An Idea That Sticks: Taking Public Involvement Virtual

Among the high-tech tools and innovations at FDOT’s disposal, sometimes a humble office supply may be the most valuable – the sticky note. If you have ever attended a public meeting for a transportation project in Florida, you may have seen your neighbor scribbling a note and sticking it on a map of your neighborhood. This activity is just one example of a tool which might be used in a public involvement meeting. Public involvement encompasses myriad activities that seek to engage the public in the transportation process and provide information that may not be revealed through technical tools or analysis.

Secretary Kevin Thibault described the benefits and importance of public involvement in one of his first video talks as FDOT Secretary. He emphasized the importance of communication, collaboration, and partnership between those who build and those who use Florida’s transportation system. After all, transportation is ultimately about the people who use it. To achieve these goals, FDOT’s State Public Involvement Coordinator Dr. Rusty Ennemoser wanted to understand what public involvement approaches were being used by FDOT Districts and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) across the state. Serving as the project manager, she teamed up with principal investigator Jeff Kramer at the University of South Florida. Their October 2019 research findings, particularly related to virtual and hybrid meetings, quickly became essential to create statewide guidance.

In early 2020, FDOT needed to outline statewide processes and guidance to support the urgent shift to non-traditional meetings. Luckily, the previously conducted research helped FDOT respond quickly. It also highlighted an important ingredient to success: support from leadership. As Jeff Kramer says, “One of the observations from our research report was the key role that senior management plays in supporting public involvement activities.” In part, this established culture of public involvement contributed to FDOT adapting quickly to the new challenges presented in 2020.

The History of FDOT’s Public Involvement Processes

Nationally, public involvement has roots in the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). With NEPA, federal and state laws laid out guidance for when and to what extent public involvement was necessary when planning and implementing transportation projects. Though these processes were originally mandated, the value of public involvement in helping deliver better transportation projects became readily apparent. Since the 1970s, FDOT has become more thoughtful about incorporating public involvement into the full transportation decision-making process.

Before understanding how the public fits into the process, it is important to know how FDOT makes transportation decisions and is structured. As shown in the graphic below, transportation decisions begin with planning – the big picture discussions regarding policy. From there, projects can progress to Project Development and Environment (PD&E), FDOT’s term for NEPA studies that cover topics like archaeological or historical resources, sociocultural effects, wetlands, water quality, noise, and air quality. Projects that do not require PD&E may progress directly to design. The last step involves physically implementing the project with right-of-way acquisition, construction, and operations and maintenance (O&M). Alternative project delivery, including design-build projects and public private partnerships, may also occur before construction and O&M.

Summary of FDOT’s Transportation Decision-Making Process
Source: FDOT Public Involvement Handbook (April 2018)

Another important factor to consider is FDOT’s structure. Overall, public involvement is generally led by MPOs and FDOT Districts. MPOs, comprising representatives from local governments and transportation authorities, are charged with the role of ensuring that federal funds support local and regional priorities. The emphasis on FDOT District and MPO-led public involvement ensures that practices are tailored to the communities being served.

Given the wide variability in types of transportation projects and communities across the state, the research team surveyed Florida’s twenty-seven MPOs and conducted interviews with FDOT District staff. For MPOs, in particular, the researchers found technology has driven many innovations in public involvement strategies. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications allow stakeholders to leave virtual comments on locations, the digital equivalent of a sticky note activity.

The research team recommended expanding use of available technology, including virtual meetings. Implementing that recommendation became critical a few months after finishing the research project. FDOT is a large, decentralized organization, so drastically increasing the use of virtual meetings was no small task. Dr. Ennemoser recalls the question she was asking herself in early 2020: “How are we going to get this aircraft carrier [that is FDOT] to make a big turn toward another kind of public involvement?” Luckily, FDOT had already started charting the course with their October 2019 research.

Providing Innovative Guidance to Achieve Timeless Goals

Practitioners like Dr. Ennemoser have been considering the potential benefits of virtual meetings for years. They can reduce time commitments, travel costs, and personal/work conflicts for participants. However, in-person meetings have benefits in overcoming internet access/quality, allowing interaction with staff in a familiar format. Perhaps there was a way to combine the best of both worlds with a potential solution: hybrid meetings.

Challenges to hosting virtual and in-person meetings
Source: FDOT A Guide to Hybrid Public Meetings and Hearings (October 2020)

For that to work, Dr. Ennemoser knew that practitioners needed guidance: how to conduct hybrid meetings, what preparation and materials are needed, how to handle logistics, and how to follow up after the meeting. A variety of new materials were made available on FDOT’s Public Involvement website, including new meeting/hearing guidance, a guide to hybrid public meetings and hearings, and other resources for the practitioner and public. The website even includes videos on how to set up a meeting on web-based platforms.

Since the October 2019 research, FDOT increasingly has begun using innovations in technology to support its public involvement program. Hybrid meetings and hearings, combining face-to-face and virtual components, are now standard, as is the use of GIS applications to provide information to the public. The Districts are reporting that the numbers of participants are increasing with options of virtual and in-person meetings.

The events of the past year created opportunities for FDOT to find new ways to engage with the public.  FDOT has displayed resilience and adaptability to carry forward a core philosophy: a safe and efficient transportation system can be realized through cooperation with those who build it and those who use it.

Further Reading

BDV25-977-46 2018 Assessment of the Practice of Public Involvement in Florida
Final Report | Summary