Virtual Engagement Guidebook 2. The Value of Public Engagement
- Date: December 2, 2021
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- What is virtual public engagement?
- What motivates transportation organizations to engage stakeholders and members of the public?
- What are the benefits and challenges of virtual public engagement?
- How does virtual public engagement compare to in-person engagement?
Communicating with Stakeholders & the Public
Communicating with and soliciting input from the community it serves is an essential function of any public agency’s decision-making process. Special interest groups may have the resources to influence policy and decisions without solicitation but it is critical that many citizens are engaged in good faith by their government to participate in the public process. At times agencies may feel the need to “check the box” to meet statutory requirements on public participation or release a statement to get out in front of a looming negative headline. Public engagement at its best can help enable participatory democracy where citizens meaningfully contribute to the decision-making process. This is especially true for local government, which has the unique advantage of being the closest to the people it serves.
Transit agencies are no different. A local bus route, rush-hour traffic, and air pollution exacerbated by car commuting are among the most common concerns and points of contact a citizen has with their government. Even in the most rural communities, public transportation plays a central role in where people live and how they move around their communities. Communications teams and public engagement specialists are tasked with ensuring that constituents are aware of and involved in the decisions made by their public transportation agency. Public engagement’s focus can vary widely from notifying riders of a service disruption, to communicating community benefits of a new infrastructure project, to mobilizing voter support for a tax initiative.
This Guidebook focuses on three key motivators for public engagement:
Deliver timely and credible information to transit riders, target stakeholders, and the general public.
Solicit community input and feedback on transit plans and proposals.
Secure buy-in and community understanding of transit projects or agency priorities.
For each motivator, many of the most popular outreach and engagement approaches can be transitioned to
a virtual environment with few adjustments. Citizen advisory councils have been virtually facilitated on a video conference platform like Zoom, while public information meetings have been convened as live YouTube broadcasts. In other cases, it will be critical to identify an alternative effective virtual engagement solution. This guidebook is intended to help ask the right questions and connect users to helpful resources to design and execute effective virtual public engagement.
Gathering Public Buy-In
By informing riders and the public with timely and credible information and engaging stakeholders in good faith, transit agencies earn the credibility of persuading constituents about the efficacy of their next priority – a transit expansion, new service plan, or fare adjustment. Quality customer service, system transparency, and clear pricing may need to come before ballot initiatives, tax measures, or new product innovations. Therefore, an essential role of communications teams and public engagement specialists is to build public trust by lay the foundation of credibility, timeliness, and transparency.
Transit agencies and other transportation organizations may be required to meet specific statutory requirements to promote public accessibility, transparency, and accountability. Transportation organizations are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel and compliance team about any requirements that may be in place for public engagement and to ensure that virtual engagement practices meet requirements.
Any transit program or activity that receives federal funding, such as from the Federal Transit Administration, must comply with Title VI and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, federally funded agencies are required to:
- Ensure that the level and quality of transportation service is provided in a nondiscriminatory manner.
- Promote full and fair participation in transportation decision-making without regard to race, color or national origin.
- Ensure meaningful access to transit-related programs and activities by persons with limited English proficiency.
- Prepare and submit a Title VI/ADA Plan. (USDOT, 2012)
Likewise, in accordance with 23 CFR 450.316, the Federal Transit Administration requires a metropolitan planning organization, or MPO, “to engage in a metropolitan planning process that creates opportunities for public involvement, participation, and consultation throughout the development of the Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) and the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).” Under this requirement, “MPOs must allow for:
- Adequate public notice of public participation activities
- Review and comment at key decision points in the development of the MTP and TIP
- Multiple, accessible participation formats, including electronic and in-person.”
According to the US Department of Transportation, an MPO should also develop a collaborative and comprehensive Public Participation Plan that describes the proactive strategies, procedures, and desired outcomes of their participation activities. The FTA directs that the plan should be developed in “…full collaboration with the public and stakeholder communities, to be used in the development of the MTP and TIP, as well as to frame the strategies for public and stakeholder communication and collaboration in all phases of the planning process. The Participation Plan itself must be prepared by the MPO with a 45-day public review and comment period.” (USDOT, 2019)
The Federal Highway Administration enforces the basic decision-making framework and action forcing provisions established in NEPA, the National Environmental Protection Act.
