Virtual Engagement Guidebook Appendices
- Date: December 2, 2021
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- Determine the topic and key points you wish to share. A group brainstorming session can be helpful when trying to determine the most important points for the audience you hope to reach.
- Draft fact sheet text including the headers, subheaders, body text and contact information. Remember that a fact sheet is meant to be concise. Review draft text to ensure that it is not overly word or complex. Consider if there are ideas in the text that can be better expressed using an image, diagram, or icons.
- Create a mock-up of the fact sheet template. An easy way of doing this is by adding colored rectangles on an empty page (typically 8.5×11 inches) where you intend to add text and images. Move the rectangles around until you are satisfied with the layout. Consider adding a call-out-box (a section that is slightly different in formatting than the rest of the sheet) to highlight the most salient information.
- Drop the text into the fact sheet according to the template. It is unlikely that the text will fit perfectly into the allocated section when it is first placed. Continue tweaking the layout and formatting until the text fits — decrease the margins a small amount, change font size or spacing, decrease spaces between columns, etc. Be careful not to over-adjust the layout to accommodate text. If you have to do too much for text to fit, it probably means you have too much text to begin with!
- Add relevant images in the allotted spot. Tweak the image size, text formatting, and document layout, as necessary. Ensure to include the appropriate citation.
- Review and revise fact sheet. Ask someone outside of the immediate team to review the fact sheet. Does it make sense? Are there any errors? Is there too much information? It is always helpful to have another set of eyes to provide feedback. It is always helpful to test print digital materials, both for the editing process and in the event that a stakeholder will do so.
- Be clear and concise.
- Simplify complex ideas.
- Make the document visually appealing (use informational graphics and diagrams; avoid blocks of dense text; leave ample white space).
- Use consistent terminology.
- Provide contact information (social media, website, phone numbers and email addresses).
Document publishing tools: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Publisher, InDesign
Graphic resources: Noun Project (icons); Unsplash, Pexels, and Shutterstock (images)
- Determine the topic and key points you wish to share. A group brainstorming session can be helpful when trying to determine the most important points for the audience you hope to reach.
- Draft the newsletter text including the subject line, headers, sub-headers, body text and contact information. Great newsletters provide project information in an interesting and engaging way to audiences. The subject line needs to be attention grabbing to motivate the reader to read further. Body text should be consistent with and follow up on what has been written prior, providing information that is pertinent to the lives of audiences. Consider sharing project images, videos and infographics that can communicate important content in a more approachable way.
- Select a newsletters template. This should be done in the marketing platform you intend to use (e.g., MailChimp). Note that you should be consistent from newsletter to newsletter, so be sure to select a template that best meets current and future needs and desires. Make sure that the newsletter complies with the agency’s brand identity, including color scheme, logo, header, and footers, as needed.
- Drop the text into the newsletter according to the template.
- Add relevant images in the allotted spot. Adjust the text and layout to accommodate the images, as necessary. Ensure to include the appropriate citation.
- Review and revise the newsletter. Send the newsletter to someone out of the immediate team and ask for feedback. Does it make sense? Are there any errors? Is there too much information? It is always helpful to have another set of eyes to provide feedback.
- Use catchy and attention-grabbing language, when possible.
- Be brief.
- Share relevant project images that cannot be found elsewhere.
- Make the document visually appealing — do not shy away from color and blank space.
- Use consistent terminology within and across newsletters.
- Provide contact information (social media, website, phone numbers and email addresses).
Text editing tools: Microsoft Word
Marketing software: MailChimp, Nation Builder
Graphic resources: Noun Project (icons)
- Determine the content the agency hopes to share. Before diving into podcasting, it is important to think through the content that can be produced and the amount of interest it can garner. Create a short list of episode topics and elements, consider questions like — What will the podcast focus on? Who is the target audience? Which individuals can join as guests?
- Flesh out the logistics. Having the desired content and audience in mind can help an agency understand logistics such as the podcast’s name, episode length, streaming service, and formatting (solo, cohost, or interview).
- Draft a script for the first episode and practice with it. Determine the extent to which the podcast should be scripted. While it may be tempting to write an essay, consider the fact this medium is most successful when it feels as though the presenter is having a conversation with audiences. As such, try starting out with a basic discussion outline including high level points and adding details based on the level of need and comfort. Once a script has been drafted, present it to others.
- Acquire the device(s) and practice with them. Test the equipment to determine if any adjustments should be made. Try talking into the mic, presenting from the script, and editing content. Listen out for breathing sounds or background noises, which may indicate that the pop filter is out of place.
- Edit. Edit the recording to remove long pauses, errors, boring or tangential parts of conversation. Share the recording with others for feedback on points that need to be clarified or removed.
- Post and share. Post each episode on the streaming service according to a predetermined schedule. Share the episode widely on social media platforms to raise awareness.
- Prepare an episode calendar and stick to it.
- Promote the podcast.
- Invest in a good microphone.
- Provide background information when something new is referenced.
- Provide a look ahead to the next episode to build anticipation.
Hardware: Microphone or cell phone, shock mount, pop filter, boom arm, headphones.
Editing software: GarageBand (Mac), Audacity, Power Sound Editor, Music Maker, Adobe Audition.
Streaming services: Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud, Pandora
- Determine the content the agency hopes to share. Before creating a video, it is important to think about the goal the agency hopes to achieve and the audience it hopes to reach. Create a list of topics that need to be covered in the video and consider the following questions: How much information does the agency need to share? Are there any topics that can be addressed at another time? Is there enough background information on this topic or should it be provided in the video? Will this content resonate with the audience the agency hopes to reach?
