Virtual Engagement Guidebook 3. Tools and Approaches

  • Date: December 2, 2021

Chapter Questions

  1. What types of meetings and events do transportation organizations typically hold?
  2. What are the virtual options for these meeting types?
  3. What practices contribute to successful virtual meetings and events?
  4. Are there ways agencies can engage virtually without scheduling meetings and events?

Successful online engagement requires a strong foundation of good engagement practices.

Online engagement provides the benefit of outreach through a myriad of tools. However agencies require thoughtful and inclusive engagement practices to start. Without them, agencies will be limited in the participation they can amass and sustain over time, especially from stakeholders who do not tend to take part in decisionmaking processes.

An agency can begin to highlight the activities that can be translated into an online form and those that need to be adjusted to improve outcomes by reflecting on the following:

  • What has not worked well; and
  • Who has not been reached.
  • For example, a recurring community working group meeting with consistently high attendance may be easily moved to an online format, if members are computer literate and have access to a computer and the internet.

However, ad-hoc events with historically low rates of participation may face more challenges drawing an online crowd. Once an agency has determined its pre-transition strengths and weaknesses, it can begin to address the gaps during the transition process.

Low rates of participation among individuals from marginalized and underserved communities is one common gap that is common with in-person engagement. This low rate of participation can arise from many factors such as a lack of trust, disinterest (typically stemming from an agency’s inability or desire to appropriately communicate information about a project), little access to resources, and high opportunity costs for participation. The best way to determine what a specific community needs, as well as their current and potential barriers to participation, is by asking community members and representatives.


Numerous articles and definitions about the value of meetings exist across disciplines, but an often-quoted 1976 Harvard Business Review article noted that one of the functions of a meeting is that it helps “every individual understand both the collective aim of the group and the way in which his own and everyone else’s work can contribute to the group’s success.” (Jay, 1976) By bringing people together with a common purpose, a clear set of objectives, and actionable outcomes, a meeting – in person or virtual – can be a particularly valuable tool for a transit agency or transportation organization to get buyin from partners or members of the public, seek feedback or direction on issues of concern, or gauge attitudes about initiatives or proposed approaches. Some meetings can be expressly about educating participants, while others may be focused exclusively on accepting comments. When incorporated into a process, meetings of all types can represent the building blocks of a comprehensive engagement approach.

This chapter reviews different meeting designs, occasions for which these meeting designs might be applied to transit agency or transportation organization events, practices for more effective virtual meetings, and other virtual engagement tools that can be used in combination with meetings or as standalone programs.

Meetings and Events

MPOs, transit agencies, and other transportation providers have a variety of tools available to them to conduct meetings and lead public events. Meetings are one of the most important tools in the public engagement toolbox because they allow for direct interaction between staff, planners, consultants, and members of the public.

Meeting Types

Transportation providers and transit agencies conduct meetings for a wide range of different reasons. Some meetings are standing meetings with regular participants providing ongoing feedback and input, while other events may be called based on special initiatives or plans, such as the adoption of a new fare structure, a service plan update, facility design, etc.

Graphic explaining levels of complexity and audience size for the types of meetings described in this chapter. Audience size and complexity are described along with each meeting type

Standing Meeting

An accessible advisory committee meeting might be held weekly, monthly, or quarterly. These standing meetings typically involve individuals who are relatively familiar with the transportation organization, may have been appointed to serve in a particular capacity, and may or may not allow for members of the public to participate as observers or commenters. Most standing meetings are focused on advising on the day-to-day business of an organization, oversight, or sharing opinions on policy or other specific areas within an organization’s purview.

Other Ways to Engage Participants in a Standing Meeting

In-person, virtual and hybrid meetings can use technology tools to support dialog, help prioritize options, and collect and synthesize opinions in real time. Software like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter allows meeting participants to vote on their preferences. During the development of the MOVE Central Arkansas Plan for Rock Region Metro (in the Little Rock region), meetings with an appointed group community leaders and elected officials included real-time polling, allowing participants to share their opinions publicly but without requiring them to voice what might otherwise be a controversial or unpopular point of view. The software anonymized responses and presented results to all, allowing the transit agency and consultant to acknowledge that the most vocal participants’ support for a transit tax measure was not necessarily embraced by all. Tools like Miro and Mural offer virtual participants in a meeting access to sticky notes and white boards to prioritize goals.


Motivators: Ongoing information sharing, advisory discussions, rider education


  • Size: Small. Typically 10-30
  • Type: Appointees, advocates, technical specialists, staff

Complexity: Low level of complexity

Stakeholder Group Meetings

Stakeholders are usually consulted when strategic planning or service changes are being developed. For example, when an MPO is launching a new regional transit plan, a suggested best practice is to convene stakeholders representing businesses, medical facilities, educational institutions, human service organizations, elected officials, etc. Transportation providers and transit agencies regularly conduct stakeholder meetings for a wide variety of reasons, but mostly to gather information about important issues or stakeholder concerns, or to collect feedback on interim plans or deliverables. Because many stakeholders have the ear of elected officials and other decision makers, convening meetings with stakeholders can be a useful approach to build consensus.


