Public Involvement Techniques

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1. Informing People Through Outreach and Organizationskip page navigation

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1.B - Bringing a Core Participation Group Together
1.B.a - Community-Based Organizations
1.B.b - Civic Advisory Committees
1.B.c - Citizens on Decision and Policy Boards
1.B.d - Collaborative Task Forces

1. Introduction

1.B.a - Community-Based Organizations

What is a community-based organization?

A community-based organization is a group of individuals organized by and for a particular community of people based on shared interests and/or attributes. The community could be defined geographically (e.g. a neighborhood), could contain members from diverse backgrounds, and/or could be defined on the basis of something like religious beliefs or a shared condition. Members may include various stakeholders, such as the public, elected officials, advocacy groups, and business leaders.

A community-based organization focuses on issues and concerns at the local level (e.g. neighborhood, layperson, city, county), not on a national scale. They are often organized around a particular purpose or cause and tend to be grass roots in nature, working from the ground level upward to address issues. Community-based organizations may also participate in regional coalitions with similar groups in support of an issue such as affordable housing, water quality, or connection of open space.

Community-based organizations use a number of names to describe themselves, including association, alliance, and commission. Many community-based organizations will hold regular meetings for a specific period of time where they discuss the issues of common concern. Participation on community-based organizations is generally voluntary and open to any individuals with interest in the particular issue.

One example of a community-based organization, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), function as an integral part of major decisions made in the District of Columbia. ANCs are composed of elected neighborhood residents who advise the Washington, DC government of particular issues affecting their areas including such topics as planning, transportation, safety, sanitation, and social services. There are 37 ANCs in Washington, DC’s eight Wards.

Another type of community-based organization found nationwide is a Transportation Management Association (TMA). For example, Transportation Solutions in Denver, CO is a public-private partnership deigned to manage transportation demand by providing and promoting programs to improve accessibility and mobility in the service area. Transportation Solutions has two full-time staff members and 20 individuals who serve on the Board of Directors. Membership consists of employers, property owners, municipalities, and neighborhood representatives who are committed to better managing transportation demand.

Why are community-based organizations useful?

Working with these community-based groups allows transportation professionals to tap into key community players and an organizational structure that has already been created. Regularly scheduled meetings of community-based organizations can be used as a forum for disseminating information and gathering input on transportation plans, programs, and projects at a grassroots level.

Community-based organizations work directly with the public and are aware of their basic goals, needs, issues, and concerns. If the public has an issue that needs to be addressed, more people would tend to go to the local level for assistance than a regional, state, or national level. In addition, the public may trust representatives from a community-based organization more than someone from a transportation agency. Community-based organizations provide a common visible entity with which community members can identify and rally around community issues as a unit. They also give “outsiders” or “supporters” a venue with which to participate in community issues in an organized fashion. Because community-based groups are created by the public; they can exhibit power in numbers and have strong credibility and standing and well-developed connections within the community.

Working with community-based organizations can assist agencies in hearing issues that are important to the community and in presenting and resolving complex issues. Being involved with community-based organizations allows practitioners and agencies to develop an information network that can extend beyond transportation issues. If the community-based organization is geographically focused, it also can provide an opportunity to address a broad range of issues.

Does a community-based organization have special uses?

Not only do communities-based organizations represent the public at the local level, they can also be the voice for a particular community or neighborhood regarding regional, statewide, or national issues.

Community-based organizations can encourage participation and involve members of the community who may not otherwise participate. For example, at the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in the Bedford Stuyvesant community in Brooklyn, NY, children in the community generated involvement from the community as they surveyed neighborhood residents door-to-door and participated in segments of community meetings. More parents and guardians became involved than might ordinarily have in the past because of the children’s involvement.

Community-based organizations can also be used to gain consensus about an issue or a project. They can be used to identify and investigate particular issues in more depth (i.e., strategies for reaching the vision of a plan, development of environmental mitigation strategies, the minimization of environmental impacts). They can also be used to gain community-level information (e.g., assessing sidewalk conditions, local land use or lighting at bus stops). Community-based organizations can be of particular use in a community impact assessment.

Community-based organizations may be particularly useful in situations when transportation agencies encountering apathy or a lack of interest about a particular issue (e.g., long range planning). They might also be useful in situations where there are environmental justice concerns. Low-income or minority persons may be more accessible as members of community-based organizations than in other ways.

Who participates? And how?

Community-based organizations are typically organized at a grassroots level, so participation tends to be broad-based. Virtually anyone can be active in such a group, so they provide an effective mechanism for working with the general public, as opposed to specific publics. Some examples of community-based organization members include: individual members of the public, representatives of community and advocacy groups, church leaders, representatives of the business community, and elected officials. Depending on the organization, members may volunteer or may be nominated, appointed, or elected.

Many community-based organizations do not have professional staff and some do not have formal office space or equipment. This can limit their ability with professional transportation staff during typical business hours.

The demands of participation may influence who can participate. These might include how often the group interacts and the timing of interaction (mid-day, evening, weekend). Participation can take a range of forms, including face-to-face gatherings and e-mail exchanges.

How do agencies get involved with community-based organizations?

