Public Involvement Techniques

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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.h - Speakers' Bureaus and Public Involvement Volunteers

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 the public.

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 Transit project.

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 Information Materials.)

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 Hearings/Open Houses.)

Who participates?

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 volunteers?

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 calendar.

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; Media Strategies.)

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.)

Who leads?

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 budget.

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.

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' bureau.

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 impact statement.

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 (907) 465-2171
Atlanta Regional Commission, Atlanta, Georgia (404) 364-2500
Austin Urban Transportation Study, Austin, Texas (512) 472-7483
Bay Area Rapid Transit, Oakland, California (510) 464-6172
Connecticut Department of Transportation (860) 594-2000
Genesee Transportation Committee, Rochester, New York (716) 232-6240
Georgia Department of Transportation, Atlanta, Georgia (404) 656-5267
Idaho Department of Transportation, Boise, Idaho (208) 334-8300
League of Women Voters, Washington, D.C. (202) 429-1965
Maryland State Highway Administration, Baltimore, Maryland (410) 333-6431
Metro-Dade Transit Agency, Miami, Florida (305) 375-5675
Missouri Highway and Transportation Department, Jefferson City, Missouri (314) 751-1685
Port Authority of Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (412) 237-7000

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