Are you Going Virtual with Public Engagement? Consider These Three Principles First
Public involvement for transportation has traditionally been a top-down system of asking people what they want to see, or what they think of certain projects, with the idea that the planning organization would take those desires as a mandate, set goals to make them reality, and alter projects to meet citizen needs. It makes sense people would approach it this way: we need the public to support the projects, programs, and policies we seek to enact, and we rely on public input as the foundation for planning goals. After all, most planners don’t get into this line of work for selfish reasons. We desire to improve communities, create value, and make advancements towards equitable access to things like jobs, healthcare, food, and opportunities. But there are problems lurking underneath this top-down approach.
Opportunity for Change
Sudden changes like global pandemics can bring an opportunity for growth because crises pause the inertia often preventing organizations from finding ways to do things better. Pre-pandemic, agencies typically hosted public meetings complete with requisite PowerPoints, participated in outreach events with giveaway items, and perhaps launched surveys to ask people their preferences for travel or the built environment. But participation in public meetings was slim; there was little to show for the outreach events; and agencies were potentially left looking at a long list of preferences for things they couldn’t implement (affordable housing or more sidewalks—the purview of other agencies).
Advocates for change say most public engagement is worse than worthless, because it not only fails to result in meaningful input; it fails to understand the mechanics of the relationship between planning organizations and the public. What’s more, in response to the pandemic, two main sources of input—in-person meetings and outreach events— vanished practically overnight. Before rolling out a virtual replacement for public engagement, though, it pays to take a thorough look at engagement systems and processes. What is the right way to reach people? Obviously online, but how can we ensure that the new path forward harnesses the expertise of both sides—the agency and the public—to not only get consensus and support for plans and projects, but to help solve the community’s pressing issues?
In a Dallas-Fort Worth example, instead of riding the inertia of a top-down approach, we seized the opportunity for change brought about by the pandemic, and utilized new guiding principles to create an online engagement tool called Map Your Experience. Below are three key principles that, if employed, can help in reimagining public engagement strategy around change to improve the value created for both the public and the organization.
Seek Meaningful Input Earlier
Public engagement methods for the long-range transportation plan often focused on the feedback stage by presenting draft plans or project alternatives for comment and review near the end of the planning process. There is value in bringing these items to the public in that they offer transparency and serve as valuable education opportunities. The trouble with using only feedback at a late stage is threefold: first, a lack of voiced opposition is often seen as support, which isn’t always the case. When someone doesn’t support a project, do we know what they do support? Second, consultation near the end of the process leaves little time for revision based on public comments. Lastly, if someone supports bus service, for example, does that mean they will actually use it, or that they are able to? There is often a disconnect between what people say they want and what they do; the same is true for what people say they want and the political, social, or technical realities.
Ask the Right People for the Right Things
The public may not know the specifics of what type of repair is best for a road or who installs sidewalks; and they likely don’t know that funding sources are often restricted to certain uses. Planners and engineers are experts with years of training and specialized knowledge on those topics. But the public is the expert in what it feels like to wait at a bus stop with no shelter when it starts to rain. They know what it’s like to have to cross dangerous intersections on foot because they have no car. They know what it’s like to sit in traffic when they’re running late to work. Asking people where they struggle instead of what they want provides a channel for the public to feel heard, and data for the transportation experts to use in crafting solutions.
Focus on Problem-Solving
To fill in knowledge gaps and introduce a pathway for comments earlier in the process, Map Your Experience gathers problem spots and locations of need. Instead of asking “what do you want to see?” or “do you support this?” it asks, “where do you struggle?” Providing input opportunities earlier, at the problem identification stage, can reveal things that might have otherwise gone unseen. In the Map Your Experience example, maps and comments derived from the tool can ultimately help inform updates to the long-range plan’s goals by aligning future goal updates with public concerns logged in the tool. It can also help solve for the lack of participation by traditionally underserved populations, by making it possible to analyze where comments are coming from, then pursuing targeted outreach to areas that haven’t chimed in.
Virtual tools like Map Your Experience don’t eliminate traditional feedback channels. Rather, they complement them to bring more valuable data and information earlier in the planning process. Before deploying new tools to adapt post-COVID, it pays to find ways to get meaningful input earlier, ask the right people for the right things, and focus on problem-solving.
Meaningful input is gathered not only at the end of planning processes, but also at the beginning. And it pays to know what you are able to do with the input.