Public Involvement Techniques

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4. Using Special Techniques to Enhance Participationskip page navigation

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4.B - Changing a Meeting Approach
4.B.a - Improving Meeting Attendance
4.B.b - Role Playing
4.B.c - Site Visits
4.B.d - Non-Traditional Meeting Places and Events

4. Introduction

4.B.a - Improving Meeting Attendance

What does this mean?

For many agencies, getting people to attend meetings is challenging, if not daunting. Often, despite an agency’s concerted efforts, people simply do not come, and the level of effort seems unjustified by the results. Low attendance is especially common for State and Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) planning activities that do not focus on specific project details. How can agencies summon their resources to get more people meaningfully involved in the process of transportation planning and project development?

A first step is to understand why people do not participate. They offer numerous reasons for not attending transportation meetings:

  • They are not aware a meeting is taking place;
  • They receive inadequate notice;
  • They have other commitments;
  • They have a negative perception of the sponsoring agency;
  • Public comments are not taken seriously;
  • Decisions have already been made behind closed doors;
  • Meetings are too time-consuming or boring; and
  • Meeting sites are too far away, inconvenient, or inaccessible.

Underneath these very real and very valid reasons lies a deep-seated cynicism: generally, people today do not believe their input makes a difference.

An agency’s fundamental weapon in countering such cynicism is to make public input count in decision-making—to "walk the talk," as popular wisdom has it—and to let people know that expressing their opinions has a real, tangible effect. People participate if an agency offers meaningful opportunities, plans strategies and logistics carefully, and has a history of using the output to make better plans and projects. According to a telephone survey of 2,000 households in Colorado, people want to provide more input into the "transportation decision-making process, if they will be listened officials."

Good meeting attendance, then, is closely linked to an agency’s responsiveness and receptivity, commitment to the process of public involvement, careful advance planning, and good communication strategies. High turnout with productive results is possible. A Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) survey indicated that several States were able to attract large numbers of participants in their last round of long-range plan updates. These included Wisconsin (7,500) and Florida and New Jersey (6,000 each).

Why is improved meeting attendance desirable?

High meeting attendance helps ensure a broader range of input. This, in turn, enables staff to identify additional issues and see new perspectives. The more inclusive a process, the greater its credibility—and the more likely it is to produce usable input.

Widespread participation enhances public awareness about a plan or project. When people get involved in a meaningful exchange of ideas on transportation issues, they are likely to spread the word to friends and neighbors. It is also crucial when an elected body such as a legislature or MPO board must ratify a plan.

Broad participation from the beginning of a process aids consensus-building at its end. When people are instrumental in shaping the vision for a project or plan and have been involved in working through issues and alternatives, they are more likely to be supportive of the final results. In Portland, Oregon, a recent 64-percent vote in favor of a bond to support extensions to the light rail system demonstrates the value of highly-inclusive planning. Several years prior to the election, a broad-based public involvement program began with the MPO’s 50-year plan for the region, including numerous community meetings, focus groups, surveys of preferences, and speakers’ bureaus. Information provided by participants was integrated by proponents and culminated in an extensive public information and meeting program immediately prior to the election.

All community segments benefit from increased meeting attendance because their interests and viewpoints have a greater probability of being voiced. These include elected officials; agencies; organizations; residents; businesses; minority, ethnic, low-income, and disabled constituents; and special interest groups that focus on specific issues such as freight; bikeways and trails; pedestrian safety; taxes; clean air; growth and development; and quality of life. Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) invited key groups to an important meeting, prepared an agenda with specific time slots for each group to present its position, and sent the agenda to participants in advance.

What are the main keys to success?

A positive and responsive agency attitude is essential. This is reflected in the level of care, attention, clarity, sincerity, and honesty its staff displays in contacts with the public. Outreach efforts before, during, and after meetings are opportunities to assert a positive attitude and improve rapport with the public. The Environmental Defense Fund trains staff members who regularly deal with the public in the importance of a positive attitude. The Spokane, Washington, MPO makes special efforts to explain why its meetings are important and that the organization cares about what people have to say.

It is important to stress that an agency involves people because their input is valued and useful. New Jersey Transit, for instance, states, "It’s not something we have to do, but rather something we want to do—to ensure that our services and products meet the public’s expectations, to serve as a quality check on our performance, and to help us find answers and set priorities." The public quickly detects when an agency is engaging in public involvement simply because it is required to do so—and they will stay away.