- Flesh out the logistics. Once the content has been determined, the agency should consider who will participate in the video, how and where the video should be recorded and formatted, and the resources that will be needed to produce it. If the video is used in lieu of an in-person event, it might be helpful to film members of staff, to provide a more human touch.
- Draft a script. Use the refined list of topics to draft a script. Pay close attention to the language in and tone of the script, which will vary depending on the intended audience. If the video is for the general public, avoid using technical jargon and try to use a warm and welcoming tone. Consider the length of the script — aim to strike a balance between being brief, but informative. If a long script cannot be avoided, try to have different speakers lined up to reduce the chances of monotony.
- Acquire the device(s) and practice with them. Test the equipment to determine if any adjustments should be made. Try reading the script in front of the camera in the place and at the time the video will be shot. This will help determine lighting, set, and sound needs and adjustments. Also practice editing the content.
- Edit. Edit the recording to remove awkward starts, long pauses, errors, and tangential parts of the video. Share the recording with others for feedback on points that need to be clarified or removed.
- Post and share. Post and share the video widely on social media platforms and the agency’s website to raise awareness.
- Promote the video.
- Provide background information when something new is referenced.
- Pay attention to unwanted background sounds and visuals as they can be distracting.
Hardware: Camera, video camera or cell phone camera, tripod, reliable light source
Editing software: Lightworks, Movie Maker, Adobe Premiere, iMovie
Streaming services: YouTube, Vimeo
- Determine the content the agency hopes to share. Create a content list that will provide an adequate amount of information to the public on a particular topic. This list could include existing materials not widely available or new materials that have yet to be developed.
- Flesh out the logistics. Having the desired content and audience in mind can help an agency understand logistics such as the website’s name, number of pages, basic layout, and desired features and functionality.
- Create a domain name. Deciding on a domain name should be relatively simple, given that it will most likely be linked to the name of the project. Be sure to do a web search of potential names before selecting one.
- Choose a web hosting and web building platform.* The first part of this step, choosing a hosting platform, is optional. Some web building platforms, like WordPress.com and Weebly, are able to host websites as well, though, there are limitations to the extent an agency can customize these websites. If an agency chooses to use a web hosting platform, they should ensure that it is compatible with the web building platform they choose.
- Prepare website content including text, graphics, links, etc. Once the web building platform and its features have been identified, it will be clear what form of content is most appropriate for the site. Draft introductory text for pages and embedded content such as pdf documents, images, or videos.
- Determine website layout. There are several different templates from which to choose. Decide which template will best communicate the content being prepared. Create a mockup of website pages with filler or draft content and share them for feedback. Consider how best to navigate the website and adjust the layout as needed. After the desired layout has been determined, it might be helpful to save all content that will be uploaded to the website in file folders organized by page. This will be particularly useful in the next step.
- Upload finalized content. After ample testing, upload the final content to the website. Be prepared to tweak the layout or alter content.
- Test. Test all aspects of the website page by page. Move through the website systematically, noting all errors, such as missing or broken links, grammatical or spelling errors, misaligned content, etc. Correct all errors and then test again. Have multiple people test the website to ensure all is well. During this process, it is best to passwords protect the website and share the password as needed.
- Publish and share. Finally, after several rounds of testing and editing, the website can be published. Do not forget to promote the website on social media, in newsletters and on informational materials.
- Update content as often as necessary.
- Test the website periodically to ensure all links and features are functional.
- Provide contact information.
- Be consistent.
- Avoid using dense text.
- Use graphics such as images and icons.
Website development platforms:WordPress. org, WordPress. com, Weebly, Drupal, Squarespace
Website hosting platforms: WordPress. com, Weebly, GoDaddy, Bluehost
Website translation plugins: Translate Press, WPML, Polylang (WordPress specific); ConveyThis (Weebly)
Website management tools: Google Analytics
- Determine the goal of the meeting-in-a-box. What information does the agency hope to share and receive feedback on?
- Brainstorm appropriate content and materials. Identify existing materials that will enable stakeholders to provide well-informed feedback. These materials can be in a wide array of formats from video to text. If there are information holes or existing materials are not suitable for this engagement approach, consider creating new materials or updating current materials. As always, the aim is to have materials that break down complex ideas into simple and clear language.
- Prepare instructions and meeting approach. Once meeting materials are squared away, consider the best way for the group to work through them. Ensure the host guide includes things such as: a definition of roles (facilitator/host), meeting instructions (purpose, time and materials needed), stepwise approach for planning and conducting the meeting (notice guide, material list and set up, a meeting facilitation plan, and agenda), and information on how to return feedback.
- Collate materials. Put all the pieces together in a format that is easy to retrieve online, such as PDF file format. Make sure that it is easy for stakeholders to distinguish between sections of the packet (i.e., host versus participant materials) so that the meeting host can distribute documents accordingly.
- Post to website and/share with stakeholder contact list.
- Provide clear and detailed instructions for meeting facilitators.
- Clearly introduce the project, its goal and the purpose and objectives of the meeting.
- Clearly state how stakeholder feedback will be integrated into the decision-making process.
- Share contact information.
- Share information on other means of getting involved and provide a sign-up sheet for interested participants to sign up for updates.
Document publishing tools: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Publisher, InDesign
Graphic resources: Noun Project (icons); Unsplash, Pexels, and Shutterstock (images).
- Determine the information the agency hopes to learn. Identify the information gap the agency needs to fill and the target audience needing to fill it.