Motivators: Service restructuring/major system changes, studies (fare pricing, service design, coordinated plants), marketing campaign or rebranding


  • Size: Small, typically 2-20
  • Type: Business, education, human service, and advocacy representatives

Complexity: Moderate level of complexity

Board or Council Meetings

Board and council meetings are regularly scheduled policy meetings to discuss the business of managing, funding, and operating a transit agency or other transportation organization. These meetings usually comprise elected or apportioned officials and feature a series of speakers, as well as presentations and detailed reports. They also may include a public comment period during or following the session. Board or council meetings are typically recorded and may be shared via webcast or telecast.


Motivators: Transportation program management, policymaking, customer engagement/system transparency


  • Size: Typically 5-15 on council and additional members of the public
  • Type: Representatives and interested members of the public

Complexity: Low level of complexity

Public Meetings and Public Hearings

Public meetings and hearings are usually scheduled around planning studies to solicit feedback on proposed designs or to gather information about needs or preferences from members of the public. Both in-person and virtual public meetings can take many formats, including a traditional one with a presentation followed by a question-and-answer period; an open house format for people to mingle and look at displays while they speak with staff or consultants; charrettes or planning games where people work together to propose solutions to various challenges; pop-up events where small drop-in sessions may be held at a street corner or transit center; etc. Public hearings are typically held as required by statute or other policy framework for members of the public to share a comment for the record by offering feedback on specific proposed legislative, environmental, funding, or planning actions. In a public hearing, responses to the comments or questions posed are typically not provided.


Motivators: Community engagement for a service plan or fare study, statutory requirements


  • Size: 12-200
  • Type: General public and advocacy representatives

Complexity: High level of complexity

Q&A Meetings and Press Conferences

Sometimes transportation organizations seek to engage members of the public or the press by making themselves available to answer questions. These meetings may or may not include a presentation, but the focus is on responding to inquiries. Some organizations include these meetings as part of an open house session or other event, while others host these as standalone proceedings. It is customary to have one person moderating the questions as they are asked and one or more individuals available to answer them.


Motivators: Legislative initiatives/tax measures, Crisis management/unanticipated disruptions, Pandemic safety/health guidelines


  • Size: Any size
  • Type: Representatives and interested members of the public, advocacy organizations, press, staff

Complexity: Low level of complexity

Focus Groups

Unlike standing meetings or even stakeholder group meetings, focus groups are topic-specific meetings held to gather feedback on a particular initiative, such as transit service marketing or branding, fares, or route changes. Most focus group meetings are held only once, and often participants are given an incentive — financial or other — to participate. In a focus group, a moderator asks a series of questions for participants to share their reactions and provide context for their opinions.

When is a Focus Group Right for You?

Transportation providers benefit from focus groups when they seek input from people outside of their usual markets or audiences, or need more in-depth information than they can typically get from a survey or public meeting. A focus group puts the transportation organization in control of the conversation, with a facilitator who guides the discussion and asks probing questions to understand motivations or concerns behind an individual’s opinion. Focus groups and similar qualitative research can also be used to understand how an individual experiences a tool, technology, route, or interaction. When the public transit system on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i undertook a transit study that assessed its marketing tools, the consulting team led focus groups with diverse audiences to understand how both current transit users and non-users perceived the informational materials, logo, and appearance of the buses.


Motivators: Marketing campaign or rebranding; w products: fare media, specialized services, new facilities


  • Size: 8-15
  • Type: Consumers, targeted audiences

Complexity: Moderate level of complexity

Special Events

Special events can encompass any of the types of meetings that have already been described, but they are customarily held to promote or introduce a new service, new facility, or plan/recommendation. A ribbon cutting for a new transit center, for example, provides an opportunity for an organization to showcase its hard work; highlight the key stakeholders, staff, and officials that helped it achieve its goals; promote and market its service; and build community support. It also offers members of the public and stakeholders the opportunity to interact with staff and other like-minded individuals who share support for an investment or initiative. Special events give a transportation organization a way to return their appreciation for the community’s efforts and support, and to build stakeholder relationships.


Motivators: New products: fare media, specialized services, new facilities


  • Size: Any size
  • Type: All audiences

Complexity: High level of complexity

Trainings or Seminars

Many transportation organizations value the interactions with stakeholders in which they can educate them about their services, train representatives of partner organizations, offer travel training to potential riders, promote their ambassador volunteers, and support community mobility initiatives. Training is an important service for bus operators, accessibility specialists, and customer service representatives who work with members of the public on a daily basis. Interactive training can be done in person or via webinar, virtual meeting, or prerecorded presentation.


Motivators: Rider education, Policy and/or procedure updates


  • Size: Small. Typically, 2-30 at a time.
  • Type: Users, staff, partner organizations

Complexity: Moderate level of complexity


Transportation organizations seeking to improve the effectiveness of their programs, educate board members, build stakeholder relationships, or engage in strategic planning may host occasional retreats. These are intensive sessions for identifying organizational limitations, goalsetting, staff needs, and capacity building.


Motivators: Strategic planning, crisis management


  • Size: Small. Typically, 2-20
  • Type: Staff, representatives

Complexity: Moderate level of complexity

Virtual Meetings

This section provides an overview of virtual meeting designs. Different topics and the need for various types of input necessitate different meeting formats. Formats are discussed in the section below.