Equally important is an agency’s record on translating community input into real decisions. The National Resource and Defense Council advises that people will not attend meetings if they perceive that their views will not be heard. Many agencies confirm this. When the Portland, Oregon, MPO attracted more than 300 participants to a series of outreach meetings, it attributed the success to a "track record of credibility." The transit agency in Houston, Texas, believes the most important factor is "developing and nurturing a trusting relationship" between the agency and the public.

Careful advance planning is crucial. Good organization assures people that their time is not wasted and that the agency has a strong handle on what needs to be accomplished.

  • An agency clearly determines the meeting’s purpose, what needs it will fill, how it relates to the overall public involvement program and the larger transportation planning or project development effort, and how the results will be used. The more specific an agency’s vision for the meeting, the more likely it will generate feedback that staff people can use.
  • The type of meeting, as well as its style, is based on this strategic assessment. Agencies decide whether a meeting will emphasize information or interaction and explore the menu of options within these approaches. They also need to estimate the number of participants and consider break-out groups if a large audience is expected.
  • Agency staff identifies desired participants and their special needs. Factors such as familiarity with the plan or project, the degree of sophistication, and the ability to understand English all affect meeting planning. The agency also needs to determine which staff members and resource people need to take part, when, and in what roles.
  • Successful meetings have clear agendas, including the purpose, discussion topics, types of activities, names of speakers, and overall schedule. For meetings on a corridor study in East Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) based its agenda on questions such as "What’s the project about?" "What’s its current status?" "What’s the time line?" "What are the criteria?" and "How can I give comments?"
  • Meeting times and locations optimize people’s ability to participate—for instance, after work hours, in convenient neighborhood locations and comfortable settings conducive to interaction. Participants can be consulted beforehand about what times or dates are preferable. The Pennsylvania DOT holds meetings both during working hours and in the evening. The Wisconsin DOT finds that a 4:00–7:00 P.M. meeting time accommodates most people. The Cleveland, Ohio, MPO and the Minnesota DOT schedule their meetings from 5:00–7:00 P.M. The Ohio DOT has found that people in urban areas prefer night meetings, while rural residents prefer daytime. (See Non-traditional Meeting Places and Events.)
  • Thoughtfully prepared and coordinated meeting materials convey the appropriate level and kind of information. An agency must allow ample time for writing, editing, printing, and collating. Presentation materials are particularly important. Good visuals convey principal points, aid audience understanding of a plan or project, and encourage people to ask questions. (See Public Information Materials.)
  • Sufficient notice well in advance of a meeting helps constituents set aside time in their schedule for preparation and attendance. Mailed invitations can take the form of a "save-the-date" card or flier. The Kansas DOT sent out more than 5,000 fliers to invite people to 10 informational meetings on its statewide long-range plan. The Montana DOT sent 5,500 fliers that attracted 3,000 participants to its long-range planning meetings. Phoning and in some cases FAXing meeting notices are other possible approaches.

Involving the community in planning a meeting enhances its chances for success. Agencies can ask community groups about what issues to raise and what meeting dates and places are likely to draw people to participate. This consultation also helps determine an appropriate format, depending on the community’s traditions or preferences. This is particularly crucial when the community involves minorities and ethnic groups whose cultural attitudes strongly influence how they see and participate in a public process.

Offering a variety of formats increases the chances of attracting participants and demonstrates an agency’s intent to make it easy for the community to take part. States use a blend of topics and formats to attract broad involvement. The Montana DOT enlisted 3,000 participants in its long-range transportation plan through 6 open forums, 5 thematic forums, 9 open houses, and 7 forums with tribal governments. Over 7,500 people attended Wisconsin DOT meetings on its long-range plan: 16 forums, 9 informational meetings, 7 topical review meetings, 1 meeting with 40 statewide organizations, peer review meetings on subjects such as freight, 10 statewide groups, and 15 town meetings.

What else helps?

Agencies are experimenting with a broad range of strategies and approaches to attract more participants and make the public involvement process more meaningful and productive. Some of their most successful ideas are discussed below.