NEPA requires “…agencies to seek input from stakeholders and the public throughout [a] project.” Under the FHWA’s Public Involvement Requirements, “each State must have procedures approved by the FHWA to carry out a public involvement/public hearing program.” These procedures must provide for:
- “Coordination of public involvement activities and public hearings with the entire NEPA process.
- Early and continuing opportunities during project development for the public to be involved in the identification of social, economic, and environmental impacts, as well as impacts associated with relocation of individuals, groups, or institutions.
- One or more public hearings or the opportunity for hearing(s) to be held by the State highway agency
at a convenient time and place for any Federal-aid project which requires significant amounts of right- of-way, substantially changes the layout or functions of connecting roadways or of the facility being improved, has a substantial adverse impact on abutting property, otherwise has a significant social, economic, environmental or other effect, or for which the FHWA determines that a public hearing is in the public interest.
- Reasonable notice to the public of either a public hearing or the opportunity for a public hearing. Such notice will indicate the availability of explanatory information. The notice shall also provide information required to comply with public involvement requirements of other laws, Executive Orders, and regulations.” (USDOT FHWA)
The FHWA’s Every Day Counts Initiative provides this online resource for Virtual Public Involvement.
Many states enshrine and expand on federal statutes in state law. For example, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) have environmental protection policies and compliance requirements similar to NEPA. The department of transportation in many states can provide engagement guidance based on environmental requirements and the different compliance regulations of various federal, state, and local funding sources.
Defining Virtual Engagement
In the simplest terms, this guidebook defines virtual engagement as any strategy to inform, engage, or persuade your community through the Internet and digital capabilities. Agencies of all sizes accelerated their transition to virtual engagement in 2020 to comply with shelter-in- place orders and social distancing guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet with these new constraints has come opportunity.
Benefits of virtual public engagement may include cost savings, greater reach, flexible platforms to manage community dialogue, and of course a safer environment during a pandemic.
Challenges of virtual public engagement may include software acquisition and management, public access
to internet and technology, ensuring accessibility, and securing needed staffing or other required resources. There are also limitations on how a community may respond to digital engagement of which access to technology plays only a small part. Constituencies and demographics differ in their confidence using a given technology, their cultural associations with remote environments, or even their awareness of efforts by a transportation organization to engage them online.
Boulder County Mobility For All, CO
Colorado’s Boulder County Mobility for All (M4A) Program promotes accessible, affordable, and equitable multi-modal transportation options for residents of all backgrounds. Historically, these efforts have included public outreach and education on multimodal transportation options, as well as assistance funds for accessing local transit services. M4A’s Technology Ambassador Program leverages community partners and volunteer power to offer transportation-related technology workshops to help community members of all ages and abilities feel more comfortable using transportation apps.
By migrating this ambassador training program to a virtual environment, M4A has overcome unique challenges of engaging constituents online who have limited technology proficiency, including the elderly, ESL riders, and people with intellectual disabilities. M4A is delivering these training sessions on YouTube, but they are also innovating in how they provide real-time and asynchronous support. Behavior changes come easier socially, so their emphasis is on not just offering a tutorial but facilitating a dialogue that builds trust and improves understanding.
Reasons for Virtual Vs. In-Person Engagement
Can virtual engagement be both (1) a substitute for traditional, in-person engagement efforts and (2) help transit agencies more effectively communicate to the communities they serve?
- Software acquisition management, and staff expertise
- Privacy and data security
- Digital divide / access to
- Technology limitations for
- Quality of human interaction
- Virtual meeting fatigue/level of interest
- Potential cost savings for agencies and time savings for participants
- Greater reach and more frequent touch points
- Flexible tools for participation (text, video, voice, multilingual)
- Administrative controls for managing the dialogue
- Accessibility options (real- time, automated)
- Safety in a pandemic
Some of these considerations can present both challenges and opportunities, such as how an organization receives input during a meeting — there is no perfect substitute for the feedback and trust-building organizers can get from seeing constituents face-to-face. Traditional public comment periods at the end of an in-person meeting, however, can too often be ineffectual. Virtual engagement opens the door to a myriad of new tools to solicit real-time and in-depth community input. Live polling, online surveys, and videoconference breakout rooms all offer powerful functionality previously not available to many organizations. Digital platforms also solve for problems as diverse as eliminating travel costs for staff and guest speakers, reducing other costs that come with convening in-person, and encouraging participation from busier constituents who fall outside the usual suspects who traditionally attend public meetings. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic, public agencies may opt for hybrid models to take advantage of the benefits of in-person and virtual public engagement.
