Public Involvement Techniques
1.C.h - Speakers' Bureaus and Public Involvement
What are speakers' bureaus and public involvement volunteers?
Speakers' bureaus are groups of specially-trained representatives
who can speak about a process or program. They can be community
people or agency staff. Bureau members meet with public and private
organizations and groups on behalf of a project, program, or planning
activity. Members of a speakers' bureau provide information
about planning or project activities, listen to people's concerns,
answer questions, and seek continued participation and input from
the public. Agencies sometimes call them "listeners' bureaus"
to emphasize two-way communication and the intention to listen to
Public involvement volunteers are people from the community
temporarily enlisted to assist an agency in developing and implementing
a public involvement program. In Georgia, the Atlanta Regional Commission's
Family of Partners' nearly 800 volunteers work with the commission
on designing and implementing its public involvement program. The
Family of Partners trains its volunteers to run meetings with local
groups and neighborhoods and to move agency planning information
down to the grassroots level.
Public involvement volunteers add to the capabilities of a speakers'
bureau. Volunteer programs and speakers' bureaus may be
used together or separately. Speakers can be either community volunteers
or agency staff.
Why are they useful?
Speakers' bureaus and public involvement volunteers serve
a variety of community groups. Speakers can be organized to
address civic groups, social clubs, professional organizations,
neighborhood associations, and other groups, but they have other
uses as well. The Maryland State Highway Administration created
a speakers' bureau to cover the five-county U.S. 301 corridor
project study area. Speakers addressed county chambers of commerce,
county commissioners, local Rotary clubs, neighborhood associations,
building industry associations, churches, political clubs, city
councils, local planning commissions, the regional delegation of
the State legislature, the regional council of governments, the
State association of counties, the regional transportation association,
the professional engineering society, and real estate firms.
They expand possibilities for community participation. Speaking
to community groups at a place of their choice increases the number
of participants in a planning process. (See Improving
Meeting Attendance.) Local groups involving people on their
own terms and issues enhances interest and thus helps broaden participation.
Groups such as business or professional organizations welcome community
issues to the table at their own meetings, where they focus on specific
issues and concerns.
They help the agency understand community viewpoints. Community
representatives value the opportunity to present their concerns
directly to an agency representative who has come to speak with
and listen to them. They expect the representative to carry their
comments back to the agency for incorporation into plans or programs.
They help the community understand an agency and its work.
Speakers and volunteers help an agency establish closer relationships
with various organizations, facilitating communication and involvement
in its planning efforts. Working with several groups, they help
develop a base of support for implementation of the agency's
efforts. The League of Women Voters worked with the Port Authority
of Allegheny County on the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Light Rail
They add vigor to the public involvement process. Speakers
and public involvement volunteers help agencies respond quickly
to requests from local organizations for an agency representative
to attend a community meeting. The Missouri Highway and Transportation
Department established a public involvement strategy team made up
of mayors, Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) heads, and other
local leaders for speaking in transportation districts throughout
the State. This arrangement stimulated many creative efforts, including
school curricula on transportation, writing contests, information
tents at football games, and a variety of open houses. (See Games
and Contests; Open
Forum Hearings/Open Houses.)
Do they have special uses?
Public involvement volunteers can help assemble a community
perspective on a project or program. Volunteers who live in
the community offer special insight into a process or project. They
understand its potential benefits and impacts and have a well-defined
perspective an agency staff member might lack.
Speakers' bureau presentations can be tailored to address
specific concerns. Presentations can address the special interests
of business, environment, or local neighborhood groups. An agency
can receive details of the concerns and amplify its understanding
of the perspectives of different constituencies. An improved understanding
helps an agency incorporate community points of view into its products.
Public involvement speakers and volunteers are useful at events
like open houses, where person-to-person communication is a focus.
(See Open Forum Hearings/Open
Houses.) They also represent agencies at transportation fairs
or events sponsored by other agencies. (See Transportation
Fairs.) For the New Haven, Connecticut, Q Bridge project, members
of the project advisory committee staffed an open house.
