The National Academies

NCHRP 08-142 [Pending]

Virtual Public Involvement: A Manual for Effective, Equitable, and Efficient Practices for Transportation Agencies

  Project Data
Funds: $650,000
Contract Time: 30 months
Staff Responsibility: Ann M. Hartell

Public involvement processes for transportation planning and project development require active participation to ensure that many points of view are taken into consideration. Although transportation agencies strive to ensure that a wide cross-section of people is included, people who want to participate may be unable to do so because of schedule conflicts or logistical challenges, such as physical disability, childcare needs, or transportation inaccessibility. Using today’s communication technologies for virtual public involvement can overcome challenges of travel and time as well as enable outreach activities during an emergency, such as a natural disaster or pandemic. At the same time, these technologies may not provide equitable access for all. This is a concern for communities with limited access to high-speed internet, households in which individuals must share a computer, and individuals who do not have smartphones.
The Federal Highway Administration defines virtual public involvement as “the use of digital technology to engage individuals or to visualize projects and plans” (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/innovation/everydaycounts/edc_5/docs/vpi-slides.pdf). The  Council on Environmental Quality recently updated regulatory guidance on the use of virtual tools and techniques in the transportation decision-making process. State departments of transportation (DOTs), metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), rural planning organizations (RPOs), and other transportation agencies have adopted a range of virtual tools and techniques as part of their public involvement programs. As documented in NCHRP Synthesis 538: Practices for Online Public Involvement, among state DOTs the most commonly used virtual tools are websites, social media campaigns, electronic surveys, informational videos, and digital newsletters. These tools are largely used for one-way communication with the public, allowing a state DOT to provide information about plans, programs, and projects. Far less commonly used are tools and techniques that support two-way interaction, which is a hallmark of meaningful engagement where public participants have voice and power. 
While virtual tools and techniques have been available for more than a decade, several issues have slowed their full adoption by transportation agencies. One question is whether and under what conditions virtual outreach fulfills federal and state requirements for public involvement. Staff capacity and knowledge is also a consideration: those selecting virtual tools need to understand how the tools work, technology requirements and costs, how a virtual tool complements other public involvement activities, and preferences and needs of participants. Public involvement staff need to be skilled and confident with the functionality of selected tools and in techniques for moderating and facilitating virtual exchanges. A further challenge is that digital tools and technology constantly change and proliferate. Selecting a tool or technique requires looking beyond platform-specific characteristics and instead considering the principles and essential considerations of successful virtual public involvement. Agency leadership also need to understand how to integrate virtual public involvement into the decision-making processes of the transportation agency to optimize the quantity and quality of engagement (e.g., matching tools and techniques with phases of the decision-making process).
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted stay-at-home orders and physical distancing guidelines that are limiting transportation agencies’ ability to conduct public hearings and meetings for transportation plans, projects, and programs. As a result, many transportation agencies made a rapid shift to adopt or increase the use of virtual public involvement. This recent experience offers an opportunity to identify successful practices in virtual public involvement from many agencies and a wide range of decision-making contexts. In particular, the events of 2020 can reveal important lessons on fair and full access to the transportation decision-making process and how equitable participation can lead to the equitable distribution of benefits and burdens.
Although there has been research on guidelines for engaging the public in traditional, in-person public involvement activities, these guidelines are not fully and directly applicable to virtual public involvement tools and techniques. Understanding that online communication and exchange does not replace traditional, in-person activities, state DOTs and other transportation agencies need guidelines and best practices to efficiently and effectively integrate these two approaches in their public involvement plans (PIPs) and programs. 