- Draft a list of questions for participants to answer. When drafting questions, bear in mind the objective of the engagement, the audience, and length of time. If there are too many questions, participants will be less inclined to complete the instrument. Too few, and the agency may not receive the information they required. Be intentional when preparing questions, ensuring that each question can provide a response with additional information from the one prior.
- Flesh out the logistics. Discuss the approach the agency will undertake considering questions like — given the target audience, how should this form be distributed? When should the form be available and for how long? How will the information be analyzed?
- Choose a platform. Answering the questions above will help agencies decide which platform will best serve their needs.
- Upload content. While the questions will be the primary content uploaded the form, agencies should consider uploading images and videos that can help provide a more rounded understanding of the questions being posed. For example, if the agency is asking a question about the preferred location of a bus stop from multiple options, it might be helpful to provide images for participants to provide well-informed feedback.
- Test. Test the form question by question. Share with others to test the form as well, asking questions like — Where there any questions that were not clear? How long did it take to complete the form? Were there any questions that felt repetitive?
- Share. Finally, after several rounds of testing and editing, the form can be made available to the public. Do not forget to promote the instrument on social media, in newsletters and on informational materials.
- Be clear and concise.
- Test the instrument (i.e., the survey or questionnaire).
- Include fields to collect demographic data when possible (age, sex, address, education, etc.).
- Include images to help participants visualize options.
Form development platforms: Survey Monkey, Google Forms, TownHallApp
- Determine the information the agency hopes to receive or share. Create a short list of locations the agency might want to place the kiosk and confirm their interest and requirements.
- Think through a list of locations that might be amenable to having a kiosk and that will also best meet the goal of the project. Consider locations such as lobbies of religious and community centers, libraries, etc. Places with wireless internet that people frequent and spend an extended period of time.
- Determine the best way the desired information can be shared or garnered online. Perhaps the agency hopes to receive feedback on a recent change. This information might best be collected via an online survey. If the agency hopes to share an important project update, consider recording and uploading a video the website. Whatever the case may be, choose a web-based option that is most suitable and engaging for the environment in which the kiosk will be placed.
- Acquire the device(s) if the agency does not already have one. If possible, consider purchasing a gently used second-hand device. If intending to use a video, consider audio devices that might be necessary such as headphones or speakers.
- Download and install the kiosk specific browser on the tablet. Consider using a kiosk specific browser, which prevents users from navigating away from the intended pages.
- Set up the webpage on the kiosk.
- Prepare materials to accompany the kiosk. Since the kiosk is small, it might be helpful to prepare marketing materials such as flags, banners, posters, or signs to place around the kiosk to catch patrons’ attention. It is also important to include instructions on how to use the kiosk as well as printer materials of the same information that is being displayed.
- Set up the kiosk and materials at the chosen location.
- Ensure that the device cannot be moved and is placed in a secure location.
- Periodically check the device to ensure that it is working.
- Prepare adequate signage to alert patrons of the device.
- Provide simple and clear instructions on how to use the kiosk.
- Clean the kiosk when possible.
Hardware: Tablet, a tablet stand, and internet connection.
Software: Kiosk specific browser (e.g., Kiosk Pro App).
There are several social media applications from which to choose. When deciding which application will work best for projects, particular attention should be paid to the types of information that will be shared and the intended audience with whom it will be shared. Patterns of use are constantly changing and, therefore, it is best to keep abreast of the changing demographics and functionality of each tool. Further, given the wide array of available social media tools, the functionality of each tool is constantly expanding to remain competitive, and thus, the utility of each tool may change over time.
Along with social media applications, there are additional tools that can be used to make managing accounts easier, especially when managing multiple accounts across different platforms. The functionality of these tools varies widely, as some can manage the simple dayto- day activities on a single social media account, such as scheduling posts, while others can provide a host of analytics and reporting on social media campaigns across multiple platforms. Of course, the more complex and comprehensive the service provided by the management tool, the higher the associated costs.
- Ensure messages are clear and concise.
- Provide messages in multiple languages based on community’s language needs.
- Provide information across multiple platforms.
- Prepare staff guidance on social media etiquette.
Social media platforms: Facebook; Instagram; Twitter; YouTube; TikTok; Reddit; Tumblr; LinkedIn; Snapchat;
Management tools: TalkWalker; Sysomos; Sunthesio; Sprout Social; Social Mention; Pulsar TRAC; Meltwater; Hoot Suite; Falcon.io; Buffer; Brandwatch; Cision, Cyfe; Buffer.
Valley Transportation Authority
VTA is a large urban and suburban transit system in the southern portion of the San Francisco Bay Area. Public engagement has been an important function for the organization, and virtual engagement has been a part of VTA’s efforts for many years. The transit agency has used a variety of tools to collect public input on plans and initiatives, such as gathering feedback via online web mapping tools and hosting virtual meetings. While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated VTA’s virtual engagement efforts in terms of shifting standing inperson meetings to virtual meetings (VTA opted to transition their Board of Directors and public committee meetings to Zoom) and found turnout to be better or the same using the virtual meeting format. The agency found that virtual engagement was especially valuable to reaching people who would otherwise not be able to attend public meetings at the typical times — after 5:00 p.m. As a result, the agency started hosting optional virtual public meetings for planning projects midday and in the afternoon, and found it was able to attract participants who did not necessarily fit the mold of its typical in-person participant — often working-age male.
VTA also sought to abbreviate its large-scale planning meetings. Instead of long, information-heavy meetings covering a large geographic area, staff found they could be nimbler, and the information could be more relevant when they scheduled and hosted virtual or hybrid meetings covering specific communities.