Public involvement volunteers can distribute information
in meetings or door-to-door. In Boise, Idaho, the highway district
pays groups to distribute materials such as reports and other documents.
These public involvement volunteers disseminate information on the
streets or in other public places; in some cases, they are prepared
to answer simple questions as well. (See Public
Public involvement speakers and volunteers help bridge communication
gaps. Multi-lingual speakers serve as interpreters at events
with a sizable non-English-speaking representation. During its statewide
planning process, the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT)
used community volunteers as Inuit interpreters for meetings in
rural areas. When DOT planners were on the agenda at traditional
council meetings, where many elders do not speak English, they took
along Inuit interpreters to translate their long-range plan presentations
and facilitate question-and-answer sessions.
Public involvement volunteers serve functions in addition to
speaking. As part of an agency's public involvement program,
volunteers serve as assistants and auxiliary staff, or they may
actually lead or assist in organizing large events such as transportation
fairs or agency open houses. (See Transportation
Fairs; Open Forum
A variety of people serve as speakers or volunteers—members
of partnership agencies, consultants, agency board members, elected
officials, or community residents. Speakers from civic and technical
advisory committees have the advantage of being already familiar
with a planning effort. (See Civic
Advisory Committees.) Agency representatives (including public
involvement and technical specialists) serve as a nucleus to help
in training. The Maryland State Highway Administration called on
people from its staff, the consultant team, and a State-appointed
civic task force to create a speakers' bureau for the U.S.
301 corridor project.
Many groups of people are reached by speakers, including
homeowner organizations and neighborhood associations, chambers
of commerce, regional environmental and civic organizations, labor
unions, professional associations, religious groups, fraternal and
philanthropic organizations, and educational institutions.
How do agencies use speakers' bureaus and public involvement
A speakers' bureau functions as an on-call service.
Once a public agency selects and trains speakers, it relies on them
as an on-call resource to respond to requests by community groups
for agency presentations. The Puget Sound Regional Council in Washington
State has established a speakers' bureau to improve understanding
of freight movement as the circulatory system of its economy. The
Council works with volunteers from the private sector's Regional
Freight Mobility Roundtable to set up its speakers' bureau
Public involvement volunteers have an advantage in eliciting
concerns and issues. Community volunteers genuinely portray
themselves as part of the general public. They are often seen as
more neutral than agency staff.
Speakers and public involvement volunteers contribute to an
agency's written communications. The San Francisco, California,
Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) encourages its speakers and
public involvement volunteers to write newsletter articles. People
who have served as members of the agency outreach team can help
establish a rounded perspective in the agency's written communications.
(See Information Materials;
A public involvement volunteer program helps identify people
for leadership positions. Volunteers frequently include interested
individuals or stakeholders. If they are effective speakers with
well-developed interpersonal skills, they may be candidates for
further leadership in the community. (See Civic
Advisory Committees; Collaborative
Task Forces; Citizens on Decision
and Policy Bodies.)
An agency appoints a staff person to coordinate speakers and
volunteers. Project managers often control staffing for their
projects, and they may be equipped to select and manage speakers
and volunteers. Alternatively, an agency's speakers' bureau
can coordinate the speakers or public involvement volunteers for
all projects and programs of the agency.
Agency staff must provide training to help speakers and volunteers
be most effective. For speakers and volunteers, training should
be simple and continuous. Volunteers with public speaking experience
may need instruction on technical issues or a political context.
Other volunteers and agency staff may need coaching in the art of
speaking. Training should be available to speakers from the beginning
of their involvement, and periodic refresher sessions should be
worked into the program.
Leadership is sometimes found outside an agency. As speakers
and volunteers address organizations and associations, people are
drawn into the process. This widening pool of individuals may include
many dynamic and influential people who, as they become interested
in an agency's work, may be tapped for additional outreach
efforts. If they are community group leaders, they may become key
players in mobilizing their organizations to assist an agency with
its program or a specific project.
What are the costs?
Speakers' bureaus are relatively inexpensive. Basic
costs are incurred in sending speakers to a public meeting, whether
they are volunteers or not, including travel, handout materials,
feedback cards, presentation equipment, and (possibly) refreshments.