  • Follow up a meeting notice by mail, phone, or FAX to make sure it has been received and to stress the importance of attendance and input. The Los Angeles County MTA makes friendly reminder phone calls to key leaders. The Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) in San Francisco sends FAXes to between 500 and 600 businesses.
  • Survey communication preferences to find out what works best for the community. One "size" does not fit all. The Missouri DOT conducted a statewide survey asking, "How can we best communicate with you?" Results indicated that newsletters worked best for this audience and that electronic meetings were not preferred. (See Public Opinion Surveys.)
  • Focus each meeting on a special issue. If community members clearly see how the specific issue affects their lives, they more readily attend meetings. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland organized a meeting around the relationship between transportation, affordable housing, and minority groups.
  • Do the legwork. There’s no getting around it. The Houston transit agency’s community relations people know constituents and work the phones before meetings. They also place fliers on doorknobs. New Jersey Transit hired drug rehabilitation participants to distribute meeting announcements to downtown Newark shoppers.
  • Use other groups’ publications to announce meetings. Sharing resources helps agencies reach a variety of potential participants cost-effectively. The Johnson County–Iowa City, Iowa, MPO has reached larger audiences this way. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation develops partnerships by interesting leaders from other organizations in its meetings and by publicizing them collaboratively.
  • List meetings in a calendar of events. A little research can uncover numerous places where people look for information on what’s happening—for instance, in local newspaper weekly calendars or on public access television channels that offer community bulletin boards. MPOs in Seattle and San Francisco issue regular newsletters with a calendar of upcoming meetings and events for several months ahead. The Alaska DOT gets local clerks to list public involvement meetings on government calendars. (See Media Strategies.)
  • Engage support through local schools. Most parents give thoughtful consideration to materials they receive through their children’s school. The Portland, Maine, MPO and Los Angeles MTA send fliers home with school children. The Florida DOT created a special program for students to learn about its East–West Corridor Study by riding the Metro rail system and writing essays to express their views on the project.
  • Stir interest through name recognition tactics. The more people see an attractive logo, easily-identifiable symbol or slogan, or "teaser," the more likely they are to be curious about what’s behind it. To promote project name recognition for Miami’s East–West Corridor Study major investment study, the Florida DOT developed a sophisticated logo placed on widely-distributed calendars and business cards.
  • Establish information networks. Word of mouth is a powerful tool. Houston’s transit agency uses "leadership groups" of residents and businesses that take direct responsibility for informing other people about transportation issues and meetings.
  • Offer low-cost meeting perks, ranging from food and transportation to day care and entertainment for children. The Missoula, Montana, and Spokane, Washington, MPOs offer light food and beverages. The Pittsburgh MPO receives FAXed requests for the kinds of cookies it should serve. The San Diego MPO offers certain meetings in a luncheon setting. The Minnesota DOT provides box lunches for day-long meetings. New Jersey Transit offers entertainment and babysitters for children during selected meetings. The Alaska DOT offers transportation to some meeting sites.
  • Offer alternative modes of participating for individuals constrained by time or distance. The Portland Metro, the Los Angeles MTA, and the Savannah MPO give the public opportunities to phone in comments regarding meeting topics. Technological advances increase the opportunities for participating via teleconferences or computer communication. Agencies sometimes use other techniques such as community surveys to assure input and yet conserve people’s energy and time, then target meetings for a stage in the process when they will be particularly crucial.
  • Spark interest by featuring well-known experts or political candidates. If well-publicized, the presence of prominent people enhances attendance. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation featured elected officials as key attractions. The Missouri DOT survey results indicated preferences for public meetings with elected officials as guests. The Kansas DOT achieved a high level of participation when it featured Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America, at a statewide workshop. The Alaska DOT holds meetings in the weeks before an election; when the candidates are scheduled to appear, the agency gets good turnout.
  • Feature agency board or staff members as guest speakers. The active interest of high-level staff demonstrates the value an agency places on public input. Senior managers at the Oregon and Pennsylvania DOTs appear at meetings to enhance attendance. Los Angeles County MTA’s chief executive officer frequently speaks at the agency’s meetings. The Houston Transit Agency brings board meetings into the community every three months for a project and program status report. The Central Puget Sound RTA’s board is directly involved in meetings to show residents their voices have value and their comments are not being "filtered" through staffers.
  • Evaluate outreach efforts after a meeting. Determining what worked and what didn’t helps assure that future meetings will be more effective. When participants see that the agency has improved its process, their enthusiasm is renewed. Reviewing attendance lists can help track individual interests. The Portland Metro, with attendance of over 300 people at meetings, evaluates its outreach program every three years.
  • Maintain interest through follow-up. When people know their presence has been appreciated, they feel more inclined to continue with the process. Follow-up includes thank-you letters, reports, phone calls, surveys, and distribution of new information. For invited participants, courtesy dictates a thank-you note. Written responses are also appropriate to follow up unanswered questions or unresolved issues.
  • Target key individuals for special invitation to the next meeting. Participants who are active in the community should be encouraged to attend and bring neighbors. This not only generates good will by showing respect for their role in the community, it also has a rippling effect within their sphere of influence.
  • Court press coverage and establish good media relations. Agency community relations staff usually knows which reporters have transportation issues as their "beat." Feeding them choice bits of news and keeping them up-to-date helps assure they will cover the story well and in a timely fashion. On the other hand, agencies should avoid blanketing them with material. Timing is all. The Wisconsin DOT maintains relations with 600–800 media outlets and gets stories in the press prior to meetings. The Portland Metro takes out eye-catching ads, and the Cape Cod Commission gets a newspaper article "almost every day." In Minnesota, the Twin Cities MPO has a two-pronged media strategy: one focused on its region’s editorial boards, another on reporters.
  • Employ radio coverage as a cost-effective alternative to reach broad segments of the public. Paid ads, public service announcements (PSAs), and spot interviews can make more people aware of a transportation effort and call attention to upcoming meetings. The Montana DOT arranged interviews at local radio stations before its long-range plan meetings. The Minnesota DOT developed call-in shows and later distributed tapes to cable stations. The tapes were played repeatedly, thus reaching a wider audience, and a comment number was listed at the end of the tape.

