Public Involvement Techniques
3.A.a - Project Websites
What are project websites?
Project websites are internet pages dedicated to information about a specific program or project. Generally hosted by the lead agency, a project website is the project's virtual public information headquarters. A project website can be set up to record public comments and discussion, to include a sign-up for project-related emails, and to hold official documents for users to download and print.
Most project websites have the following characteristics:
- Multiple web pages hosted by the lead agency, providing information about the project, the public involvement schedule, and links to related projects or information.
- Capability to store project documents for download, including reports and newsletters as pdf files, formal slide presentations (e.g., PowerPoint files), or videos of public meetings or project simulations.
- Additional functionality, including a way for people to add themselves to a contact list, email questions and comments, participate in online discussions, comment on an agency blog, or contact project staff.
- Policies covering content restrictions, such as posting of copyrighted material or guidance for what public comment material will not be permitted on the website.
- A staff person designated to maintain and update the site and monitor public postings for objectionable content on a daily basis.
Other websites and related technology can be linked and used to present project information. Technology changes constantly. Social networking sites, text messaging from cell phones, and other options are all effective "places" for people to find and exchange project information.
Why are project websites useful?
Project websites provide up-to-date information sharing, at all times and to any location. At any time and from any place, individuals with web access can learn about and, if desirable, comment on a project. People with web access who are unable or unwilling to attend a public meeting can:
- Review project alternatives, including video simulations (see Visualization Techniques);
- Watch video of public meetings or view PowerPoint presentations;
- Download project documents;
- Send a specific inquiry to the agency or the appropriate staff member;
- Submit opinions, suggestions, concerns, or comments; and
- Request information and add or remove themselves from project contact lists (see Contact Lists; Information Materials).
Information on the website can be changed or updated easily. An agency can use a project website throughout all the stages of long-range planning and project development, adding new pages and archiving older materials. Project revisions are available to the public as soon as they are published on the website.
A website encourages education and participation through greater information sharing. Interested individuals can respond to website content via email, answering an online survey, or commenting on an agency blog. Active involvement in an interactive website helps agencies better understand the public's needs, monitor reactions, and improve public awareness.
A project website can provide links to the agency's staff and to its other activities. Many agencies provide information that encourages the public to participate such as contact information for department heads, information about other agency projects, and policies guiding agency decisions. Many states, such as the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Texas DOT, provide specific information about current road conditions and construction projects. From a statewide map, users choose projects in their area, obtaining details on project purpose, dates of construction, lane openings, a corridor map, affected side streets, frequencies of highway advisory radio channels, and construction-zone safety tips. The service lists a telephone number for more information. Armed with such data, a motorist can make choices on how to avoid delays due to road construction.
Do project websites have special uses?
Project websites can focus on specific interests and can change featured information literally overnight. For example, the Washington State DOT offers a home page about bicycling that includes books, bicycling clubs, and calendars of events. It also offers bicycling information from other states, as well as email addresses for subscriptions to bicycle newsletters. Lastly, it lists the online links into special sections of the Internet Bicycle Archives.
Project websites can provide information in a variety of languages as well as in different formats to provide access to individuals with disabilities through special equipment, software (text-to-voice translators), and other devices. (See Tailoring Outreach to Underserved People.)
Websites can provide links to related projects and databases. The library of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission/Association of Bay Area Governments in Oakland, California, links systems of databases covering literature in over 400 subject areas in 21 million volumes in over 10,000 participating libraries. The library is also linked to online catalogs of materials in libraries at the University of California campuses, California State University, and Stanford University.
Quick community reaction can be solicited on a website or by email. For example, the West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc (WEACT) posts a poll question dealing with environmental quality and/or environmental justice on its home page. Users can submit their opinion as well as review current poll results.
Project websites provide access to information, including presentations, to individuals who cannot or will not attend a public meeting.
Who participates (i.e., who visits the website)? And how?
Once an agency promotes a website, participation is possible for anyone with a computer or cell phone, the ability to read English, and the time and interest. Most cell phones offer Internet access. Evolving technology will likely provide additional means to access to the Internet. Participation for these individuals is limited only by their time and interest, their awareness of the project, and their awareness of what is on the website. (See Information Materials.) Once an agency has attracted their interest, they can sign up (online or at a meeting) to receive email notifications of project updates. (See Contact Lists).
People with limited or no computer skills or those who cannot afford the technology are less likely to participate. Although many senior citizens are very computer literate, there are still some who have never learned about computers and cannot be reached online. People with low wage jobs, multiple jobs, or shift work may be less likely to own a computer and may not be able to schedule time to use a public library's computer; they must be reached in other ways. (See Tailoring Outreach to Underserved People.)
People with disabilities may need a special variation of the project website compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Such web pages can be set up to work well with technology that allows vision-impaired individuals to "read" and navigate web pages. (See People with Disabilities).
How is a website organized?
