At the annual conference of the Idaho chapter of the American Planning Association (APA-Idaho) in October, a planning professional presented his experiences and provided recommendations around the challenging topic of public participation.
Jeff Lowe, a transportation planner with the Ada County Highway District (ACHD), shared some of his experiences in providing opportunities for the public to give input on projects. Public hearings are a popular venue to offer residents an opportunity to be involved. However, officials may fall into a rut of holding meetings because of legal requirements. Do you get the best information from these public hearings? Are they predictable? Can the goal of these meetings turn into quantity (e.g., a large number of attendees) over quality (e.g., the caliber of the input)?
Lowe challenged the audience of planning professionals and students to “tell their story” when conducting meetings. In order to draw the most helpful information from the residents in attendance, make the information easy to comprehend. Present the purpose and objectives for the meeting to strive for a bottom-up approach to encourage active participation. Showing sincerity while running the meeting also encourages buy-in.
Another key to a successful meeting is to be prepared and aware of issues. Projects may be controversial and there can be opposition. Combating misinformation will lead to more successful meetings.
During the meeting, be sure to listen. This is not just a presentation… encourage two-way communication. Residents have a unique perspective on a given subject. No matter how well prepared planners may be, the public may provide missing information.
How does ACHD listen to the people? In an effort to reach a broader audience and utilize the internet, ACHD started using SurveyMonkey to add online surveys to the planner’s toolbox. So far, the surveys tend to be most effective with new projects. Planners have learned to get information out early and often. Any communication around the surveys needs to be accurate and timely. On the other hand, there are challenges. In his experience, Lowe said that surveys generate more complaints on existing projects, especially if they are long-term or have been extended.
ACHD also tries to use a hands-on visual approach. By providing clear templates over maps during meetings, this allows the public to use markers and stickers to give input on projects. This helps residents to “see” a project and their feedback helps to make challenges to the project more apparent. Workbooks have also been used which contain details of the project and accompanying checklists. Since the workbooks are given to the participants to complete, there’s uncertainty on their level of participation.
Grass roots approaches include going to the residents themselves and not expecting them to come to ACHD. Options include setting up booths at public events (e.g., area farmer’s markets and senior centers) and even going door-to-door with downtown businesses. ACHD is also going to the public earlier by hosting project open houses for residents to learn about and weigh in on current and future roadway projects.
From a technology aspect, ACHD provides information to the public through project web sites. However, challenges include keeping the sites current as well as educating the public on accessing the sites. On a positive note, an unintended benefit of technology includes residents using their smartphones to send in pictures and locations of problems (e.g., potholes).
What has ACHD learned in the public participation process?
- Lowe mentioned that above all, it’s important to know your audience. If you approach issues thinking you know your audience without doing your research, you will inevitably go in with wrong assumptions.
- Include the correct people on your team, those who are familiar with the issues and bring some expertise. These may include consultants or members of other agencies.
- Contrary to a popular maxim, one size does not fit all. Be sure to employ the right tools with the right project. For instance, the online survey, though convenient, may not be appropriate for all situations.
In searching for other tips on gathering public input, I found the Public Involvement/Public Participation site hosted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The Public Engagement focus area page is a one-stop shop for resources about public participation. A few resources of interest include the following:
- FHWA Public Involvement Reference Tool
- How to Engage Low-Literacy and Limited-English-Proficiency Populations in Transportation Decision-making
- Report 710: Practical Approaches for Involving Traditionally Underserved Populations in Transportation Decisionmaking
- Public Involvement Techniques for Transportation Decision Making
While Lowe’s presentation at APA-Idaho and the additional resources from the FHWA mainly pertain to transportation projects, the exciting thing is that the tips, tools, and lessons learned can apply to any planning situation where public participation is valued.