The way in which construction projects interact with those impacted by the process has evolved substantively over the last generation — partly to be as nimble and responsive to the communities and advocates they needed to reach. Years ago, major projects took little heed of those affected by their efforts, often begging forgiveness after. Protocol was to hold one public meeting in advance of a project and “note” any concerns, for the record. At times contractors resolved abutter issues directly by gifting an air conditioner to mitigate noise or dust, or repaving a driveway to gain a particular abutter’s support.
This practice changed when project stakeholders and communities began to use email to organize, demanding that their concerns be addressed immediately. A concerned abutter who once ranted in the coffee shop or sent a letter to a public official, became dozens or even hundreds of neighbors speaking with one voice through email.
In those early days of outreach, many project managers and agencies believed limited budgets were better spent on the nuts and bolts of a project, rather than engaging the public about the benefits of a project and working to build consensus on its implementation. Thankfully this approach was soon to change.
Embracing Public Engagement
From the early 2000s and moving forward, investing in, and supporting a comprehensive outreach program became critical to nearly all public and some private construction programs. Eventually, these efforts started to pay large dividends. The owners of large public sector projects learned that by investing in communities early in the process, they could reduce or even prevent misinformation from slowing or derailing a project. Private sector companies also learned that without these efforts, a contractor could affect their reputations in a community before they even started. Good communication was money well spent.
Through 2019, a public involvement program was regarded as being critical to the success of a construction project. It is important to understand how feedback from stakeholders will be incorporated into the project process prior to the start of any engagement activities. A comprehensive public involvement program included project specific websites, email blasts, stakeholder database management, geospatial mapping surveys, onsite pop-up kiosks, as well as in person working groups and public meetings. This program is a living document, available for updating and adjusting throughout the entire timeline of a project to reflect the evolving needs of the public. This all changed in March of 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The construction industry was temporarily halted at the start of the pandemic under new restrictions and regulations. After receiving guidance from health agencies and organizations, crews got back to work. Little was known as to what the impact of COVID-19 would be and how each of our day-to-day lives would need to adjust. For the first few weeks, we assumed life would go back to normal within a few months. It quickly became clear that would not be the case. As we all had more questions than answers, we collectively came to one conclusion: pandemic or not, we needed to continue to engage with the public. The events of 2020 highlighted the need for public outreach professionals to utilize existing technologies that met people where they were and made the process of getting involved easy and comfortable. Beginning from a place of familiarity can make public dialog and involvement successful.
Prior to the COVID Pandemic:
When public involvement included in-person engagement, industry-standard programs included the combination of:
Each program was designed to begin with a detailed understanding of the project, the stakeholders, and the public. Using that information, tools were selected specifically for that project.
During the pandemic, the design and execution of meetings and other in-person engagement events, such as workshops and focus groups, were drastically altered, and moved to a virtual environment. In addition, the previous practice of handing out printed flyers and meeting invitations to stakeholders and abutters was impacted, as many communities prohibited the in-person delivery option to protect the health and well-being of the public.
Challenges were inevitable during the pandemic as we were forced to hit the pause button, reassess current practices, and adapt. If a silver lining can be found from having gone through this pandemic, it could be that it has forced us to get even more creative with how we conduct public engagement to keep the dialogue going.
Through trial and error and substantial research, we have found the following tools to be effective with continuing to engage the public on projects:
Hosting meetings on virtual platforms, such as Zoom and GoToMeeting, have enabled interested parties to attend meetings from any location, using the internet or phone. The regular, widespread use of virtual meetings has resulted in a tremendous increase in attendance and engagement. Virtual meeting platforms have included accessibility tools and technology that are compliant with Title VI and other regulations to provide equal access to the meetings.
Electronic Flyers and Invitations
Using subscription lists and stakeholder databases, project teams share construction updates, event flyers and invitations, as well as streamline the dissemination of information through email and other electronic message services. Participation in virtual meetings often requires that attendees register, which helps to populate contact lists and databases for future information sharing.
