New Approaches to Public Engagement

March 7, 2014
Transportation agencies are managing new technologies and new expectations in the public participation processes.

A comprehensive and effective approach to public participation in the planning of public transportation projects and services is a key determinant of the ultimate success of these investments. New tools such as social networking, mobile phone technology and crowdsourcing techniques are making it easier for agencies to expand participation in these processes. Simultaneously, these same techniques are making it more challenging to convert the vast reams of data gleaned from these efforts into useable information. Transportation agencies that become adept at the collection, analysis and communication of this information will be best positioned to develop sustainable plans and projects.

Without doubt, the most successful and widely accepted transportation investments now in operation took advantage of a thoroughly engaged public engagement process. These processes simultaneously built broad support for a chosen alternative, provided early identification of potentially fatal flaws, and designed in enhancements to provide broader appeal to intended markets. 

Conversely, planning processes that have not adequately engaged the public were much more likely to lead to project delays, significant opposition to proposed plans, and project cancellations or deferrals. At the very least, inadequate public engagement at the outset of a project may result in costly redesign to incorporate crucial public needs that could have been easily included in original designs if those needs had been identified earlier in the process.

Historically, public processes could be broadly categorized into “public hearings” on a specific agency proposal, or “design charrettes” where an actively involved group designs an initiative, more or less, from scratch. The problem with both approaches is articulated by Christopher Chesnut, manager of service planning for the Utah Transit Authority: 

“In service planning, we used a fairly typical approach to public participation. We would develop an idea or plan internally, present it to the general public in a hearing or charrette, listen to and record their reactions, and amend the plan as necessary. Very rarely did these audiences show an understanding of the resource constraints that agencies face. Typically, we would simply hear two very divergent opinions on our plans — ‘you already spend too much money and need to cut back,’ or ‘there are no constraints on what you can do, and we need more of everything.’”

UTA’s experience in the historic approach is typical of the limitations of these approaches. Simply adding new technology like crowdsourcing techniques to these approaches will likely only add to the dilemma  It is not uncommon for an agency using even rudimentary on-line techniques to generate tens of thousands of comments from thousands of unique individuals. Layering on the new technology would just mean that more people oppose the plan, or do not understand the resource constraints.

Philip Schaffner, policy director in the Office of Transportation System Management for the Minnesota Department of Transportation elaborated further on the dilemma in a long-term planning environment.

“Historically, the department conducted open houses at various locations around the state. A presentation by the department was followed by a question-and-answer session, and comments were accepted to a docket for some period of time. With our Minnesota GO Long Range Vision, we were not seeking responses to projects the department wanted to do; we were looking for a dialogue. Our historical process made dialogue very difficult, particularly with respect to broader themes associated with transportation investments, such as quality of life, environmental health and economic competitiveness.”

Both Chesnut and Schaffner described changing their public engagement processes to simultaneously address both the need to change the approach in public engagement (from soliciting reaction to engaging in dialogue) and adapt to new tools that make much more expansive participation possible across a wide array of groups.

Schaffner described a two-phase process. A first phase to engage active stakeholders into three statewide advisory groups formed around the themes of Economic Competitiveness, Quality of Life and Environmental Quality. Each group of thought leaders met in full-day sessions. During the first half of the day, particular initiatives were developed that might warrant state action. The second half consisted of initiative prioritization using a decision support tool produced by Decision Lens. This tool allowed each individual to react to a series of pairwise comparisons with their relative preference for one initiative over the other. Simultaneously, the overall group reaction to the pairwise comparison could be displayed to provide a sense of the overall group preference. Upon completion of all possible comparisons, the stakeholders had a real and quantifiable expression of their preferences.

Chesnut from the Utah Transit Authority describes a similar application of the tool in the transit service planning environment. 

“At UTA, we sought to change the dialogue from "react to our ideas" to "what is most important to you?" Many of our traditional participants had specific ideas they wanted to see implemented, and were interested in simply getting our data to prove the merit of their own ideas. We began to say, we’re not giving you the data at this stage in the process — first, we want to know what design criteria you think is most important as we all design the system.”

UTA initiated a series of workshops with the leaders of their 17 community advisory councils. The sessions did not focus on any specific service proposal, but on “higher level” service design criteria (for instance, what is more important to you, that service runs often (frequency) or that it goes to a lot of places (coverage). Individuals in the session participated via laptop computer and reacted to a series of these kinds of pairwise comparisons. The result of the accumulated comparisons was displayed on a screen for all to see. Although the agency had a record of individual and subgroup preferences, the displayed image would show only numbers associated with the preferences, not names. In this way, an individual could see that their preference was accurately reported, but the rest of the group did not know who registered a particular preference. Participant information was tracked for back-end processing and so that specific preferences could be cross referenced to particular groups.

During the course of displaying group findings of pairwise preferences, the facilitator would also share information about how other groups voted and generate discussion among the participants. At the end, the agency was left with a clear analysis of group preferences, along with a breakdown of how each individual and subgroup felt — clearly a useful product as specific service proposals were developed. Maybe an even more important indicator of the success of UTA’s approach was in the reaction of its participants. Almost without exception, each of the community council leaders asked that similar sessions be conducted with additional groups.

The type of “higher level” principles developed in these types of exercises made it easier for the implementing agencies to adopt overriding guidelines by which they could map more specific investment initiatives. In her role as a senior decision client manager for Decision Lens, Allison Denton uses her prior experience as the director of facilities planning for the Arlington (VA) School District to help public agencies organize complex data like public opinion into concrete decision criteria. 

