Public Involvement Techniques

Foreward  |   Table of Contents
Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

1. Informing People Through Outreach and Organizationskip page navigation

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1.C - Providing Substantive Information and Establishing Methods of Communication
1.C.a - Contact Lists
1.C.b - Information Materials
1.C.c - Key Person Interviews
1.C.d - Briefings
1.C.e - Video Techniques
1.C.f - Telephone Techniques
1.C.g - Media Strategies
1.C.h - Speakers' Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers

1. Introduction

1.C.f - Telephone Techniques

What are telephone techniques?

The telephone offers a unique, two-way medium for public involvement. It can be used to obtain information and to give opinions. Its use has entered a new era of potential applications to community participation, going beyond question-and-answer techniques toward the evolving new multi-media connections with television and computers.

Telephones have long been used for community involvement. However, innovations are available for expanding telephone use. For example, Iowa City, Iowa, offers telephone contact to an information television channel, which includes bus routes and transit information, a route finder to specific streets and points of interest, transportation for the elderly and persons with disabilities, and a "tow list" of all license plate numbers that have more than $15 in accumulated parking fees.

Potential telephone techniques for public involvement include:

  • Auto attendant—a series of tiered recordings leading an inquirer to a recorded answer or the appropriate staff person;
  • Information bureau—a staff person responds orally to a broad variety of standard queries, such as bus schedules or meeting dates;
  • E-mail—a staff person responds to computer queries; (See On-line Services.)
  • hotline or voice bulletin boards—a staff person or recording answers questions about a specific project or program; (See Hotlines.)
  • FAX-on-demand—a recorded message provides a menu of documents available by FAX and how to obtain them;
  • Telethon—a telephone call-in for comments during a television program; (See Interactive Television.)
  • Electronic town meeting—a telephone call-in combined with a scheduled television program, which shows results of public calls; (See Interactive Television.)
  • Interactive voice response system—information retrieval from a main computer using telephones or terminals; and
  • Interactive cable television information—a series of information boards or videos that can be called up by phone to a television screen. (See Interactive Television.)

Why are they useful?

Telephone techniques are basically interactive. The telephone is used to initiate a conversation or a query, and a response of some kind is made to advance the action. Responses can vary from pre-recorded messages to staff responses on specific topics. For example, a toll-free hotline number was provided for public information during the Washington, D.C., Bypass Study, which covered an area of 6,600 square miles in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. (See Hotlines.)

Telephone techniques reach out to a broad variety of people who might not otherwise participate in transportation processes, including people with disabilities. (See People with Disabilities.) They are used in community surveys to reach a statistically viable sample of the general population. (See Public Opinion Surveys.) When combined with television, telephone techniques potentially open a new audience for public involvement. (See Interactive Television.) For example, in Savannah–Chatham County, Georgia, a local television station presented a VISION 2020 program, process, and critical issues, followed by an invitation to give opinions by telephone; results were tabulated and shown later on the same station like election night returns.

Do telephone techniques have special uses?

Agency use of telephones can cover many topics. An audio text service can be programmed to give answers to many pieces of information, including times and dates of community meetings. For example, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a municipal telephone service is capable of answering 700 commonly asked questions; after receiving information, people leave messages and respond to survey questions.

Agency use of telephones covers a large geographic area and shows a desire to communicate with the general public. Telephones can be available around the clock for messages and can be programmed to respond in more than one language. They can be used to poll community opinions. (See Public Opinion Surveys.)

Telephone techniques are easily understood. Special training for participants to get involved or express ideas is not required. For example, to introduce new users to its municipal service telephone information system, Colleyville, Texas, provides refrigerator magnets as a telephone directory to three-digit subcategories for guidance when calling about specific topics, including transportation.

Telephone techniques can combine several applications. For example, in Diamond Bar, California, an aggressive telecommunications project is enhancing public communications and reducing vehicle trips by combining an electronic bulletin board, optical imaging technology, geographic information systems, electronic and voice mail, and FAX systems.

A FAX-on-demand system can deliver documents in response to queries. These documents can be works-in-progress or final results of a process. Costs can be covered through use of a 900 number (the call is charged to the caller’s phone bill) or a credit card billing. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the State House of Representatives uses a FAX-modem system to provide documents to its members.

Who participates? And how?