One of the challenges many transit agencies face when conducting webinars or virtual meetings online is getting information about the people who are participating in the meeting. Often people log in using an alias or do not sign in using optional forms. By using the free service known as Eventbrite to publicize the meeting and collect RSVPs, staff said they have a better handle on who is participating, and they ask people to share basic demographic information which can also be helpful for Title VI reporting.
VTA defines its outreach success in terms of participation levels: the number of attendees at public meetings and the number of comments or survey respondents. Its engagement focuses on being equitable, inclusive, and focused on gathering a diversity of ideas. With a variety of languages spoken in the VTA service area, the agency’s online feedback and survey tools are offered in languages other than English (typically Spanish, Vietnamese, or Chinese). Receiving completed comment forms and surveys in Spanish or Vietnamese, for example, gives agency staff confidence that they have done an effective job of reaching diverse populations.
From VTA’s staff’s perspective, virtual meetings are easier to manage than in-person meetings: only one person can speak at a time, and people who are off topic or too verbose can be muted. People are more concise, and meetings finish on time.
VTA has found that getting the word out about meetings seems to be easier for staff, since everyone is online more due to COVID-19.
Staff recommends rehearsing in advance of a virtual meeting. VTA’s engagement team typically leads three practice sessions in Zoom with any technical experts who will be presenting, and ensures that at least four members of staff are assigned responsibilities to host and manage the meeting.
Staff recommend establishing criteria for when a “webinar” is best and when a “meeting” is best in Zoom.
VTA staff expects they will be leading more hybrid engagement in the future as a way to be more inclusive of everyone’s needs and preferences.
Software tools that VTA uses include Eventbrite, Poll Everywhere, Survey Monkey, Qualtrics, and mapping tools including Maptionnaire, Crowdspot, and Wikimaps.
Hopelink is a Community Action Agency and the mobility manager for King County, WA. They provide a variety of community services including transportation, including the direct provision of transportation services for eligible users as well as a Non-Emergency Medical Transportation (NEMT) Brokerage, for King and Snohomish counties. Staff say they are motivated by the fact the transportation is, to the average user, complicated and can feel daunting and overwhelming to certain more vulnerable populations. By engaging with communities and understanding their needs, they can support them and better understand the needs of the community.
Much of the organization’s transportation work focuses on engaging with the community through organizing meetings and events hosted by any one of the five coalitions in which they participate. Pre-COVID-19, this meant booking venues at least three times a month throughout the region and inviting stakeholders get together at these rotating locations for collaboration. While some of the meetings offered a call-in option, not all did. Impacted by COVID-19, Hopelink switched all engagement to virtual programming, mostly using Zoom meetings. Before settling on Zoom, staff formed a taskforce, tested various virtual meeting software, and settled on Zoom because they found it easiest to use. The taskforce enabled them to conduct research, create an external-facing Zoom guide and develop internal best practices that identify necessary Zoom settings for all meetings. When facilitating meetings, they appoint a technology staff-support to manage chat, security features, and admitting attendees for large meetings. They schedule and conduct a meeting rehearsal when planning a large event or introducing new presenters or features.
In addition to regular engagement though coalition meetings, staff engages directly with the community through its Mobility Education and Outreach program.
Prior to the pandemic, the agency led trips on the bus to help immigrants navigate transit, tabling at community resource fairs, and hosting trainings for other communitybased organizations. COVID-19 resulted in the agency shifting to virtual engagement using a variety of tools. For example, instead of bus fieldtrips for the Seattle Department of Transportation, the agency created a series of film tutorials showing people how to stay safe and ride the bus and used these in virtual training programs.
One of the major concerns staff has about virtual engagement is that they are missing a significant subset of the population, especially older adults who can no longer participate in congregant meal programs and those who do not speak English. Staff members are also concerned that virtual engagement alone limits their interaction with lower-income individuals. The agency served 6,500 clients in 2019, but only a small fraction of that number in 2020.
Hopelink has found Metimeter’s survey/polling tool to be useful and accessible for interactions with community members.
Hopelink has found that breakout rooms during Zoom meeting have been helpful for ensuring people attend a meeting in the language they understand. With interpreters speaking Ukrainian or Dari assigned to specific breakout rooms, meeting participants speaking these languages were assigned to the appropriate rooms for an in-language interpreted meeting.
Mailings and newsletter postings are effective tools to further support clients when all the meetings and events are virtual.
Ensuring accessibility when ASL interpreters have been requested has been challenging.
Hopelink is in the process of updating its Inclusive Planning Toolkit to include virtual engagement information.
Center for Pan-Asian Community Services (CPACS)
The Center for Pan Asian Community Services (CPACS) is an Asian and Pacific Islanders health and human services agency that primarily serves to immigrant, refugee, and low-income families in Georgia. The agency offers two types of transportation services, the Express Bus service, which is an affordable employment bus service, and CPACS-Mobility, which is a shuttle service for older adults with limited English proficiency, disabled persons 19 years and older, and transportation disadvantaged individuals. Transportation is but one of several CPACS service offerings, which also includes education, youth, research, advocacy, as well as legal and immigration services.
CPACS’s outreach and engagement is primarily geared toward refugee and immigrant communities, and thus, their outreach approaches tend to be somewhat atypical — going beyond the standard requirements. While they still employ more traditional outreach methods, there is also a reliance on more informal outreach, often driven by the transportation service operators who act as liaisons between the community and the agency — sharing news, updates, and programs to networks of family and friends. CPACS staff says that because service operators are from these communities and frequently interact with community members, they have a more “intimidate idea” (Yawn & Lee, 2021) of community needs and concerns.
