, and business groups. Volunteers worked with technical staff from the city and a neighboring county to develop a commercial vehicle network plan processed as though it were an agency-prepared plan.

Decisions have greater legitimacy if residents are involved. Including local people in decision-making demonstrates an agency’s commitment to participatory planning. At the contaminated U.S. Department of Energy site in Rocky Flats, Colorado, a community committee directed the planning of an off-site hazardous waste sampling program. In essence, such empowerment validates the principle that people want—and should be able—to decide what is best for their community.

Do they have special uses?

Citizen committees oversee specific aspects of complicated programs. For the Hudson River Waterfront Alternatives Analysis/Draft Environmental Impact Statement in New Jersey, local residents directed agency staff in implementing air quality monitoring.

Community representatives work directly with project design consultants. For proposed construction of I–70 through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, the Governor appointed area residents to work with the State’s highway planners and the principal design consultants to address public concerns from the beginning of preliminary engineering and highway design. Along with frequent public hearings, local representation served to satisfy public demand for a greater voice in the project.

Local people facilitate communication between decision-making bodies. The Airport Policy Committee of the San Diego, California, MPO worked with officials to forge consensus on several controversial issues. These people provided a free flow of ideas, unconstrained by concerns for existing policies, and were able to help overcome political deadlock.

Community representatives serve as informed spokespersons for an agency’s programs. Individuals from the Boise, Idaho, MPO citizen committee host public meetings, speak to other organizations, and attend neighborhood events. They use non-technical language to make citizens more comfortable and willing to participate in discussion.

Residents help achieve an agency’s goals. For the Dade County, Florida, rail system, a decision-making committee was appointed, composed of elected officials and neighborhood representatives. These citizens subsequently provided leadership on two referenda supporting funding for the new rail system.

Civic outreach committees assist with public involvement programs and provide advice based on what they hear in their own discussions with the public. Seattle’s Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) appointed a group of people to assist in developing a ballot proposal for regional transit.

Who participates on these boards?

People who serve on policy boards are drawn from many sources. They include community and business leaders, leaders from special interest groups, and interested individuals. Length of tenure varies, depending on tasks, but is generally one to five years.

It is important to recognize special interests. The Hartford, Connecticut, MPO agency-wide technical committee includes representatives of four private groups: the American Lung Association, the Chamber of Commerce, a construction industry association, and a ridesharing corporation. The board of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, has long included representatives from the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters.

What are the costs?

Monetary costs are usually nominal. Local people appointed to policy boards are seldom paid. Costs to support their participation include agency staff time, postage, transportation, and occasional meals. Many agencies economize by sending the same information packages to both elected officials and boards that include citizens. Costs of including community people on existing boards are likely to be lower than those of forming an entirely new board or committee such as a collaborative task force.

Staffing requirements may be very small. A 1995 nationwide survey of transit agency policy committees showed that staff support to the committees averaged 12.4 hours per month. Full-time staff members with assignments including support to these committees averaged 1.2 people. However, even modest requirements of staff time may pose a challenge to small MPOs.

How is this organized?

The first step is to determine the need for local representation. Agencies may be aware of the need because of comment or criticism from local people. The media sometimes call for local representation when an agency undertakes a specific task. An agency also becomes aware through discussions with peers in other areas.

Another step is to research legal requirements. State laws may specify whether individuals may sit on MPO boards. Participation may be limited by an organization’s by-laws.

An agency devises a strategy for local representation, designing community positions to suit the board’s functions and objectives. The Albany, New York, Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC)—all elected officials—puts local people on many task forces, along with local agency representatives and institutional and business leaders.

An agency solicits local interest in a variety of ways. The media help by opening the issue to public discussion. A letter soliciting interest in participation on boards or committees might be sent in a general mailing. For a long-range planning effort, the Albany CDTC took a sample survey of local people to determine potential interests in participating on planning and policy committees.

An agency seeks a balance of various viewpoints. The nature of a task may draw volunteers who represent only one side of an issue, yet a board should encompass many stances.