Virtual Meeting

A virtual meeting is any meeting that is conducted entirely online. During a virtual meeting, participants can interact with one another using a set of tools available through online meeting software. The purpose of a virtual meeting is to allow for presentations or discussions that include most of the participants.

An in-person meeting around a conference room table can often best be replicated through a virtual meeting. In a virtual meeting, the expectation is that there are many potential speakers and that it is valuable to have both verbal and visual interactions. Although virtual meetings can include potentially hundreds of participants, the optimal size for a virtual meeting is typically a group of between two and 30 participants.

Finding the Right Interface

With the public health directives associated with COVD-19, most transit organizations moved from in-person meetings to virtual meetings. Before settling on Zoom, Hopelink in Seattle, WA, formed a taskforce, tested various virtual meeting software, and selected Zoom because they found it easiest to use. Through the taskforce, they did research, created an external-facing Zoom guide, and developed internal best practices that highlight necessary Zoom settings for all meetings. When facilitating meetings, they appoint a technology staff-support to manage chat, security features, and admit attendees for large meetings. Whenever planning a large event or including new presenters or features, they schedule and conduct a meeting rehearsal beforehand.


Audience Size: 2-30

Tool Required: Virtual meeting software

Technology Needs: Internet access; smart phone or computer

Staffing: 1-2: Facilitator(s) and meeting manager

Cost: Low

Best for: Stakeholder group meetings, standing meetings, focus groups, trainings, retreats

Webcast, Telecast, or Radio Broadcast

While a webinar allows the audience to raise hands or ask questions when appropriate, a webcast or telecast is a tool for streaming any type of meeting, including a webinar, to a larger audience. For a webcast, audience members typically visit a website URL and can observe and listen to the proceedings. Most webcasts do not have tools built-in where audience members can interact, with the exception of offering a response icon or emoji that provides simple feedback as the webcast moves forward.

Like a webcast, a telecast broadcasts the proceedings of a meeting via a television channel, which can reach a large audience, including individuals who may not have access to the Internet. Many telecasts are presented via a local cable access or government TV channel.

A radio broadcast, like a telecast or webcast, typically makes use of a local radio station to share the proceedings of the meeting live. Some radio broadcasts can also be shared as podcasts, downloadable or streaming from the Internet, allowing the audience to listen at their leisure without providing tools for instantaneous feedback. Importantly, webcasts, telecasts, and radio broadcasts, can be combiner and utilized simultaneously to maximize the channels through which the public can access the meeting.

Some webcast software may have tools built-in to allow for basic feedback. Transit agencies and others seeking feedback may encourage audiences to dial a telephone number to leave comments or speak with an individual at the meeting, write an email or a comment card comment, or respond via another tool such as a website or social media account.

Participating Remotely in an In-Person Event

In developing a new transit plan for the Bismarck-Mandan service area in North Dakota, the MPO scheduled a televised meeting to review the plan and take questions from the public. The meeting was broadcast live via the local government access television station. Although only a handful of participants joined the meeting, individuals were given the option of calling in with their questions or reactions, or could email questions or comment during the live meeting. The facilitator monitored the questions, read them aloud, and provided verbal responses via the telecast.


Audience Size: Unlimited

Tool Required: Streaming service; radio or television broadcast equipment/ service

Technology Needs: Internet access, television, radio

Staffing: 2-3: Facilitator; meeting manager; broadcast specialist

Cost: Moderate

Best for: Board or council meetings; public hearings


Unlike a virtual meeting, a webinar meeting format allows for a high number of participants to join as listeners or viewers with a set of tools to allow them to interact with the primary speakers,. Tools include the ability to ask questions via a chat feature, raise their hand to interact when called upon, etc.

The primary difference between a virtual meeting and a webinar tool is that in a webinar, a small group of people are assigned speaker roles while the vast majority of participants are audience members. Webinars are particularly effective when there is a presentation involved and audience members are not intended to have frequent interactions with the primary speakers.


Audience Size: 25-2,000

Tool Required: Webinar software

Technology Needs: Internet access; smart phone or computer

Staffing: 2-3: Facilitator, Meeting manager

Cost: Low

Best for: Board or council meetings; public hearings


Virtual Conference

Virtual conferences allow individuals who are widely scattered to participate in a conference-like set of meetings without going to a convention center. Most virtual conferences are an amalgamation of the various tools and technologies described above. While virtual conferences can be held at a large scale, allowing hundreds or thousands to participate via webinars, virtual meetings, webcasts or telecasts, or pre-recorded presentations or posters, they can also be conducted at a smaller scale.

Hosting Conferences without Conference Centers
The 2021 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting registered more than 19,000 participants for a virtual event. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of having participants convening at the convention center in Washington, DC, attendees participated in a mix of webinars, chat-enabled virtual poster events, virtual committee meetings, and social chatrooms. The annual meeting provides an example on a large scale of how a variety of tools and technology platforms can be integrated to create a virtual conference-style event.


Audience Size: Unlimited

Tool Required: Virtual meeting software, webinar software, document sharing, website

Technology Needs: Internet access; smart phone or computer

Staffing: Low to high based on meeting size and activities

Cost: High

Best for: Large meetings of stakeholders and partners; special events; trainings and seminars


A teleconference can offer all the features of a virtual meeting or webinar without the visual elements that typically accompany them. Before virtual meeting software made it easy for people to interact with each other online, teleconference tools were widely available to bring multiple parties into a meeting via telephone. Today, some webinar software allows for teleconference-only features where participants dial into a specified telephone number and enter an access code to join the teleconference. Many business phone systems also allow for teleconferencing.