For CPACS, COVID-19 has exacerbated barriers in the engagement process. Prior to the pandemic, challenges largely pertained to differences in language (connecting to different language groups and accurately interpreting technical jargon) and cultural norms (e.g., introducing and encouraging participation in forums such as steering committees, which are often more formal and corporate in structure). The shift to virtual technology during the pandemic created an additional barrier to participation as many of the old adults they serve do not heavily rely on technology in their daily lives, and thus, are less likely to participate in a virtual engagement process. As a result, CPACS has had to be incredibly flexibly in its outreach and engagement practice. For instance, to recruit community members for an ongoing initiative with the Atlanta Regional Commission and Mobility for All, staff members called individuals with the help of translation services and went to a weekend flea market to ask questions and conduct interviews. Staff say that this experience has challenged the more traditional, perhaps more westernized, aspects of public engagement in transportation planning, and noted that they, “must be flexible with the approach and meet people where they are,” (Yawn & Lee, 2021).
Yolobus and Unitrans
Yolobus is a transit agency that operates in Yolo County, California, west of Sacramento County. The service area is mostly rural, with local circulation in several small cities. The City of Davis, within the Yolobus service area, has its own transit system, Unitrans, funded jointly by the University of California, Davis and the City. Both Yolobus and Unitrans had limited virtual public engagement prior to the pandemic, and both relied on in-person surveys and standing advisory groups/committees for ongoing feedback about their services. When the pandemic hit, both agencies pivoted to virtual engagement and offer examples of successes and challenges for transit systems.
The Unitrans Advisory Committee is a nine-member advisory body to the Davis City Council and includes appointed members. While these meetings had always been held in person, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they switched to virtual meetings using Zoom. The transit agency found that members of the public who rarely attended the in-person meetings were much more likely to participate in the virtual meetings (it also found it had better participation by its committee members when meetings were virtual).
Unitrans conducted a virtual open house to share information about and gather feedback on service changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff organized the event to take place during a three-hour block of time using virtual meeting software and offered to move participants into individual breakout rooms to consult with technical staff. To publicize the meeting, they put information posters (door tags) on the buses and erected signs at the terminal, but with ridership a small fraction of their regular ridership, they had very few participants in the open house — much lower than their experience with similar in-person events.
The pandemic resulted in Unitrans using QR codes for sharing a range of information with the public: where to buy tickets, how to join meetings, etc. Staff have found this has been an easy feature that people understand.
Like Unitrans, Yolobus convenes a Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), which includes representatives from different parts of their service area, and a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) comprised mostly of public works staff from member jurisdictions. Yolobus uses its website and social media avenues as ways to promote and encourage participation among a diverse set of participants, and to establish the meetings as a forum for discussions about transit. The CAC and TAC began meeting virtually as a result of COVID-19, and Yolobus staff indicated the transition to virtual meetings was relatively successful.
Before COVID-19, Yolobus was engaged in the development of a comprehensive operations analysis and plan. Staff had previously conducted workshops in person, but wanted to hold another workshop to share information about recommendations. Yolobus decided to conduct a prerecorded virtual workshop instead of a live webinar or in-person meeting to update the public about the operations analysis and to give an overview of recommendations. Through these workshops, technical staff made presentations and encouraged participants to provide feedback using an online form. Staff had considered conducting virtual live workshops but decided that the recorded workshop approach would offer greater flexibility, allowing participants to join the workshop at their own leisure and that the organization would benefit from getting feedback via the survey form.
Yolobus has had many engagement successes in the past, especially when the organization relied heavily on inperson surveys to share information and gather feedback from consumers. As it transitioned its engagement to a virtual format, Yolobus also transitioned its surveys to an online format. Staff found it worked well for some populations, but not for others. For example, a large proportion of the population in the service areas speaks Spanish, so in developing an online survey, they placed survey cards on the buses with a link and QR code to a Spanish language survey. They also posted bilingual notices that if people did not have access to a computer, they could call a phone number and speak with staff to complete the survey. They even tried to incentivize participation by offering a chance to win one of several $50 gift cards. Interns went to the bus stops and put up notifications about the survey, which they promoted heavily. Unfortunately, they found that very few Spanish speakers completed the online survey. Staff attribute much of this challenge to the fact that many of the Spanish speakers in the service area do not have easy access to communication tools or the Internet.
A board representative expressed a concern about the low participation of Spanish language participants and suggested that it would be valuable to engage community partners, including a local supermarket that serves mostly Spanish-speaking residents. Staff took this advice and other suggestions from their survey to assess how they could improve the level of engagement across all population groups for a follow-up survey but admit it has been challenging for their small agency to easily overcome the digital divide. In the cities and rural communities of the transit agency’s service area, the agency is on a learning curve to engage all populations — especially non-English speakers and low income communities — using only virtual tools.
Even with these challenges, staff is optimistic. They talked about the value of people’s participation and emphasized that paying people for their time to participate in activities is fair and appropriate. They also emphasized that it is important to try to reach people where they are — an element of meaningful public engagement, but one that has challenged numerous transportation organizations when they must focus on exclusively virtual engagement.
Eau Claire Transit
Eau Claire Transit serves the cities of Eau Claire and Atloona, Wisconsin, and operates 15 regular fixed routes, six days a week, with an annual ridership of 850,000, many of whom are University of Wisconsin students. The City of Eau Claire also provides door-to-door paratransit service contracted to, and operated by, Abby Vans with an annual ridership of 50,000.
