While the practice of public involvement has been studied and honed for decades, new questions are being asked about whether we are really doing it right. And, a recently completed city planning effort might point the way toward how how we can do it differently.
In September, Governing.com published an article that questioned whether public involvement as it is currently constructed favors people who have time and resources to participate in planning processes. Those people with means, the article claims, have an outsized ability to delay and thwart projects they don’t like – adding costs and, in some cases, sidetracking projects that might benefit lower socioeconomic communities or minority communities.
It certainly is worth considering whether and how the public meeting “regulars” – and most cities, counties and states have them – end up with an outsized level of influence on the outcome of various engagement efforts. In an “equal” process, everyone has access and influence.
However, some governments are asking whether equal is good enough. Perhaps it’s time to re-think when and how we conduct public involvement. In at least one city – and there are probably others – the new goal is equity through a process of continuous engagement that de-links the engagement process from individual projects.
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.
After a lawsuit was filed against the Trump Administration for blocking Twitter users, the Lansing State Journal decided to look at government accounts in its home state. It found that state agencies had blocked accounts.
A few paragraphs into the story, there was this line that pointed directly at the state DOT:
“Records show that while some government accounts didn’t block anyone, the dozen accounts associated with the Michigan Department of Transportation blocked a combined 550 individual Twitter handles.”
Transportation organizations have important information to share with the traveling public. That’s especially true during natural disasters when maintenance crews and first responders are often the first people surveying damage and assessing the status of infrastructure leading to people’s homes and businesses.