The objectives of this research are (1) to evaluate the recent experience of transportation agencies in using virtual public involvement with a particular focus on equity; and (2) to develop a manual for selecting, creating, and using virtual public involvement tools and techniques for each phase of transportation decision-making process. The manual will be relevant for communication directors; decision- and policy-makers; and public involvement, planning, environmental, and project development staff at state DOTs and other transportation agencies.  The manual will describe how to efficiently and effectively use virtual public involvement to expand the reach and impact of public involvement activities through meaningful, on-line engagement. At minimum, the manual will describe how to:
  • Identify and address needs and preferences of specific population groups to reduce potential disparities and promote equitable engagement;
  • Select, create, and use virtual public involvement tools and techniques;
  • Integrate virtual and in-person public involvement;
  • Identify and address staffing and other resource needs for adopting and implementing virtual public involvement tools and techniques;
  • Obtain quality input from virtual public involvement; and
  • Integrate input from virtual public involvement into decision-making.  
Accomplishment of the project objectives will require at least the following phases and tasks.
Task descriptions are intended to provide a framework for conducting the research. The NCHRP is seeking the insights of proposers on how best to achieve the research objectives. Proposers are expected to describe research plans that can realistically be accomplished within the constraints of available funds and contract time. The research plan should build in appropriate checkpoints with the NCHRP project panel, including, at a minimum, a web-enabled kick-off meeting, a face-to-face interim report review meeting, and web-enabled meetings tied to panel review and/or NCHRP approval of key deliverables as appropriate. Proposals must present the proposers' current thinking in sufficient detail to demonstrate their understanding of the issues and the soundness of their approach to meeting the research objectives.
The proposed research team should include considerable practitioner expertise and direct, demonstrable experience in inclusive engagement with traditionally underserved and/or under-represented populations. (See Special Note C for evaluation factors and instructions for Item 11 of proposals in in the brochure, "Information and Instructions for Preparing Proposals Updated November 2020" at: http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/crp/docs/ProposalPrep.pdf.)
Phase I: Equitable Access and Virtual Public Involvement--Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic Experience
Task 1.   Information Collection Plan: Develop a detailed plan to collect information on equity and virtual public involvement during the 2020, COVID-19 pandemic experience. The plan will focus on strategies to collect and synthesize experiences from transportation agencies that transitioned to and/or increased their use of virtual public involvement as a result of pandemic-related restrictions and guidelines for in-person events.
Topics of interest include but are not limited to:
  • What specific population groups may face limitations in accessing and engaging with a virtual public involvement tool?
  • How can a transportation agency identify these population groups? For example, can areas without high speed internet or limited access to a computer or smartphone be mapped to identify populations that may be excluded? 
  • What are the needs and preferences of these groups? Are the limitations technical (e.g., lack of high-speed internet access) or cultural (e.g., discomfort with virtual technology) or both?
  • How can these needs and preferences be addressed through appropriate design and use of virtual public involvement tools and/or techniques?
  • How can an agency evaluate the equity of virtual public involvement efforts?
  • What can transportation agency leadership learn from the 2020 experience in adopting or increasing the use of virtual public involvement, including during emergency situations (e.g., natural disasters or pandemics)?  
The plan will describe information sources and data collection methods, draft versions of any data collection instruments (e.g. survey questions, survey platform, respondent contact lists, etc.), and strategies for literature reviews. The plan will include sound methods and strategies to overcome typical challenges such as low survey response rates. The Information Collection Plan will be provided for NCHRP review and approval.
Task 2. Execute the approved Task 1 Information Collection Plan and develop a state of practice report detailing the results, successful practices, and lessons learned. The report shall include a concise executive summary. Provide the report for NCHRP review; revise the report in response to the NCHRP review.
Phase II: Manual on Virtual Public Involvement
Phase II will build upon the Phase I research to develop complete guidelines on virtual public involvement. Proposers should describe an overall approach, appropriate methods, specific tasks, and interim and final deliverables that will successfully accomplish the objective of the project.  
Topics of interest include but are not limited to:
  1. What characteristics of public involvement are preferred by the public?
    1. How do these characteristics vary by region, population group, or decision-making context (e.g., long-range plans, early consultation on projects, environmental studies, detailed project design, program or policy design)?  