Who leads the effort?

In-house staff usually initiates these measures, developing strategies and techniques for improving attendance and tailoring the approach to meet community needs as well as the project’s particular demands. The Roanoke, Virginia, MPO assigns a staff person to devote the necessary time and energy to improving attendance. The Denver Transit Agency looks outside its engineering staff for meeting leaders who are skilled in describing technical issues in non-technical language.

Community leaders or elected officials can suggest what works best in their communities, advising an agency on key strategies and putting it in touch with others who are able to improve outreach. Agency credibility is often improved when a community leader conducts a meeting or introduces agency staff.

Professional facilitators help create a fair, neutral atmosphere. For complex or controversial issues, they help attract people who doubt they will otherwise be heard. They also contribute innovative ideas on how to increase subsequent participation. (See Facilitation.)

What are the costs?

Costs depend on the number of people to be reached and the community’s past involvement with agency programs. Direct expenses include ads, graphics, visuals, mailings, translators if necessary, facility rental, and equipment. Staff costs are incurred to plan and implement a program, monitor progress, and make required adjustments. The level of time and energy staff must commit to a public involvement effort is closely linked to factors such as the complexity of the issues and the community’s cultural heritage as well as its history of response to the agency. Costs may be significantly less for outreach to a community that has a well-established relationship with the agency.

What are the drawbacks?

Establishing credibility is difficult. Agencies lacking a track record in participatory planning sometimes have difficulty establishing a process and convincing the public that efforts are sincere. Agencies that previously made "token" efforts without using the input to improve the plan or project may find it doubly hard to engage the community. A reputation for an honest commitment to involving the public is only built over time.

Preparations to increase meeting attendance are time-consuming. Personnel who are savvy about engaging the community in public involvement may be scarce. A trial-and-error period is sometimes needed to determine what works. Agency inaction, errors, and poor planning compound the difficulties of establishing credibility.

Groups not traditionally involved in meetings are often hard to reach. Ethnic, minority, and low-income communities may need extra contact and encouragement to keep them involved, since they often have more barriers to overcome. People who have been put off by an agency’s insensitivity to their cultural heritage may be reluctant to participate again. (See Ethnic, Minority, and Low-income Groups.)

A larger number of participants increases the challenge of building consensus. Success in attracting more people places extra demands on staff, because more information must be prepared and transmitted. A wider array of opinion sometimes creates polarization or prolongs the process of narrowing down alternatives to reach consensus. Agency staff needs to research potential issues and prepare focused agendas for meeting discussions.

For further information:

Alaska Department of Transportation, Juneau, Alaska (907) 465-2171
Capital District Metropolitan Planning Organization, Albany, New York (518) 458-2161
Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington (206) 684-1357
Florida Department of Transportation, Tallahassee, Florida (904) 488-8006
Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Houston, Texas (713) 739-4000
Lawrence–Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Organization, Lawrence, Kansas (913) 832-3153
Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Los Angeles, California (213) 922-2000
Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Madison, Wisconsin (608) 266-7744

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