Like many other transit agencies, before the pandemic, Eau Claire Transit employed a hybrid approach to outreach, using both online and offline tools to encourage participation in engagement activities. For instance, it connected with community members online through social media websites, such as Facebook, and sent email blasts to stakeholders and partners. Offline, it purchased radio packages to make announcements, and posted public notices in the newspaper, at transit centers and on buses. While its outreach approaches engaged both online and offline communities, its engagement practices heavily relied on face-to-face interaction, including onboard surveys and in-person meetings, like monthly Transit Commission meetings, public hearings, and open houses.
In 2020, when developing its Transit Development Plan, given the pandemic, Eau Claire Transit could no longer depend on in-person approaches to connect with its riders. When conducting outreach for the Plan’s public participation opportunities, the agency continued to share information through its regular online and offline channels, but realized that because of the decrease in ridership, fewer members of the public were privy to the information being shared offline (e.g., on buses and at the transit center).
For engagement, however, with the help of a consultant, the agency switched gears to host two virtual open houses and sought input through Wiki-maps. Despite the setback in offline outreach, after transitioning its open house event to a WebEx webinar, a similar number of individuals participated in the online meeting as in regular in-person meetings. Staff noted that these were the same individuals who typically attend transit meetings, and who have a genuine interest in the agency’s activities.
In this case, the challenge was not in maintaining relationships with participants with long-standing interest in the agency’s work, since these individuals tend to be more inclined to seek out such events regardless of format. Instead, the challenge posed by the switch to virtual engagement was to engage and solicit feedback from regular riders who do not usually attend scheduled in-person events and who would have normally been reached by chance, in the streets or on a bus, through a less structured and less time-consuming approach, like an in-person onboard survey.
From this case study, a few questions come to mind, including:
How can an agency recreate the spontaneity, convenience, and brevity of an in-person encounter online?
How can an agency increase interest among regular riders’ who do not typically participate in activities, whether online or offline?
Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit
Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) serves the Ithaca urbanized area and a large rural area of Tompkins County in Upstate New York. Before the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, TCAT had an annual ridership of 4.2 million, with a fleet of 55 buses running on 34 routes, seven days a week. Since the pandemic, annual ridership has fallen to 1.4 million.
TCAT produced a Transit Development Plan in 2009 that was informed by feedback gathered at in-person community meetings held throughout the county. Staff noted that this type of face-to-face engagement was valuable to them because it indicated the agency’s interest in community members and their feedback. However, given the rural nature of the service area, which includes low density, relatively remote communities, it was difficult to ensure that residents were always aware of upcoming engagements and that the events were convenient enough for them to attend.
In 2020, in the midst of preparing their most recent Transit Development Plan and while coordinating the community engagement efforts to inform it, the coronavirus pandemic hit and ushered in a change to a more virtual approach to connect with communities. As engagement activities were primarily scheduled for Fall 2020, several months after the start of the pandemic, staff faced an additional challenge of navigating “Zoom fatigue,” i.e., the feeling of tiredness associated with the overuse of virtual meeting platforms like Zoom, which had already become ubiquitous. Despite much effort to increase interest among stakeholders, via methods such as posting on social media, engaging with community leaders, and publishing press releases, planned online events such as focus groups and office hours were still poorly attended.
The Ambassador Program proved to be one of two successful approaches for TCAT. The program, which was derived from an advisory committee recommendation, included six candidates who were hired part time to serve as liaisons between the agency and communities, particularly underrepresented communities, to increase their participation in the planning process. As community representatives, the ambassadors were familiar with community members and could, therefore, provide the best approaches to connecting with them. For instance, ambassadors suggested providing gift cards to every 10th person that filled out their survey and opted to call community members instead of sending emails.
The Ambassadors found that the approach was successful because the hourly rate was competitive and they explained that success would be lower if the engagement was strictly voluntary. The agency also made the application process fairly simple, without emphasis on qualifications, preferring to focus on individuals’ interest in transit and their connection to their communities. It was important that candidates had good contacts and had given thought to and were familiar with transit issues within their communities.
While TCAT’s Ambassador Program was conducted offline, following all required COVID-19 protocols, the concept can be used for online engagement as well. The basic premise being that when agencies partner with community members to understand group dynamics and barriers to participation, they can better engage stakeholders in a way that is considerate of and conducive to them, thereby increasing the chances of involvement and feedback. “You have to reach people personally with a simple message that allows them to know why the project is important to them. The people who can communicate that message often have direct connections to the community,” (Yarrow, 2020).
Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization
The Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) guides the transportation planning process in Miami-Dade County, Florida. A major role of the Miami- Dade TPO is to ensure conformance with federal regulations requiring that highways, mass transit, and other transportation facilities and services are properly developed and deployed in relation to the overall plan of urban development. Another major role is to approve plans for local, regional, and state transportation network accessibility. As the largest Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in the state of Florida, the Miami-Dade TPO serves 2.9 million residents and has a 25-member Governing Board comprised of the 13 Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners, eight elected officials (one from each municipality with a population over 50,000 residents), four Governor appointees including: the Miami-Dade County School Board, a municipality-at-large (within Miami-Dade County), a non-elected official (residing in unincorporated Miami-Dade County), and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.
