One of the most exciting opportunities offered to government agencies by social media was the potential to increase how well they communicated with the general public. After more than 10 years of Facebook and Twitter, and dozens of other social media channels, the question is worth asking: Are we any better at engaging with the public than we were at the turn of the century?
State departments of transportation, and other state and local transportation agencies have long used social media channels to communicate about road conditions, transit disruptions, weather impacts, project meetings and safety messaging. In fact, we celebrate many of their efforts here at Talking Transportation, highlighting the bold, the funny, the thoughtful and the impacting.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll suggest that government agencies are doing a good job of sharing information about the basic elements of operating a transportation system.
But I think there are serious questions about whether the online world has much improved the specific process we call “public involvement.”
A recently completed research synthesis report offers some interesting insight into the question. The National Cooperative Highway Research Program Synthesis 538 “Practices for Online Public Involvement” is comprised of a thorough literature review and the results of an extensive survey of state department of transportation officials.
[Full disclosure: I served on the synthesis topic oversight panel.]
The report authors concluded that despite some fairly reputable definitions of “online public involvement,” state DOTs have widely varied perspectives on it. For instance, several states believe that online public involvement includes any online outreach – for instance, one-way social media announcements on Facebook or Twitter. A handful of state DOTs however agree with the International Association of Public Participation’s definition, that online public involvement is a two-way dialogue between the public and the agency.
It seems clear that without some broader agreement on what online public involvement IS, our industry is going to have a tough time defining whether we’re doing a very good job with it.
This isn’t just a theoretical conversation. According to Pew Research, nearly all Millennials say they use the internet, and 1-in-5 say they exclusively access the internet using their smartphones. More than 85 percent of Gen Xers say they use the internet and 17 percent do so using their smartphone only.
Clearly the trend is toward more online engagement. And even more, expect to see a rise in the need for mobile engagement.
According to the synthesis, online public engagement “is emerging as a significant component for state agencies when gathering feedback from the public to guide decisions, which therefore expands the need and demand for further and continued research.”