To get involved with community-based organizations, practitioners should research what groups are in existence in the area they are serving. This can be done by contacting local governments to determine the “players” in the community, through word of mouth, and by being alert to advertisements/fliers for specific community-based organization activities. It is important for practitioners to maintain up-to-date contact lists for community-based organizations and key individuals in the community who can be tapped for discussions. Human service coalitions, like the United Way, colleges and universities, and national organizations often maintain contact lists.

Practitioners could then begin attending meetings and interacting with leaders to learn more about the organizations and their members, contact the organizations directly to discuss a particular issue, and develop presentations and materials for use with community-based groups. The practitioner may ask organization representatives what public involvement techniques would work best in getting the community engaged in the decision-making process. In addition, before interacting with community-based organizations it is important for the practitioner to clearly define what needs to be communicated to the organizations and what is hoped to be gained from establishing a relationship with them.

How do agencies use the output?

Agencies can use the output from community-based organizations in several ways. These include:

  • Gauging the reaction of the larger population that the community-based organization was established to represent.
  • Identifying the concerns or issues of members of the community.
  • Incorporating the output into in community visioning exercises, visual preference surveys, goal setting, and policy development.
  • Establishing a pattern of continuing communications with the community until the culmination of a process (e.g., when the plan is developed, when the decision is made).
  • Developing plans, programs, projects, goals, policies, strategies, and alternatives and to resolve conflicts.

What are the costs?

Costs of working with community-based organizations are variable. Monetary costs for the agency may be very little, unless the organization requires technical assistance (e.g., resources, funding). Possible monetary costs include outreach materials, food and beverages at meetings, and facility charges.

The majority of costs to the agency would be staff time to attend community meetings, work with group leaders, prepare agendas and meeting minutes, and schedule meetings and facilities. This may differ based on location or setting. A great deal of time and effort may be needed initially to work with community-based organizations in areas where people are not participating in many existing community groups, especially if there are trust or apathy issues.

The major cost to individuals in community-based organizations is time to contact community members about, and participate in, meetings and events.

Neighborhood or geography-based organizations often have multiple commitments; housing or crime, rather than transportation, may be a priority. However, an agency can help build more capacity, for example, by training community leaders. In this situation awareness is needed with regard to local politics and the willingness of community representatives to share their knowledge of “how to get things accomplished” with others.

How are community-based organizations used with other techniques?

Community based organizations can be used with other public involvement techniques easily, including charrettes, open houses, video, and public information materials. Community-based organizations can be used with brainstorming to develop ideas about how to proceed with a particular project. Visioning can be used to determine where a community wants to go in the future. Community-based organizations can be included on mailing lists for surveys, meeting notices, and special activities, so that information can be disseminated through them to the individuals in the community. Often, TMAs are linked into the planning process and designated to disseminate information to all interested parties. Community based group representatives could also be selected for or elect to participate in a civic advisory committee.

What are the drawbacks?

Community-based organizations may not be representative of the overall community. If members are nominated, the overall community may not agree with the composition of the group and may not feel these members have their best interest in mind.

Working with community-based organizations for public involvement can sometimes attract “professional community participants,” i.e., those members of the community who have strong interest in an issue or high availability and can always be counted upon to attend group activities. Suggestions for broadening community participating in these instances include:

  • Asking the community to identify their leaders. This may render different leaders than those that are frequently tapped. The community may not identify leaders that are frequently-tapped as representing their interest.
  • Thinking about demographics (e.g., number of single parents, number of elderly who may not want to drive to a meeting in the evening) and the history of agency-public relationships in the area. Local planning and economic develop agencies, colleges and universities often maintain current demographic information.
  • Seeking out and identifying the affected and targeted group first. Finding out what a group’s ideas, views, likes, and dislikes are and targeting more advertisements in the affected area to make sure the right people are getting the message.
  • Going directly to the group to broaden the participation. It might be best to start out by doing this at a project level, as the project may be something more concrete that the public can relate to (as opposed to the more abstract and nebulous planning process).
  • Using the “buddy system;” ask each person who attends a meeting to return next time with one other person. For the ones who don’t attend, try to find out why, then try to see if there’s a way to utilize their talents in a different way. For example, if the community participation is voluntary and individuals have to work during the hours of the meeting, they may be able to perform background research or some other task through which the information obtained could then be funneled to the group as a whole or incorporated into the greater project at hand.

The agency can sometimes influence the decisions of the community-based organization. In addition, sometimes community-based organizations are not taken seriously and are considered to be trouble and a lot of unwanted “noise”.

Working with such groups can be very time consuming. Community-based groups tend to be small and focused on a particular geographic area or issue. If a broader level of input and participation is desired, transportation professionals may have to interact with several organizations. It would time to build credible relationships and to adequately educate each group on the transportation process, particularly if there is a history of mistrust. Substantial initial time and effort may be required in forming a new community-based group if one goes beyond the most interested/most available people.

Generally, the benefits of working with these groups outweigh the drawbacks because community-based groups are an effective way to get directly to those impacted by transportation decisions.

For further information:

South Carolina DOT (803) 737-1395
Washington, DC (Neighborhood Action)
Transportation Solutions, Denver, CO
TRB Committee on Public Involvement in Transportation
Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, MPO’s Best Practices

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