Creating a Telephone Town Hall

Some transportation organizations have taken teleconferencing to the next step using moderated telephone town halls that allow potentially thousands of people to join a live discussion. While a telephone town hall can offer people a dial-in number to participate on a specific date and at a prescheduled time, some specialized telephone town hall software can be used to make automated telephone calls to prospective participants. Via a recorded message, individuals are notified that a telephone town hall is being scheduled and that they will be called back at the time of the meeting. The automated telephone system then dials the prospective participants at the appointed time and connects them to the telephone meeting. Use of this tool means that little initiative is required on the part of individuals who might be interested.

Over 3,000 participants joined a telephone town hall meeting in 2020 in California that covered the State’s High Speed Rail program between Burbank and Los Angeles. The high number of participants did not necessarily translate to active participation: the average participant joined for less than five minutes before disconnecting. Only 49 participants dialed in to the meeting (rather than being connected via an outgoing telephone call). Teleconferences can also be paired with webcasts, telecasts, and radio broadcasts as a fourth mass-media platform.


Tool Required: Teleconference phone system or virtual meeting software

Technology Needs: Telephone

Staffing: 1-3; Facilitator, meeting manager, technical manager

Cost: Low

Best for: Small informal meetings, Stakeholder group meetings, standing meetings, public town halls

Hybrid Meetings and Events

When some participants can travel to a meeting location, but others cannot, offering hybrid meetings has helped bring all parties together. For example, people who live within a certain radius of the meeting location may opt to participate in person, and others, who may live further away, or are unable to travel for any reason (cost, health, job, or family responsibilities) may be unable to participate in person. Offering a hybrid meeting is an approach to accommodate these divergent needs. Hybrid meeting or event formats also can reduce costs for certain experts or technical specialists to participate in a meeting session (they can join remotely and do not necessarily need to participate in the full meeting).

Although the idea of a hybrid meeting seems simple and intuitive, the execution of a hybrid meeting can be challenging as organizers, who often are at the in-person event, seek to accommodate the needs of in-person and remote audiences. For example, while sound quality in a conference room may be optimal for those who are at the in-person meeting, it may be poor for online participants. Likewise, a meeting facility may not have good telephone or webinar connectivity. As a result, hybrid meetings require careful prior planning and are often more resource intensive than entirely in-person or virtual meeting because of the additional hardware and staffing required to link in person and online audio or video. Best practices for hybrid meetings typically include the use of virtual meeting tools with a virtual meeting manager responsible for monitoring the virtual elements of the meeting. One challenge that facilitators of hybrid meetings often face is equitably addressing the different levels of participation among those who join the meeting in person versus those who join remotely.

Are Hybrid Meetings and Events the Future of Engagement?

Many of the agencies and organizations that provided input for this guidebook suggested that in the post-COVID-19 era, they intend to pursue hybrid meetings as a tool to offer greater flexibility for potential participants. Many recognized that their participants experience on-line meeting fatigue and would prefer to meet in person when the option is available, but that some groups such as caretakers, people who reside outside of a core service area, some people with disabilities, and others may find it easier to participate virtually when the option is available to them.

Staff at VTA in Santa Clara County, CA, found that in addition to their in-person meetings, they could host virtual public meetings for planning projects midday and in the afternoon, when people might otherwise not be available for an in-person meeting. By offering this option, they were able to attract a diverse set of participants overall. VTA also sought to shorten their large-scale planning meetings, hosting meetings that people could join in person or virtually.


Audience Size: 25-2,000

Tool Required: Virtual meeting or webinar software; quality microphone and webcam

Technology Needs: Internet access; smart phone or computer

Staffing: 3-4: Facilitator, In-person technical staff; online meeting manager

Cost: Moderate

Best for: Any type of meeting can be a hybrid meeting

Pre-Recorded Presentations

Live events are optimal for engaging stakeholders or members of the public in two-way dialogs with MPO, transit agency, or transportation staff. In some cases, however, live meetings and events may not be easy to execute or may not meet the needs of an audience’s schedule. Many transit agencies have developed a series of videos or other pre-recorded presentations that allow the agency to inform the audiences about new initiatives, plans or services and that can be viewed at one’s leisure. Audiences can provide feedback via polls, online surveys, or other engagement tools such as chat or message boards.


Audience Size: Unlimited

Tool Required: Virtual meeting software with a recording feature, audio or video recording and playback software

Technology Needs: Internet

Staffing: None (staff is needed to prepare and upload the recording, but live staff is not required)

Cost: Low

Best for: Special events, trainings, Q&A meetings (with other feedback tools)


When a rural California transit operator in Yolo County (Yolobus) planned a virtual meeting as part of a transit study, they developed a pre-recorded virtual public workshop that the public could view at their leisure. They also developed a survey questionnaire that allowed people who watched the virtual workshop video to provide their responses, reactions, and feedback on the ideas presented in the workshop. Effectively, this served as a relatively low-cost, at-your-own-pace virtual workshop that provided the tools to review the information available and provide input, but not with live interaction.