The Miami-Dade TPO is active in engaging the Miami- Dade County community in the transportation planning process. Before the pandemic, staff consistently went out into the community with their transportation partners to various organizations hosting transportation events and engaging with participants. The TPO has historically been involved with Miami-Dade County’s Community Action and Human Services Department (CASHSD), which hosts community advisory committees (CAC) representing 16 different areas within the county. The CACs are effective entities to hear and learn from the heartbeat of the community and keep them involved with the transportation planning process, since community leaders are very active in their CACs. The Miami-Dade TPO has also partnered with the Miami-Dade Police Department’s CACs to also keep them engaged. However, during the pandemic, CAC meetings were temporarily hosted virtually. The TPO coordinated with the CACs to attend available virtual meetings to provide transportationrelated information to their members. The TPO has also collaborated with other community partners, such as the library system, to communicate important information to the general public.
In lieu of in-person events, the Miami-Dade TPO began hosting a fast-paced, virtual lunch series in 2020 titled “Taste of Transportation.” The series consisted of seven virtual outreach events (VOEs), one for each of the transportation planning areas (TPAs) of Miami-Dade County as identified by the TPO’s 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). The TPO administered each VOE with Host Chance, the TPO Master Chef, and the main Chefs from each transportation partner agency. To keep it lite and engaging for the audience (Taste Testers), all presenters provided quick, 3-minute updates regarding their transportation-related activities within the respective TPA. The TPO developed flyers that were distributed through virtual e-blasts, social media channels, and weekly e-newsletters to residents and community members and partners. The TPO posted the recordings, with tailored opening and closing sequences, to the agency’s YouTube channel and promoted through social media and the weekly newsletter. The TPO found great success in this VOE series, because it combines entertainment with education regarding current local transportation activities and events.
The Miami-Dade TPO has historically emphasized the importance of networking with partner/sister agencies and community organizations. Whether it is for the purpose of technical assistance or just to form a new relationship, there is so much that can be accomplished through strong partnerships and pooled resources. The TPO also highlights the value of collaborating with the local library system and community groups, such as the Miami-Dade County CASHD and Miami-Dade Police Departments’ CACs, to explore new ways to keep the general public engaged. Building relationships with new entities, and the people within them, cannot be overlooked in the engagement process!
Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority
The Kanawha Valley Transportation Authority (KRT) is the largest transit authority in West Virginia, serving Kanawha County and portions of Fayette and Putnam Counties. The service area is approximately 913 square miles, with a population of approximately 193,063. KRT’s annual ridership is usually around eight million, though it is down 40 percent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
KRT explained that their ridership is one of necessity – not choice. There are many affordable parking options offered throughout the town and approximately 88 percent of the public live with .75 miles of a bus route. Additionally, KRT is not currently conducting any major transit initiatives or changes that would necessitate public input. As such,their community is not very engaged on transportation issues and do not require many forums for engagement.
KRT has found success in virtual public engagement through Facebook, Twitter, and their KRT Live app, which provide real-time transit updates to the public. KRT uses these communication channels to relay updates on service disruptions, bus route changes, and closures. KRT also uses social media to deliver updates on what the Authority is doing within the community, with partnerships and events in which they are participating. KRT’s Facebook page and website offer the opportunity to provide public comment and questions, and is monitored regularly by KRT staff. Members of the public can also provide comments and feedback during the monthly, virtual public board meeting. KRT has received public input and engagement from all sources, ranging from general questions about route schedules to requests for service changes to suit their needs.
City of Asheville Transportation Department/Transit Division
The City of Asheville, which manages Asheville Rides Transit (ART), oversees transit operations for 19 fixedroutes that travel within the different communities of the City of Asheville and its surrounding counties. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, ART completed nearly 2 million rides and in FY 2020, 1.5 million rides were completed. ART has 50 employees that support the City’s Transit Planning staff for transit short-term and long-term planning activities, development and implementation of transit service improvements, scheduling, service delivery, bus stop planning and improvements. The Transit Division is one of four divisions in the Transportation Department. The other three divisions include Traffic Engineering, Transportation Planning and Parking Services.
As with many entities and at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Asheville faced some initial hurdles in transitioning to a virtual environment. The City conducted an extensive assessment of current virtual engagement platforms to determine which platforms best met the needs of the various City of Asheville departments for internal coordination, as well as external coordination and public engagement. During this assessment, the City’s project manager met with multiple engagement platform vendors to receive a formal demonstration of the platform and learn how it could be adapted to the needs of department-specific needs.
Following their platform assessment, the City confirmed that they would employ PublicInput.com for external facing and public outreach meetings, as well as City of Asheville Council meetings and use Google Meet for internal coordination meetings; the Transit Division including other city department staff has found great success in deploying both platforms to meet their regular meeting needs. In reflecting on the assessment process, the Transit Division noted the helpfulness of having one staff member manage this process. They explained that this staff was able to fully devote their time and attention to the initiative and organize the participation of additional staff members through training, and have staff in various departments/divisions to manage meetings with external groups.
There were several recurring meetings that the Transit Division had to transition to virtual platforms, including meetings with the Transit Committee and Better Buses Together, where the Transit Planning Division staff would regularly make presentations to provide updates on current and upcoming transit initiatives and service changes. To disseminate virtual engagement capacity across the City of Asheville, mandatory training was conducted for designated staff in various departments including the Transit division and included training provided by the internal IT department on using related IT tools on the virtual platforms being employed. As additional staff were trained and became more familiar and comfortable participating in virtual meetings, other Citywide Commission and Board meetings were held. The Transit Planning Division staff emphasized that the ability to meet virtually has taken on increasingly important significance in ensuring that staff are able to communicate with one another and continue providing essential services to the community.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Transit Planning Division staff has begun virtually meeting regularly with several community organizations, including the Rotary Club of Asheville; Better Buses Together, which is a community group that advocates to improve transit and rider experiences; and the Multimodal Transportation Commission, which is citizen-led transportation commission that assists the City of Asheville in advancing and promoting a comprehensive and integrative transportation system. The department’s ability to meet regularly with these groups helps to educate community members on current initiatives and ensure that public voices and ideas are captured in the transit policy conversation.
Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority (NAIPTA)
The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority (NAIPTA) is the transit agency that operates the Mountain Line, Mountain Lift and Mountain Link systems in Flagstaff, Arizona, serving providing more than 2,440,000 annual trips. In addition to providing transit and shuttle services, NAIPTA also manages a van program and provides travel training services, among other programs. A relatively small agency, the planning department has a staff of four who are charged with engaging the public and there is also a marketing and communications manager. Most major initiatives have an engagement budget of between $2,000 and $10,000, and the organization regularly develops, and updates lists of organizations they seek to partner with because it helps to make their outreach more effective.
Like many other transit systems, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way NAIPTA conducted meetings and also impacted their public engagement efforts. For example, NAIPTA staff regularly participated in in-person statewide coordination meetings with other mobility managers, and these shifted to virtual meetings. Likewise, their quarterly Coordinated Mobility Council meetings pivoted to virtual. NAIPTA opted to use Zoom meeting software for all virtual meetings and found it worked well: they made use of built-in polling and breakout rooms to give more people an opportunity to be heard. Where some older adults and people with disabilities have indicated they are unfamiliar with the platform, staff led some “test calls” to familiarize them with the tools.
The Transit Advisory Commission and Board of Directors meetings shifted to virtual, and the organization livestreams them to YouTube for members of the public to observe. By livestreaming, the agency is able to broadcast meetings more widely, but it also means that members of the public who wish to provide a comment must contact NAIPTA in advance to request a link to the live meeting.
NAIPTA began the process of redesigning its downtown transfer center prior to the pandemic. As part of the redesign process, it formed a community stakeholder group in the Southside Neighborhood. Although the meetings had originally been planned as in-person events, they were carried out via Zoom.
Tactics used to encourage people to participate during the pandemic were essentially the same as prior: staff worked with the neighborhood association, which had been a solid liaison, to get the word out and also relied on their dispatchers to inform paratransit users of opportunities to participate. With meetings having moved to Zoom, that agency found that not everyone who wanted to participate was able to. To help bridge the digital divide, Mountain Line staff brought a computer to the transit center for individuals who would otherwise not be able to join the online meeting.
NAIPTA has found other examples where virtual engagement does not work effectively for all populations. For outreach to very low-income residents, including some who are unhoused, staff opted to offer socially distanced “COVID-safe” engagement outside of a shelter and food bank. Masked and with hand sanitizer, staff used large notepads to collect information from consumers about their trip origins, destinations, and peak travel hours, acknowledging, ”there’s no computer access or way to meet these people otherwise” and staff found it to be successful.
Boulder County Mobility for All
Colorado’s Boulder County Mobility for All (M4A) Program promotes accessible, affordable, and equitable multi-modal transportation options for residents of all backgrounds. These efforts have historically included public outreach and education on multimodal transportation options, as well as assistance funds for accessing local transit services. This focus is based on the understanding that reducing the transportation cost burden is a critical step on the path to self-sufficiency and accessing health and human services. M4A’s projects are all focused on improving access to affordable transportation and empowering residents through community outreach and education.
M4A’s Technology Ambassador Program launched in 2020 to leverage 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, including the region’s public transit and mobile ticketing apps, Google Maps, and rideshare apps Uber and Lyft. Training and educational events are posted on the program’s Eventbrite page.
The M4A YouTube includes short, bi-lingual tutorials as well as in-depth workshops, including:
- Using Lyft Demonstration Workshop
- How to use RTD Mobile Tickets | Cómo usar RTD Mobile Tickets
- M4A Technology Workshop Using Google Maps App
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 staff are also innovating on how the agency provides realtime and asynchronous support. Through the program, community members can be matched with a volunteer “ambassador” if they need additional assistance accessing a specific mode of transportation using smartphone apps. Ambassadors also assist older adults and people with disabilities in a series of activities designed to help expand access and use of technology-based transportation options.
As the Program’s manager Angel Bond put it, “behavior changes come easier socially.” That is why M4A emphasizes not just offering a tutorial, but also facilitating a dialogue that builds trust and improves understanding.
Neighbor Network of Northern Nevada (N4)
The Neighbor Network of Northern Nevada (N4), a Federal Transition Administration grant recipient, was established in 2015 to design and deliver innovative transportation solutions related to health care access. Today, N4 receives local, state, and federal funding to further develop innovative projects and programs with its “village” approach that connects people living in Northern Nevada for inclusive, community-based services, volunteer opportunities, and affordable transportation.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, N4 had planned for an in-person summit to advance its mission to connect people with disabilities and older adults-in-home with community-focused services. 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 untenable, N4 migrated to two half-day virtual summits on Zoom. What surprised their staff was that attendance exceeded their expectations for the inperson 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 had success with 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. Ultimately, the summit built momentum for future gatherings because the virtual environment made it easier for at-home caregivers across an expansive geographic territory to connect, providing a critical link for individuals who are all too often isolated and may not know where to turn for community support.
The lesson? Context is critical. In some cases, the audience may prefer and benefit from a virtual environment.
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