Any community resident can participate in most telephone techniques—the exception being the structured telephone survey, which requires specific individuals as part of statistical sampling techniques. (See Public Opinion Surveys.) In using the telephone, it is important for an agency to provide background information to participants to bolster the ability to understand the subject matter and this method of participation. Agencies need to make special efforts to accommodate people who do not speak English. (See Ethnic, Minority, and Low-income Groups.)

People participate by phoning their queries or ideas to an agency. The agency is responsible for noting and recording ideas presented in this way and for informing inquirers of how their comments are being recorded and considered. Participation is further encouraged if results of telephone interactions can be displayed and distributed to participants.

How do agencies use the output?

Telephone survey results are especially useful in sampling public opinion. They demonstrate the degree of public support for an agency’s proposals and thus shape the results. They show potential political difficulties, becoming useful in developing policy.

Hotlines help people reach the right staff person to give out information about a program. They help an agency receive and disseminate accurate information. (See Hotlines.) For example, Fort Collins, Colorado, offers a pothole hotline in its City-Line telephone service for people to report pothole locations. Fort Collins also offers information on right-of-way permits, highway access, excavations and construction activities, signal problems, bike lanes, and buses and carpools as well as city council and neighborhood meeting dates and subjects.

How are they organized?

Highly technical telephone techniques require outside assistance from specialized agencies or firms. The evolving relationships with cable television are likely to require expertise and specific programs or equipment.

Telephone techniques need a lead person within an agency—a person who is vitally interested in trying new techniques for reaching people. The Loveland, Colorado, interactive telephone/cable television service was initiated by the City Manager.

How do they relate to other techniques?

Telephone techniques can be part of a media strategy. They can provide information about meetings or ongoing planning processes. (See Media Strategies.) For example, nine cities in the Dayton, Ohio, area provide a community calendar of upcoming events, accessible by phoning a local cable television station.

Community surveys are sometimes made by phone. Telephone surveys or opinion polls are frequently used to obtain information that is not otherwise available to an agency. They are also used during a process when a specific piece of information is required. (See Public Opinion Surveys.)

Results of telephone polls are used in many other situations. They can be part of a focus group—as an element for discussion; they can be part of a charrette—to establish the points of view of the community at large; they can be used in civic advisory committees—to deal with community feedback on a program or project. (See Focus Groups; Charrettes; Civic Advisory Committees.)

Special efforts should be made to accommodate hearing disabilities. Text telephones such as TDD (Telephone Devices for the Deaf) phones are available with small screens and keyboards to aid people who have hearing disabilities. (See People with Disabilities.)

Telephone techniques are not used in isolation from other techniques such as public meetings or hearings. (See Public Meetings/Hearings.) They are especially useful in obtaining community reactions after programs or proposals have been adequately explained. They cannot replace face-to-face encounters with other participants and agency staff. (See Open Forum Hearings/Open Houses.)

What do telephone techniques cost?

Costs of telephone techniques depend on the extent of a program. Simple answering devices are inexpensive but not interactive. Staff assignments may be necessary in nearly all other techniques.

Telephone surveys are often inexpensive but in all cases involve a sampling technique that should be statistically valid for subsequent use and for credibility.

Basic interactive machines for cable television use are becoming less expensive, and some channels donate air time as a public service. The expense of producing a telethon or cable television program depends on the extent of information to be presented. Live action and animation are the most expensive portions of a presentation. (See Interactive Television.)

What are the drawbacks?

In recorded messages, participation is strictly limited unless a means of contacting staff or obtaining additional information is offered. Information is frequently disseminated without a means for people to offer opinions or to reach appropriate staff people for further queries.

Telephone techniques may not be democratic, if a large part of the population has no phone. This reduces the possibility of all participants having an equal status and an equal opportunity to participate.

Telephones do not always allow people to hear other opinions. A hotline provides agency information only. In telephone surveys, participants must wait until the results are posted for them to read. However, in electronic town meetings the results are posted shortly after polling is completed.

For further information:

Colleyville, Texas (817) 281-4044
Diamond Bar, California (909) 396-5689
Fort Collins, Colorado (303) 221-6522
Miami Valley Cable Council, Dayton, Ohio (513) 438-8887
Pennsylvania House of Representatives (717) 783-6430
Virginia Beach, Virginia, City-Line (804) 427-4068
Washington Bypass Study, Virginia Department of Transportation (807) 786-2935

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