Websites include the following:
- A home page, with basic information about the project and links to related content such as news headlines or minutes/video of recent meetings.
- Links to additional pages containing documents, visuals, videos, maps, and other specific information about projects and programs.
- Contact information for the agency or agencies sponsoring the project.
- Invitation for the public to participate, for example, by submitting contact information, providing feedback via email, or commenting on an agency blog.
Who hosts and manages a project website?
A public agency can host a project website within its own web infrastructure. Agencies may have to hire outside web developers to design and set up a project specific website. Technical support and site updates and modifications may be performed by the agency's information technology staff or by a consultant.
Agency technical staff can maintain the website content and functionality. Maintenance involves both resolving technical challenges and ensuring that content is timely and appropriate. Agency content must be current or the public will learn to ignore the website. For example, minutes or video of a meeting should be posted within 24 hours.
What is the cost of creating and maintaining a project website?
Costs vary depending on the requirements and complexity of the websites. Developing a website requires knowledge in public relations, communications, computer technology, telecommunications, agency regulations/procedures, and planning/budgeting. Website development costs for start-up and maintenance may range from several hundred dollars for a very simple site to many thousands of dollars for a more fully functional site. A careful analysis of requirements and design is necessary to be able to estimate the real cost over time. Public agencies may provide agency staff for the development, operations, and maintenance of these websites or contract for some or all of these services.
If an agency needs an outside contractor to design, set up, and monitor system operation, costs depend on the extent of help needed.
Agencies must consider how to archive digital documents. People may be interested and have the right to access past plans and studies as well as new items. The volume of information that is available digitally makes storage, cataloguing, and retrieval all important issues.
Once a website is on the Internet, other costs to an agency are relatively low. Staff time is required to keep information current, monitor public comments for inappropriate content, and maintain the technical aspects of the site.
How is a website used with other techniques?
A project website is a medium for presenting an agency's public information materials. Once an agency produces such materials, the website provides broad access to still images, text, documents, and links for individuals interested in the project. (See GIS; Information Materials; Visualization Techniques.)
A project website provides a means of collecting contact information and feedback from the public. It provides a means to collect contact information for connecting with individuals by email, telephone, and U.S. mail. (See Contact Lists.) It can include a public opinion survey or a means to collect public comments on a project. (See Public Opinion Surveys.)
Agencies may offer surveys or preference questionnaires via project websites. A comment form encourages participants to review issues and write personal opinions. The Transportation Research Center at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas offers a comment form that can be transmitted by email. Websites can also be used to administer public opinion surveys. (See Public Opinion Surveys).
What are the drawbacks of having a project website?
A website cannot replace the dynamics of personal interactions. It should not become the public's only means of participating. (See Involving People Face-to-Face Through Meetings.) A project website cannot replace meetings, which allow participants to interact with one another and focus on key points of discussion. A website lacks the dynamic face-to-face interplay that generates and airs ideas during a meeting or focus group. (See Focus Groups; Small Group Techniques.)
Websites do not reach everyone. Some people have never become comfortable with computers. People who work at a computer all day may not want to use one at home. Low income people may not have the time or money to go online, while low literate, limited English-proficient, and visually impaired people may not be able to read the contents. Concerns about equity among participants should be kept in mind when choosing this technique. (See Including Everyone in the Public Participation Process.)
People who respond to a project website may not represent the entire community. Some individuals may respond many times, overwhelming the "data" with their single opinion. Others, particularly underserved groups, may never see the website. (See Tailoring Outreach to Underserved People; People With Disabilities.) As computer use continues to increase in the workplace and online services become more common and more available in public places, such limitations may become less pronounced.
A project website must be used in conjunction with other techniques that allow people to obtain information quickly. (See Information Materials.)
Information overload is a potential problem. The sheer volume of information available online can be overwhelming. Agencies are unlikely to receive individual comments unless they help people focus on specific issues. Frequently, this involves communicating through traditional public information materials and face-to-face at meetings.
Are project websites flexible?
The format and content of a website can be modified or adjusted as often as needed while its essential characteristics remain unchanged. The website should indicate when it was most recently updated-and the date should not be "stale." The Caltrans home page shows the date of the page's latest update and includes a listing of the information most recently added to the page with dates next to each item. Seeing how recently the information was added and how recently the whole page was updated adds credibility and a sense of immediacy. It also makes the online service more of a here-and-now resource.
When are they used most effectively?
Websites are best used to improve and expand opportunities for communication, to include dedicated or focused small groups, to bridge great distances, and to provide busy people basic information when they want it. King County Metro Transit in Seattle has used websites to give the riding public information about Metro's Rider-Link program. The website integrates text, photographs, and video, and gives potential riders information about fares, schedules, routes, and connections with other services. With this service, anyone in the Seattle area can obtain transit information from a desktop computer. In Lexington, Kentucky, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Urban County Government, puts its Transportation Improvement Plan and Americans with Disabilities Act reports on digital bulletin boards.
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