Online Chat or Message Board

Webinars and virtual meetings often include chat boxes so audience members or participants can type their feedback to share instantly with meeting facilitators or speakers. Online chat or a message board can also function as a standalone meeting tool or can be used in combination with pre-recorded presentations to allow for feedback. Some transit agencies have effectively used online chat features to accompany graphic images on their websites or in virtual open houses so audiences can share their comments and, in some cases get immediate feedback. Online chat features usually are limited to a discussion between one audience participant and one presenter, all of which is conducted by typing into the chat box. An online message board allows participants to see each other’s comments and responses to comments, much like a public Facebook post where individuals can respond to and/or react to other audience member comments.

Integrating Written Responses into a Live Forum

The City of Austin, Texas, conducted a Strategic Mobility Plan in July 2019 and hosted an event on Reddit, using the Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) feature. The format allowed members of the public to type questions about the program and service recommendations, and for a group of City and transit staff to offer live written responses. Over a two-hour session, the City received more questions than they could reasonably respond to, but they found the feedback to be helpful for further analysis. A tool like Reddit AMA charges no fees for hosts to publicize and respond to questions, and allows for online curation of questions: the responding staff can opt not to reply to obscene or out-of-context questions and other meeting participants can vote up or down questions or comments that are important to them. The result is a virtual question-and-answer session in text.


Audience Size: Unlimited

Tool Required: Interactive live chat software or message board 1-2 minimum moderators to respond to inquiries: more for large-scale effort

Technology Needs: Internet access; smart phone or computer

Staffing: 1-2 minimum moderators to respond to inquiries: more for large-scale effort

Cost: Low

Best for: Feedback on pre-recording meetings; Q&A meetings; public meetings

Online Collaboration

Online collaboration tools are standalone or meeting-integrated tools that can spur collaboration without relying on an active video or audio connection. Examples of online collaboration include using a route map that individuals can mark up with their comments and concerns, or participating in online exercises that allow audience members to assess trade-offs of one service option versus another. Online collaboration tools are different from chat or message boards because the focus is on structured decisions or input around a particular question or topic.


Audience Size: 5-150

Tool Required: Online collaboration tools

Technology Needs: Internet access; smart phone or computer

Staffing: 1-5 including facilitators, technical staff; support staff

Cost: Moderate

Best for: Stakeholder group meetings, standing meetings, focus groups, trainings, retreats

Tompkins Consolidated Transit Agency (TCAT)

To inform their 2020 Transit Development Plan, the Tompkins Consolidated Transit Agency (TCAT) hosted a virtual Open House, in which they launched three ‘Service Network Design Exercises’ including interactive mapping, an idea wall, and participatory budgeting. This publicly available online portal, which was opened through the month of October, allowed users to provide feedback at their convenience instead of requiring the hour-long time commitment often associated with in-person events. TCAT staff found this approach to be a more successful engagement effort than their virtual focus groups and office hours, which were both poorly attended relative to their in-person counterparts.

Effective Virtual Meetings

A transportation organization can lead or sponsor any number of virtual meetings or engagement events, but without a solid understanding of the virtual engagement meeting tools and their capabilities, successful virtual meetings can be elusive. This section outlines best practices for virtual meeting planning and execution, as well as the various ways meeting hosts can engage participants and solicit feedback during a virtual meeting. The types of meetings that will be planned and carried forward will impact which practices are most useful to incorporate into an engagement process.

Conducting Equitable and Accessible Virtual Engagement

Assess Community Resources and Stakeholder Capacity Providing equal access for all participants is a fundamental element of public engagement and involvement. Not all communities will have the same level of access to technologies and tools used during virtual engagement events, and not all stakeholders will have experience with the available technologies. Transit agency representatives indicated they are most successful when they are mindful of the approaches and technologies they choose to employ. For example, in a community where residents have little access to personal computers or the internet, options such pre-recorded presentation, teleconference, or hybrid meeting for a scheduled meeting can be valuable. When a significant proportion of a community’s population speaks a language other than English, translation and interpretation are important components of the meeting design (Environmental Protection Agency, 2020).

Use Multiple Methods to Distribute Invitations

Relying on a single approach to reach stakeholders in a community to share information about opportunities to participate in meetings or events may leave some stakeholder groups out. While digital invitations might be sufficient in reaching certain community members, they often exclude those who do not have access to a personal computer or the internet. To ensure that hard-to-reach populations are incorporated into outreach and invitation efforts, successful virtual engagement efforts typically include physical outreach, such as flyers, pamphlets, or postcard mailers. Some transit agencies have found that many of their consumers lack internet service at home but have a mobile phone, and often a smartphone. Text messaging and the use of QR codes for sharing information on buses and signage were helpful in getting the word out. Various programs exist for people to opt in to receive text messages for engagement information.

Ensure Accessibility Compliance

Many transportation organizations, and certainly most transit providers, follow the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and Americans with Disability Act (ADA), and often other outreach requirements in their adopted Public Outreach plans. Requirements, typically defined under the ADA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act may include closed captioning on recorded videos, screen reading compatibility for shared or uploaded documents, translations of information in the languages that are predominant in the area, and options for information in Braille or other formats. This guidance helps to ensure events are accessible to participants.