Some agencies reimburse volunteers for travel costs, including meals.
Public involvement volunteers can stretch a limited outreach
budget. An agency keeps public involvement costs down by making
efficient use of volunteers. Volunteers also enable an agency to
greatly expand the scope and intensity of its outreach program.
Volunteer speakers provide assistance to agency staff that lets
the agency hold more meetings and reach more people on a limited
Even volunteer bureaus have a cost to the agency. Start-up
costs are associated with organizing the bureau and recruiting and
training speakers. Staff time costs are associated with debriefing
speakers after their meetings and with necessary record-keeping
and meeting follow-up. The Atlanta, Georgia, Regional Commission
trains volunteers to be speakers and sends a junior staff person
to every meeting led by a public involvement volunteer to take notes
and ensure agency follow-up.
Public involvement volunteers and speakers are sometimes paid
for temporary work. For special events, projects, or programs,
it is useful for an agency to pay its volunteers and speakers a
nominal sum for their efforts. The use of speakers and volunteers
extends staff capabilities for a brief period or for an extended
period of planning or development.
How are speakers' bureaus and volunteers organized?
Speakers' bureaus are initiated before or after community
requests. Agencies that are pro-active create a speakers'
bureaus first, then solicit invitations for speakers to come to
meetings of community groups.
Agencies recruit representative candidates for their speakers'
bureaus. Since speakers are perceived as representatives of
an agency, it is imperative that the agency recruit people qualified
and willing to do the job. Speakers function as ambassadors, and
their work should represent an agency's best efforts.
Agencies train and equip the speakers for their work. People
frequently need help preparing for the role. Basic training includes
tips on posture, elocution, diction, and timing. While practice
sessions and role playing help in training, new speakers can attend
presentations by veteran speakers to see what the work entails.
Speakers need adequate materials and preparation. A core
presentation can be devised for speakers to use, including handouts,
maps, videos, or presentation boards. Prior to meetings, agency
staff can assist a speaker in tailoring the presentation to the
host group's special interests. Many speakers' bureaus
also distribute questionnaires to the host groups and prepare a
list of specific questions to be discussed at meetings. Speakers
should be given an easy method of reporting back to the agency.
Speakers rely on agency staff for support and assistance.
Junior staff people accompany speakers to meetings to take notes,
help with materials or equipment, and assist with follow-up and
reporting. Written records of all meetings are prepared, with special
attention given to major comments, perspectives, and concerns. Agency
staff helps speakers follow through on responses to questions or
requests that cannot be immediately addressed at a meeting.
Speakers and public involvement volunteers are matched to community
group needs so their particular backgrounds and skills are effectively
employed. In a large-scale project, many organizations learn of
the agency's efforts and seek additional information. The agency
speaker/helper coordinator then works to assign appropriate speakers
to the various host groups.
Agencies offer the speakers' bureau as a special public
service. The initial task is to let groups and organizations
know such services are available. An agency contacts the prominent
civic and social organizations within a study area and offer speakers
for future meetings. This arrangement allows the agency to distribute
meetings over time to make the best use of time available to its
Speakers and volunteers focus on communication and follow-up.
Within a speakers' bureau, the essential functions of communication
and follow-up must be stressed throughout. Speakers and volunteers
facilitate communication between an agency and its constituency
and get the right information out to people who request it.
How are they used with other techniques?
Speakers' bureaus are used in conjunction with written
material or videos and other graphic information pieces. They
are also used to follow up mailings of brochures or fliers. (See
Information Materials.) Rochester,
New York's Genesee Transportation Committee includes in its
basic outreach materials a brochure about its well-established speakers'
Speakers' bureaus and public involvement volunteers are
integrated into a larger effort with a variety of other public
involvement techniques. Although they are useful and relatively
inexpensive, they cannot substitute for other methods of reaching
and involving the public.
Civic Advisory Committee members are ideal candidates for speakers'
bureaus. Since they are already actively involved in an agency's
efforts, they can speak comfortably about the agency's project
or program. (See Civic Advisory
Committees.) The Governor of Maryland appointed 76 people to
a task force to study the U.S. 301 corridor. Several qualified speakers
from this task force volunteered to speak to community groups and
to make presentations to their own organizations or societies.