Neighbor Network of Northern Nevada, NV
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Neighbor Network of Northern Nevada (N4) had planned an in-person summit to advance its mission to connect Northern Nevadans to inclusive, community-based services, volunteer opportunities, and affordable transportation. The regional MPO wanted to convene at-home caregivers to share the resources available to them to support better health and well-being for both the caregiver and the person receiving care. This included respite services for family care partners, companion services, personal care, social, recreational and educational activities, and access to affordable supplemental transportation and discounts on Lyft rides.
When local Shelter-in-Place orders made an in- person summit impossible, N4 migrated to two half-day virtual summits on Zoom. What surprised staff was that attendance exceeded expectations for the in-person summit. For at-home caregivers an opportunity to connect with others doing similar work without the need to leave their loved one for an extended period was exactly what they needed. N4 also succeeded in maintaining the collaborative feel of a summit. Breakout rooms with N4 staff and volunteer facilitators provided a venue for the caregivers to speak in smaller groups about their experiences, lessons learned, and where they would benefit from additional support.
The lesson? Context is critical. In some cases, the audience may prefer and benefit from a virtual environment.
Levels of Public Participation
Chapter 2 highlights simple motivators for a transportation organization to engage the public: to inform, engage, and/ or persuade.
A variety of research, however, has been conducted that adds other categorizations or levels to define commonly recognized public participation approaches, including consulting, involving, collaborating, and empowering stakeholders (see table below). For example, in the IAP2 model, each public participation function is more complex, and requires additional effort and resources. Regardless of the level of participation an agency chooses, members of the public will participate at the level which most suits their needs and desires.
The table below is adapted from the IAP2 Spectrum (International Association for Public Participation, 2018).
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The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) is a global federation concerned with the promotion and improvement of stakeholder participation in public decision-making processes. Founded in 1990, IAP2, its affiliates, and chapters share information, advocate for public participation, conduct research and provide technical assistance to improve engagement processes.
To learn more about IAP2, their resources, membership opportunities, trainings and services, go to www.iap2usa.org.
“Inform” is the first level of public participation and is intended to simply share information with members of the public, with no intention of receiving feedback. The purpose, therefore, is to ensure that there is a level of awareness within the general population.
“Consult” is the second level of public participation and allows for a small degree of public input in a decision-making process. In consultation processes, agencies ask members of the public for feedback on ideas which have already been developed prior to a final decision being made. This is typically done at clearly defined points in the decision-making process and is generally not iterative in nature. At this level, the agency has the power to accept or reject the feedback received without having multiple engagements with members of the public.
The third level of participation “Involve,” allows members of the public to engage in ongoing discussion and share feedback, usually from the beginning of the process. In this level of participation, while the public can provide input at multiple opportunities, unlike “Consult,” the agency still has the power to make the decision without needing to reach a consensus with the public.
Unlike the level prior, at the fourth level of participation, “Collaborate,” the intent is for the agency to try to reach a consensus with the public. That is, the agency enters a partnership with the public and strives to incorporate input as much as possible. However, before engaging in a collaborative effort, the agency should clearly state the degree to which a consensus will be sought as they are still the ultimate authority.
The highest and final level of participation “Empower,” facilitates a transition of power and authority from the agency to the members of the public, by enabling stakeholders to be the primary decision-makers. This is most clearly exemplified by voting. This level of participation is often not pursued as it is incredibly complex, resource intensive, time consuming and challenging to execute successfully.
The level of public participation an agency pursues will depend on the nature of the project being undertaken, internal resources, external factors (such as legal requirements), as well as the agency’s will to incorporate public opinion and feedback.
Before conducting any public participation process, it is important for an agency to first identify and understand the point at and degree to which public input will have influence. Being honest and transparent about these findings with stakeholders can not only assist in managing public expectations, but better enable the public to focus their attention, effort, and resources on areas they can change (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2018).