Facilitation Techniques for Virtual Engagement

Define Meeting Objectives and Desired Outcomes

Defining a meeting’s objectives and desired outcomes is the recommended first step in conducting a virtual meeting or event. This will help ensure there is a clear understanding of goals and the purpose for the engagement effort, and also guide efforts to advance key objectives. Clearly defining objectives will help keep them at the center of planning activities as work proceeds.

Design the Meeting Format with Meeting Objectives in Mind

Based on the objectives of the event, meeting organizers should select a meeting format or virtual platform that will maximize participant engagement and achieve the meeting objectives. For example, an agency seeking to facilitate collaborative dialogue and problem-solving among participants might consider incorporating video webcams and annotation into an event.

Create a Facilitation Plan

A facilitation plan provides a comprehensive and detailed description of the different sessions or components of an event. A facilitation plan helps an agency coordinate roles and responsibilities, anticipate challenges, and prepare for contingencies. A facilitation plan establishes the flow of the event and documents the approach for facilitating participation from all stakeholders. The plan ideally considers the different ways stakeholders participate and offers approaches for making these interactions successful. Meeting hosts typically develop and review the facilitation plan with key participants to confirm roles and responsibility expectations during the engagement (Environmental Protection Agency, 2020).

Key elements of a facilitation plan are as follows:

  • Relevant details about the meeting (location, date & time, webinar and conference details)
  • An overview of the timing, presentations, and purpose of each agenda session
  • Team roles and responsibilities
  • Key participants, transitions between speakers
  • Brief talking points or framing about the topics that will be discussed

Define and Confirm Project Roles

When preparing for a virtual engagement event, it is recommended that a facilitation team is assembled to fulfill the virtual meeting needs and help facilitate the discussion to achieve the desired outcomes. A project team for a virtual meeting might include the following roles:

  • Team Lead: A team leader will coordinate team members, allocate tasks, and ensure overall quality control. They should provide team support and encouragement and keep everyone focused on the vision and objectives of the engagement.
  • Facilitator: The facilitator runs the meeting and seeks to ensure equitable participation and discussion management while helping the group understand and accomplish common objectives. Additionally, a facilitator helps participants work through tricky areas and advance the group’s discussion and actions based on the meeting objectives.
  • Technology Facilitator: A technology facilitator is responsible for running the technology behind any engagement. They manage the meeting technologies while addressing unplanned technical issues. This role might be responsible for activities such as incorporating technical facilitation notes within the meeting facilitation plan, setting up the webinar room, loading approved polling questions, advancing presentation slides or webinar layouts, and ensuring that participants are accessing the virtual event. During the virtual event, the technology facilitator also serves as the point of contact for technical issues and seeks to improve the digital user experience for all meeting attendees. Typically, a technology facilitator will help participants resolve issues such as joining the webinar, establishing audio connections, and viewing the meeting materials or presentations. This technical support role is not a substitute for the facilitator, because they may need to step away from the meeting proceedings to provide support without disrupting the flow of the engagement.
  • General Support: A general support role can be helpful with tasks such as notetaking, record keeping, postmeeting follow-up, and materials development. Recognizing that resources and staffing capacity can be constrained, multiple roles can be fulfilled by one individual when necessary, especially for smaller meetings or events. For example, the team lead and facilitator roles can be assumed by one person (Environmental Protection Agency, 2020).

Create and Enforce Participation Guidelines

At the start of the meeting, it is important to establish shared understanding between meeting hosts and participants about how access support and to interact with each other. Participation approaches and guidelines may differ depending on certain considerations, such as the type of meeting, number of participants, and familiarity among participants. Once meeting guidelines have been confirmed by attendees, the facilitator’s enforcement of the guidelines is usually welcomed by most participants: meeting participants like to know they are equally valued (Harty & Gershowitz, 2020).

Example participation guidelines for virtual meetings might include:

  • Everyone participates; engage actively and share openly.
  • Create a safe space; respect others’ views and contributions.
  • “Honor” the agenda.
  • Limit background noise – mute your phone or microphone when not actively participating.

Meeting Execution Tips

Join the Meeting Early

Meeting hosts should join the meeting or event as much as one hour in advance of the meeting start time to give themselves sufficient time to run through their premeeting check list, make any final adjustments, and address unexpected challenges. Joining the meeting early will ensure that hosts are not making last-minute adjustments as participants dial-in, log-on, and get settled (Harty & Gershowitz, 2020).

Explore Webinar Security Settings

Depending on the type of virtual meeting, it might be necessary to enable additional security settings within the webinar platform to keep the meeting secure and avoid meeting disruption. Creating a meeting waiting room is an effective way to screen participants that are entering the meeting. By enabling a waiting room, participants are not able to join until the host admits them into the meeting.

Meeting settings can also be adjusted to only allow the meeting hosts to share their screen. This ensures that participants are not able to take over the screen share during a meeting. Other security measures include locking the meeting room once it starts to prevent additional participants from entering and creating an invite-only meeting to restrict who can join. In the event that an unruly participant joins the meeting, facilitator guidelines typically suggest the facilitator may remove that participant to lock them out of the meeting and avoid further disruption.