“In the school district, our board was stuck in the middle. They said, 'We have very smart people who can make decisions. But how can we communicate those decisions to a general public who is also very smart, and has their own priorities and concerns?’ In the school district, we split the public process into two phases — we gathered broad input into a series of big picture goals that the board and community could embrace. After that, we applied that big picture direction to localized decisions.”

Chip Walter is the developer of the Pittsburgh CitiWiki project. This project is designed to use the power of Wikipedia to generate a regional transportation plan. Like the others quoted here, Walter also articulated the absolute necessity of moving beyond a collection of opinions to a cohesive strategy for action in any public participation process.

“In contrast with blogs and comment pages, the Wikipedia model centers around creating a document out of dialogue and having multiple users bring the conversation back to achieving positive results.”

Walter advocates a facilitated process, and is adamant about the attributes of a successful facilitator or, as he puts it, “gardener.”  According to Walter, “The purpose of the gardener is not to render judgment on the feasibility or effectiveness of a suggested alternative. Their purpose is to keep the dialogue moving in the right direction. Facilitators should not be subject matter experts, but should have journalistic skills, separating out facts from opinions, leading people to substantiate their own opinions with facts, and calling on other participants to enter into the dialogue.”

The Wiki approach is not intended to be a standalone process but, like the other approaches described, to act in concert with a comprehensive approach to public engagement, and to use each approach to cross-pollinate the other with ideas and users. With respect to the question of unrealistic proposals that often emerge from public processes that are not resource constrained, Walter places that burden squarely on the shoulders of the gardener, who should pose the question of sustainability directly to the group. More often than not, in his experience, the sheer power of numbers delivers a product that is very useful to the implementing organization, not just “pie in the sky” or a series of complaints.

Beyond the development of broad guiding purpose and grassroots planning documents comes the very real work of reaching specific constituencies to gain their input on very real decisions.

Schaffner from the Minnesota Department of Transportation described the tools they used. “For broader input on specific investment approaches, the dDepartment used ‘Metroquest’ on-line community engagement software so that individuals could participate in an on-line fashion on their own time.” Other agencies use Metroquest and similar types of public engagement software to gain specific reactions to particular decisions, and to conduct detailed analysis of the reaction they get, managing thousands of individual responses.

Schaffner also spoke to the challenges in reaching unique populations. In this case, teenagers were a population of interest that Minnesota DOT had not been particularly successful engaging with traditional techniques. Schaffner puts it this way: “Recognizing the long-term framework of the Minnesota GO Vision, the department was particularly interested in getting the viewpoints of younger people (including teenagers) who were not likely to participate in a traditional public engagement technique. For this purpose, we engaged the ‘Students Speak Out’ and ‘Citi Zing’ process of the Citizens League of Minnesota. ‘CitiZing’ combines a variety of online tools, including social networking, online surveys, wikis, forums, prioritizers and stakeholder maps, posing problems to the user community in a transparent manner.”

A telling piece of the Citizens League of Minnesota’s research is the perception of the public toward public participation. Where traditionalists might consider actions like responding to a post in social media or reacting to an entry in a wiki page as “participation light,” teenagers were adamant in their opinion that by posting a comment on a social media site, they were actively engaged in the decision-making process. Moreover, the teenagers considered simply reading a website or watching a YouTube video as active public participation.

Of course, the proof of this perception is in the reality that all of this input is actively managed, considered and (ultimately) reflected in the decisions made by transportation agencies to improve the mobility of their constituents.

In examining common threads among transportation agencies seeking to embrace the “brave new world” of public engagement, there are numerous differences in approach, but also some key common threads:

  • Use a variety of approaches and tools. Design your process to have each tool work along with the others, not independently.
  • Consider up front how you will manage the considerable data generated from a process that may lead to tens of thousands of data points.  Toward this end, you should consider decision support systems and/or software.
  • Design a process that overcomes the bias inherent in historic approaches. Make your participation process simple and inviting, and then promote it widely and aggressively. People who are attracted to participate in a simple process can always be invited to engage in more detail. People who are turned off by complex and unwieldy websites or group exercises will be lost forever.
  • To get to underrepresented communities, go through the organizations that have been successful in engaging this public in the past and who also have an active interest in transportation.
  • Use trained facilitators to lead public participation — not subject matter experts. Make sure the facilitators (think “gardener”) know that their job is to get the best possible participation from stakeholders — not to design the best transportation project.
  • Get a sense of the higher level purpose of the constituency and agency leadership before exploring specific proposals  Make sure you have the buy-in of appropriate leadership (agency, elected, etc.) with respect to these higher level goals before you advance to specific investment decisions.
  • Retest all findings during design and development against these cornerstone “higher level purposes.” Measure the conformance of various alternatives against these higher level goals.
  • In the face of opposition, continue to ask the question: Is it the higher level purpose that’s incorrect, or is it our application of objective data associated with a particular alternative to the higher level purpose? If the answer is neither, you’ll likely want to manage the opposition rather than adjust the plan.
  • Force participants to recognize capacity constraints and make strategic choices among various alternatives. Do not allow the “we want everything” outcome from a public participation process.
  • Remember that no solution to a complex problem is universally preferred. Even the best alternative will generate opposition. It is not essential to eliminate all opposition, but it is necessary to understand it and manage it. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49.” 

Jefferson may be overstating the issue, but if a particular alternative were universally preferred, it would likely be so obvious that a comprehensive public participation process would prove unnecessary. An effective and comprehensive public participation process will maximize the likelihood that your investment achieves the maximum possible benefit for the widest variety of constituents, even in the face of opposition from some groups.