At open houses, speakers and volunteers help explain an agency's
work. Open houses can be labor-intensive, with many simultaneous
one-on-one discussions. The support of volunteers makes the effort
easier for an agency with limited full-time staff. Public involvement
volunteers also assist staff in the variety of tasks involved in
preparation and implementation of an open house. (See Open
Forum Hearings/Open Houses.)
Public involvement volunteers staff drop-in centers or booths
at transportation fairs. They direct people to displays or written
literature and answer questions. If they cannot answer specific
questions, they take names and addresses for follow-up by an appropriate
agency staff member. (See Transportation
Fairs; Drop-in Centers.)
Trained public involvement volunteers offer advice on program
elements. With speaking experience and exposure to community
groups, volunteers have useful perspectives on an agency's
public involvement program. The League of Women Voters helped the
Metro Transit Authority in Seattle, Washington, improve its public
involvement program. The Austin, Texas, MPO enlisted community volunteers
to help monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of an entire public
involvement program for an alternatives analysis/draft environmental
What are the drawbacks?
An agency has less control over unpaid volunteers. Unpaid
volunteers, acting as speakers or volunteers, are not employees
and are not entirely under the control of the agency. An agency
may design the speaking program, but it cannot completely control
the message the speakers give out. To minimize this difficulty,
the leader of the speakers' bureau needs to select speakers
carefully to match speaker with audience.
These techniques do not substitute for staff involvement.
Speakers' bureaus volunteers are not shields between the public
and agency officials. Agency heads, project managers, program coordinators,
and technical staff still need some exposure to the community during
the public involvement process. Speakers and volunteers play an
important role in the outreach process, but they must not be "fronts"
for a distant agency.
An agency has a responsibility to volunteers and is aware
of their best interests. An agency does not expect volunteers to
put in the same hours or travel the same distance as paid staff.
While an agency may not be able to pay its volunteers, it acknowledges
their contributions and guards against demanding too much from them.
Volunteers lose credibility and standing in the community if
things go awry. At a critical stage in a project, especially
if there is a potential for confrontation, it is best to avoid using
volunteers for presentations. They have more to lose in the local
community than an agency does. Agency staff, however, may be seen
as "only doing their jobs" during tough going.
Are speakers' bureaus and volunteer programs flexible?
Speakers and volunteer programs are shaped and modified
as conditions change and requests come in for agency presentations
at group meetings.
These techniques make an overall program more flexible.
By creating a speakers' bureau or organizing volunteers, an
agency adds flexibility to its outreach. Speakers and volunteers
bring a variety of additional skills, contacts, and personal qualities
to an agency's program or project that might otherwise not
be found among agency staff.
When are they used most effectively?
Speakers' bureaus are effective when approaching a milestone
event, a critical decision, or a program review. Getting the
right speaker before the right group at the right time is very effective.
Some speakers are considered "big guns"—people of
high stature within the community. In addition to political influence,
some individuals or groups may command greater respect within the
community, and a well-timed endorsement or sign of support helps
an agency's project.
For labor-intensive events, it is cost-effective to use volunteers
(paid or unpaid) to augment staff or stand in for staff. A group
of trained, informed volunteers helps agency staff do more in the
time available. Volunteers staff information tables, collect names
and addresses, and forward inquiries to staff for response.
For further information:
|Alaska Department of
Transportation, Juneau, Alaska
|Atlanta Regional Commission,
|Austin Urban Transportation
Study, Austin, Texas
|Bay Area Rapid Transit,
Committee, Rochester, New York
|Georgia Department of
Transportation, Atlanta, Georgia
|Idaho Department of
Transportation, Boise, Idaho
|League of Women Voters,
|Maryland State Highway
Administration, Baltimore, Maryland
|Metro-Dade Transit Agency,
|Missouri Highway and
Transportation Department, Jefferson City, Missouri
|Port Authority of Allegheny
County, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
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