A formal appointment process is established. A simple letter or a more formal event lends legitimacy to the process and gives satisfaction and encouragement to an appointee. A written document formalizes the time frame, responsibilities, and the expected products. It is also important to point out the extent of the powers that accompany the appointment and how the results of the task will affect further agency actions.

Agencies involve elected officials and keep them informed. Officials are often able to provide helpful insight. They may also want to be apprised of the board’s progress.

Agencies determine the nature of their involvement on boards. It may take the form of representation, usually in an ad hoc and non-voting capacity. It may involve board support, in the form of staff services, meeting space, and use of equipment for presentations and recording of proceedings. In some instances, agencies supply meals, especially if participants travel long distances or a meeting is held during a conventional meal hour.

A method of selecting a committee chair is determined. Often a board selects its own chair, or the chair is appointed. If elections are to take place, introductions of board member candidates are appropriate, so that an informed selection is made. Introductions can be informal or take a more formal approach, such as written position papers that define an individual’s expectations and goals for the processes and products.

Meeting frequency is derived from the size of the task and its deadlines. In order to accomplish an assignment, a board may need to meet frequently. Many citizen committees meet monthly, but specific projects or responsibilities may dictate different schedules. Board members should play a major role in determining meeting frequency.

Communication is maintained between meetings. Minutes of each meeting are kept for the record and distributed to remind participants of past events and decisions. Issue papers are distributed prior to meetings to help people prepare and to aid discussions. Many agencies keep local representatives informed with periodic status reports.

Decision-Making bodies need time to adjust to the dynamics of public involvement. In some cases, important informal communication occurs during breaks or outside formal meeting hours. For effective communication among policy board members, the sponsoring agency may take time to foster a positive atmosphere or use familiar procedures. For guidance, many MPOs, such as those in Portland, San Diego, and Phoenix, employ the commonly-understood meeting procedures outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order.

Ethical issues must be considered. Public agencies frequently have established rules of professional ethics, and these rules extend to community participants. For example, potential conflicts of interest need to be identified and addressed immediately.

How is this used with other techniques?

Community representatives are important components of a public involvement program and complement almost any other technique. However, local representation cannot be the sole method an agency uses to involve the public in the planning process. Community representatives are most effective if they relate continuously with their constituent groups and participate in an agency’s other public involvement outreach techniques.

Local representatives are ideal speakers. They are generally well-informed and usually have extensive experience and exposure to issues. They are good candidates for a speakers’ bureau, but agencies must remain considerate of demands placed on their time. (See Speakers’ Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers.)

What are the drawbacks?

The selection and appointment process may be criticized, especially if the appointee’s qualifications are questioned or if the process is seen as closed or unfair. To counter such charges, an agency can develop a strategy for the process that is comprehensive and well-understood.

Board members may not be fully representative. Selected representatives may not share the prevailing opinions of the communities they represent. An agency sometimes needs to expand the number of representatives to bring in underrepresented interests.

Balanced representation of interest groups is crucial in avoiding controversy. Disputes over representation require skillful diplomacy to maintain the legitimacy of the process.

Agency culture sometimes presents barriers. Agencies that perceive themselves as empowered with sole decision-making responsibility are reluctant to share authority with non-elected citizens. An agency’s traditional organization or decision-making style may block efforts to increase the influence of private citizens on decision or policy bodies.

For further information:

Alaska Department of Transportation, Juneau, Alaska (907) 465-2171
Capital District Transportation Committee, Albany, New York (518) 458-2161
Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington (206) 684-1357
Connecticut Department of Transportation, Newington, Connecticut (860) 594-2939
Little Rock Metropolitan Planning Organization—Metroplan, Little Rock, Arkansas (501) 372-3300
Maryland State Highway Administration, Baltimore, Maryland (410) 333-6431
Portland, Maine, Area Comprehensive Transportation Study (207) 774-9891
San Diego Association of Governments, San Diego, California (619) 595-5300

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