Use Instant Messaging to Coordinate with Other Meeting Hosts

Prior to the meeting, it is recommended that the meeting hosts and organizers establish a separate channel of communication to utilize throughout the meeting. This channel of communication can be useful for coordinating “behind the scenes” items, such as presentation timing, incoming questions, and technical difficulties. Depending on the preferences of the organizing team, meeting hosts can consider using an in-meeting host-only chat (if the meeting platform includes one) or an external live chat platform, such as WhatsApp or Slack.

Make Meeting Materials Available to the Public

Whether it is a recording of the webinar with closed captioning or a detailed meeting summary of the event, the host organization should be prepared to make the presentation and meeting materials available to the community in an accessible format following the meeting. This will ensure that individuals who were not able to attend the meeting or event in real-time have an opportunity to stay informed and will allow participants to see that their contributions were recognized and recorded (Harty & Gershowitz, 2020).

Offer Responsive Technical Support to Participants

Participants sometimes encounter technology issues when attempting to join a virtual event. These issues range from an inability to access the event to encountering audio connection issues during the event. To reduce the technical burden on participants and ensure a pleasant digital user experience, one-on-one technical support for participants is a preferred practice among virtual meeting hosts.

How to Solicit Feedback

Hosts can engage participants and solicit feedback during a virtual meeting in a variety of ways. Effective meetings and events include opportunities for participant feedback to help identify areas for improvement, to gain different perspectives, and to gauge participant interest in topics of interest or concern.


Some virtual meeting and webinar platforms will enable participants to use emoticons or reactions during the meeting. These emoticons can be helpful to the meeting facilitator or host because they allow participants to share a nonverbal indication of their attitudes or preferences. For example, a facilitator may ask participants to vote to gauge whether they would like to spend more time on a certain agenda topic, by clicking the “Yes” or “No” emoticon.


Polling can be used to assess a participant’s affiliation, interests, experience, feedback, and more. Polling is a helpful tool to employ at any point in the engagement process. For example, conducting polling ahead of a virtual meeting might help to inform the meeting design and participant attitude. Or one might conduct polling during a meeting to collect public comment or drive stakeholder visioning. Distributing a poll following the meeting could be helpful to collect participant feedback, areas for improvement, or outstanding comments that were not mentioned during the meeting. Survey and polling tools can also be implemented for asynchronous engagement to collect public comments or feedback over an extended period. Most virtual meeting or webinar platforms offer in-meeting polling options, but external polling platforms, such as Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter, can also be employed to poll and display live results during a meeting.

Discussion Queue

Employing discussion queues during a virtual meeting assists facilitators to manage conversations. A facilitator can suggest that meeting participants join a discussion queue when seeking to add comments, or during a question-and-answer period, so questions can be answered in the order they are received. For this to work effectively, a facilitator usually offers direction on how to join the discussion queue at the start of the meeting. In a virtual meeting, discussion queues often use the “raisehand” feature, which assigns participants in a queue in the order in which hands are raised.


Webcams can be useful for groups convening for the first time, or for collaborative discussions where body language can add significant value to the interaction. A strong internet connection is essential when using webcams; a faulty internet connection can make glitching webcams distracting during a virtual meeting. Webcams may also undermine participants’ focus from some meeting activities, such as revising a presentation with a group.


Screenshot of Hopelink Mobility Zoom Guide

Screenshot example of virtual sticky notes

Chat Pod

A chat pod is typically a built-in tool that allows participants to submit questions and comments during a meeting. Often, the chat pod settings can be adjusted to allow group chats, one-to-one chats, or host-only chats. For a group chat, all questions and comments typed into the chat box can be viewed by everyone in the meeting room. One-to-one chats allow a host to initiate a discussion with an individual participant. A host-only chat box indicates that questions and comments typed into the box are only viewable by meeting hosts.

Consensus Building & Ideation

Some virtual meetings require back-and-forth participation between the meeting facilitators and participants. Annotation tools are one approach for collaborative discussions and are often incorporated and offered within a virtual meeting or webinar platform. Annotation tools enable facilitators and participants to collaboratively edit documents, images, maps or other content. Annotations can also be applied via virtual whiteboarding tools. Virtual whiteboarding enables the meeting host to share a blank screen or whiteboard on which participants may write, use sticky notes, create drawings, or add images. Virtual whiteboarding is designed to replicate an in-person brainstorming session. Often, annotated documents and virtual whiteboards can be exported from the meeting platform at the end of the meeting for reference and record keeping.

Other Forms of Engagement

If public meetings are not the most suitable approach to public engagement for a project, there are several other strategies that can be considered, including using social media, websites, and surveys. The following pages detail different public engagement approaches, including their opportunities, limitations, and tools.

Digital Fact Sheets

Fact sheets are used to share information about a project with members of the public and are usually distributed at the beginning of the project and updated as needed. Unlike lengthy and cumbersome project reports, a fact sheet provides concise, accessible, and relevant information, breaking down complex processes and ideas into smaller, more digestible, and salient pieces for members of the public to understand. It is important to ensure that digital fact sheets are 508-compliant. See the section on Accessibility and 508 Compliance for additional information and resources on making documents 508-compliant.

