With the importance of public engagement for transportation agencies, it’s reassuring to see the efforts that agencies are making to conduct meaningful research and share best practices and leading case studies. One of the most effective examples we’ve seen was conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement and culminated in a report report commissioned by the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The report entitled ‘Recommendations to the Illinois DOT to Enhance Quality Public Engagement’ was guided by the objective to, “provide IDOT with clear recommendations on how best to improve its public engagement practices. The guidance and recommendations can be applied to demographic groups of all kinds; special consideration has been given to engaging disadvantaged populations, also called “underserved” or “hard-to-reach” populations. These include minority, low-income, limited English proficiency, and low-literacy groups. Rural populations are also of concern, so the report further noted how these public engagement techniques can be applied to a rural context.”
The research team outlined eight recommendations: (1) Know Your Audience, (2) Use Existing Community Resources, (3) Perform Informal Outreach and Use Nontraditional Locations, (4) Match Engagement Technique with Goal and Context, (5) Enhance Staff Capabilities through Training, (6) Build Institutional Memory through Knowledge Management, (7) Measure and Assess, and (8) Use Technology to Enhance and Complement Outreach.
Masterclass in Public Engagement Via MnDOT Case Study
The research team a single case study to highlight and demonstrate their recommendations. The approach to public engagement by MnDOT on the Minnesota GO project is so well-designed and implemented that it essentially provides a checklist of many of the best practices contained in the report. In particular, and of interest to many of our readers, their use of technology to enhance outreach was a masterclass for others to follow. Here’s how the authors describe the project (from page 55 of the report):
“The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s revision of its Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan, called the Minnesota GO project, provides an excellent example of a smart and comprehensive use of technology to aid public engagement. In this project, which is ongoing, the department has used technology to complement external engagement and improve the efficiency of its activities in real-time.
Website: The team developed a sophisticated and aesthetically pleasing website capable of hosting surveys and integrated with social media. The website provides project information and allows users to take part in mini-surveys, letting them see the results in real-time. It also contains a very easy to use calendar of events and a portal that allows interested groups to request in-person presentations. For several months, the site employed the online engagement tool MetroQuest to gauge public opinion on different investment scenarios. MnDOT also put on an online open house, providing a digital alternative to the traditional offline open house events which were occurring concurrently around the state. Importantly, the site is both mobile-friendly and ADA-accessible.
The team has closely tracked website activity throughout the project, which has given it insight into how the website is used and how cost effective it is. As of March 2016, it has discovered that 85% of usage came from desktop computers while the other 15% was from mobile phones. It has also determined that it costs $5 to generate a unique visitor and $1.14 to generate a visit.
Social media: MnDOT’s social media activity strategy was carried out through Minnesota GO’s own Facebook and Twitter profiles, with occasional related posts put out through MnDOT’s own social media accounts. Posts were made semi-weekly for the purposes of “driving traffic to the project website for more information and educational materials, promoting surveys and other feedback opportunities and interacting with followers to gain input directly through Twitter.”
Complementing its use of social media, the department also ran four rounds of targeted Facebook ads, with the first rounds intended to promote the use of online engagement tools and the final round used to promote open house events. These ads were especially valuable because they were relatively cost effective and could be used to target specific demographics. Each round was analyzed in terms of cost, number of clicks, demographics of participants, effectiveness of images used, etc. The results of previous rounds informed the approach for future rounds. MnDOT received 357 total responses at an estimated cost of $4,946, giving them a “per measured feedback” cost of $13.86. The ads were the second most-cost effective way of obtaining direct, quantifiable input. (State fair interactions were the most cost effective at $1.42 per measured feedback).
Email: Using Constant Contact, the Minnesota GO team is also engaged in an intentional and targeted email campaign designed especially to reach organizations and stakeholders that have been identified as representing disadvantaged populations.
Data: The team has demonstrated an appreciation for the importance of data and how it can be used to make-adjustments in real-time. The team has closely tracked the effectiveness of its engagement methods in reaching community members of all kinds and has been willing to make adjustments in its strategy when it identified a deficiency. For example, realizing that women, people of color, and Minnesotans outside major metropolitan areas were not being properly reached, the team successfully employed targeted Facebook ads to boost their participation. They also held more events across the state and shifted resources to focus specifically on underrepresented communities in the final weeks of the project phase. This data is now also being utilized to examine demographic transportation priorities and inform future engagement.”
This case study, among other lessons, highlights that there is no silver bullet tool or technology. Rather the effectiveness comes from smartly combining a variety of approaches to leverage the strengths of each. Congratulations to the IDOT and Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement for their leadership in community engagement. The full report can be downloaded here. If you would like information on the MnDOT project please don’t hesitate to contact us.