Some agencies use pre-recorded presentations conducted during previous in-person meetings. Recording a presentation ahead of time enables the project team to provide clear and efficient updates and helps with virtual accessibility needs. Using a recorded presentation, the project team can develop a transcript for closed captions and language translations. Furthermore, using a presentation recorded in advance prevents live technological issues that may interrupt a meeting or its ability to be shared with attendees.
In place of passing out survey materials at public engagement events and collecting feedback in-person, online surveys have helped to provide vital feedback and insight to the project team. The data and information collected via online surveys has been used to create visual representations of the public needs/wants and incorporated into the project planning process. Online surveys are accessible on computers and mobile devices, can be provided in multiple languages, are compatible with screen readers, and enable the project team to measure the overall reach and engagement through unique links and collectors. QR codes are useful for this – they are unique to each survey and link quickly and directly by using the camera on a smartphone.
To collect and organize feedback during a meeting or a public comment period, virtual whiteboards serve as a blank canvas that can be tailored to a specific project goal or objective and help facilitate collaboration. In the past, virtual whiteboards have been used to brainstorm, study relationship mapping, evaluate trade-offs, and collect other valuable information. The virtual whiteboards are uniquely designed for each meeting, group, and project.
Story maps are another visual data representation tool that has been used to display data collected from meetings or surveys. Story maps, such as Google “My Maps,” use geographic points to represent data collected or data to be shared. They are particularly helpful for linear projects as they enable the project team to share information with stakeholders and with the public at various points within the project boundaries.
Combining virtual meetings, project websites, and story maps, PIMA (Public Involvement Management Application) has been utilized by MassDOT over the last couple of years to engage with the public and develop a two-way channel for dialogue. PIMA collects citizen input and increases efficiency on past practices such as meeting registration, event planning, and public comment documentation and organization. The PIMA tool supplements in-person engagement and helps to visualize projects.
Using a Google email address, a project-specific phone can be set up to collect voicemails from stakeholders and the public at any time. The Google Voicemail functionality includes the option to transcribe each message and help with language translations, as needed. A Google Voicemail number is a nice addition to a construction hotline, especially during design phases, as it is available 24/7 and serves as another channel to collect feedback, especially from those who do not use the internet, email, or other channels.
Social Media Campaigns and Targeted Outreach Plans
Social media platforms have made marketing and targeting outreach easier for non-marketing professionals and offer such services at minimal costs. Social media posts can be tailored to reach a specific community, customer-base, and other audiences while tracking and measuring overall reach and engagement. Many social media platforms have also incorporated various accessibility tools, such as language translations and screen reader compatibility.
Over the past year, we have seen an increase in coordination and collaboration with communities and stakeholders as a result of many of these tools.
Pivot. Pivot is the word we are hearing a lot these days, mostly as it relates to virtual schooling or work. Pivot is exactly what we did in the public outreach community in March of last year. We instantly became experts in virtual platforms, virtually hosting various events from small working groups to public meetings with 500 or more participants. We learned how to include question and answer sessions virtually and manage extensive panels. Suddenly, meeting management became less about accessible venues, sound systems, and screens and more about production capabilities and having staff that could produce and run interactive virtual programs.
As with our own personal and professional virtual meetings there were glitches, and some virtual meetings even got Zoom Bombed! Who ever thought that would be a thing?! In hindsight, we overcame our mistakes to deliver real benefits for our clients. Suddenly, some meetings that normally would have attracted a hundred people (or less) when stakeholders had to make the trip to a town hall or a local gym, garnered hundreds of participants. We found that recordings of meetings made the meeting minutes much better. Even reaching out to underserved and environmental justice communities was easier as we addressed translations and accessibility challenges. Electronic surveys replaced pop-ups and cell data helped us to track passenger movements and needs in real time. The toolbox we had to involve the public had grown.
As we enter 2021, we are all hopeful that we can get back to person-to-person meetings, but with certainty, the outreach we employ to engage and invest the public has changed forever. In 2020, we pivoted and we learned. The future of outreach will continue to include the tools we reached for when we needed to span the gap. Now they will help us better serve our clients, their customers, and the communities in which we serve. Our projects will be better for it. Perhaps a small silver lining to the challenges we faced in 2020.
Joseph Nolan is City Point Partners’ Director of Public Outreach.
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