Digital Newsletter

Agencies that value periodically engaging with their stakeholders may use an online newsletter as means of doing so. Unlike fact sheets, which usually provide a highlevel project overview, newsletters often share slightly more detailed information on project activities over a standard period— typically monthly, quarterly, or monthly.


Podcasts are audio recordings which can creatively and effectively share information, provide perspectives on, and engage in a dialogue about a topic. Agencies can consider using podcasts as a tool for of providing project updates, background information, and historical context. They can also be used as a means of receiving community perspectives on and responding to community questions about projects and plans. In this way, podcasts can help reduce the distance between agencies and communities. Podcasts also provide a useful and informative alternative for engaging people with visual impairments. Using Podcasts to Provide Context In the summer of 2018, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) released the first episode of its podcast, “The Next Stop” on major streaming networks. In this bi-monthly podcast, METRO provides riders with a “behind the scenes” look at the agency’s people and programs and engages with transit users to learn more about their stories and experiences. Episodes vary in length, but are seldom longer than 20 minutes, and cover topics such as free WIFI on transit, event planning, transit user guides, and transit equity.

Project Website

Agencies can create a dedicated website for members of the public to access all project-specific information. These websites can vary in size and complexity but tend to be comprised of sub-pages corresponding to different project elements and their informational materials. This approach can be particularly useful for creating virtual Open House experiences for stakeholders who may not be able to attend the typical in-person event.

Webpages to Promote Engagement

Numerous transportation providers create an online portal for their study or transit service initiative. One example is DART in Des Moines, IA, which led a comprehensive analysis of transit services and created a study webpage so individuals could learn more about how to participate in the plan. The graphic page included links to meetings, online surveys, and informational materials about the study that members of the public could access so they could provide informed feedback. The focus of the page was not on publishing documents, but rather to encourage people to participate in the process.

Form-Based Tools

Agencies rely on form-based tools, such as online surveys and questionnaires, to gather stakeholder feedback on a particular subject. Form-based tools can be used at the beginning of a process to understand stakeholder perceptions of, interest in, or needs pertaining to a particular subject. These tools may also be used throughout the process to gather feedback on a project’s development, progress, and decisions over time.

Surveys and Comment Forms Offer an Avenue for Reactions and Suggestions

When the Montgomery County Planning Department needed to gather community feedback to inform Thrive Montgomery 2050, the update to their general plan, instead of using a traditional approach to form-based tools, they created a two-minute, 10-question quiz. Similar to any form-based survey, the quiz asked users to provide their opinion on a particular idea. Graphic with real-time results, the quiz provided users with an understanding of how their fellow community members responded. Unlike most surveys, this instrument allowed users to suggest questions to add to the survey.


Like podcasts, project videos enable agencies to share information about a topic. This approach can be more accessible and appealing than traditional distribution by sharing information in a stimulating and attentiongrabbing way. Unlike podcasts, project videos tend to be produced infrequently and are usually made in conjunction with a project milestone. These videos can be uploaded to social media platforms and/or posted directly to the project website.

Moving In-Person Interaction to Video

Some transportation providers turn to video as a substitute for in-person meetings or trainings. With COVID-19, Hopelink in Seattle, WA, discontinued operating bus field trips for the Seattle Department of Transportation which offered experiential travel training. In place of the trips, they created a series of film tutorials showing people how to stay safe and ride the bus, and used these in virtual training programs. Likewise, for a transit plan, instead of conducting webinars or live virtual meetings, Yolobus in Yolo County, CA opted to conduct a pre-recorded video virtual workshop to update the public about the operations analysis and to give an overview of recommendations. Through the workshop, technical staff made presentations and encouraged participants to provide feedback using an online form


Like a project website, a “Meeting-in-a-Box” allows stakeholders to learn about and provide feedback on a project on their own time. This approach can be used in lieu of or in tandem with public meetings, providing an opportunity for stakeholders to discuss project elements in an environment in which they feel comfortable and around others with whom they have a common goal or shared interest.

Using a Self-Directed Meeting Tool

To understand community priorities and inform the update to the Maryland-and Washington Regional District General Plan, the Montgomery County Planning Department invited community members to use their Meeting-in-a- Box for self-facilitated small group conversations and/or individual reflection at the stakeholder’s convenience. The Meeting-in-a-Box, which was designed to provide an hourlong discussion, was made available on the department’s website and could either be downloaded or completed directly via the webpage. A short video accompanied the packet, providing an overview of the process.

Social Media

Perhaps one of the most used forms of online engagement, most agencies use social media as a means of providing updates to the public. Social media platforms provide a host of functions such as polling and commenting, that can facilitate various lines of communication between agencies and communities. Social media should be considered an important option for engagement beyond information sharing. Because social media is far-reaching, it can serve audiences that are not typically engaged.

Making the Most of Social Media

Some transit agencies post information on their social media accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter, infrequently if at all, and usually to announce major service disruptions or changes. The Denton County Transportation Authority (DCTA) in Texas regularly posts information on a blog that is intended to keep the dialog between the transit provider and the public ongoing and also creates videos and other tools for riders. DCTA regularly tweets about their initiatives and also posts to Facebook (they have used Hootsuite to update all of their accounts at once), and engages openly via social media with members of the public who ask questions or share concerns. DCTA staff believe this free and open dialog has benefited the organization.