  2. What are the qualitative and quantitative differences between traditional, in-person public involvement and virtual involvement, from the perspective of the public and of the transportation agency?
    1. How can transportation agencies manage high volumes of comments collected from virtual public involvement activities?
    2. How can transportation agencies use and respond to comments that are less substantive?  
  3. How can virtual public involvement enable equitable access to the transportation decision-making process and support equitable outcomes from that process?  
  4. How can transportation agencies align virtual public involvement activities with federal and state requirements?
    1. Are there best practices for developing or updating a PIP to include virtual public involvement tools and techniques?
    2. How can virtual public involvement assist in NEPA-required public hearings? 
  5. How can transportation agencies design virtual public involvement activities for each phase of the transportation decision-making process that meet the needs, preferences, and expectations of the public? 
  6. What public involvement knowledge and facilitation and communication skills are needed for practitioners to successfully engage with communities using virtual tools?  
  7. How can transportation agencies seamlessly integrate staff from communications, public involvement, planning, and project development to create an effective virtual public involvement strategy?  
  8. What are the considerations for procuring services of external consultants to select, create, and/or use virtual public involvement tools and techniques?  
  9. What do transportation agencies need to know about conducting user experience testing—with the public and internally with agency staff—to ensure successful deployment of virtual public involvement?  
  10. What do transportation agencies need to know about privacy and tracking technologies when considering virtual public involvement tools?  
  11. What features are needed to ensure virtual public involvement activities are accessible for all (e.g., captioning, video capacity)?
Sources of information include but are not limited to published research, examples from current practice, transportation agency leadership, public involvement and public affairs professionals at transportation agencies and consultant firms, transportation project managers, transportation planners, creators of virtual public involvement tools, advocacy groups, and members of the public from specific population segments.
Phase II will include the development of a conceptual design and detailed outline of content for the final deliverables. The design and outline will be provided to NCHRP for review and approval prior to the development of the complete drafts of the final deliverables.
Anticipated final deliverables include:
  • Phase I state of practice report, designed to be a stand-alone document.
  • Manual on virtual public involvement with actionable guidelines for selecting, creating, and using virtual public involvement tools and techniques for each phase of the transportation decision-making process.
    • The manual will not be prescriptive in recommending a specific tool for use by transportation agencies, but rather will equip agencies to evaluate available tools and techniques and select (and as needed modify them) to best fit agency and public needs.
    • The manual will describe how to integrate virtual public involvement with traditional, in-person outreach.
    • The guidelines will be supported by the research outcomes, examples, and best practices.  
  • A stand-alone executive summary designed for transportation agency leadership that describes key research outcomes, essential concepts from the manual, and ways that virtual public involvement can increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and equity of public involvement.
  • A technical report documenting the entire research effort including methodology and supporting sources for development of the manual.
  • At least two items or activities to disseminate the research results to target audiences. Example items include:
Note: No commitment to publish a TR News article is implied.
    • A brief recorded video presentation introducing the manual
    • Presentation slides with speaker notes that provide a tutorial on using the manual
    • Presentation of the Phase I report to a relevant audience such as the AASHTO Committee on Planning, AASHTO Committee on Environment and Sustainability, the AASHTO Committee on Transportation Communications (TransComm), or the TRB Committee on Public Engagement and Communications (AJE40)
  • A stand-alone technical memorandum that identifies implementation pathways, key implementers of the results, and well-defined scopes of work for pilot implementations of the manual. The technical memorandum should provide adequate detail on timelines, budgets, and staff resources needed for a state DOT to implement the results of NCHRP 08-142. Potential implementation activities include developing or updating a PIP to include virtual public involvement, designing and executing user experience testing for a selected tool, or conducting an equity assessment to select a virtual public involvement strategy for specific populations.

Status: Proposals have been received in response to the RFP. The panel will meet to select a contractor to perform the work.

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