A major component of any successful highway project is collecting, analyzing, and incorporating input from the people who live and work in the area and use the transportation system every day. For decades, the Iowa Department of Transportation sought this public involvement at in-person meetings.
While we recognize that these meetings are very useful, we also recognize people’s behaviors change over time, and there is always room for improvement at gaining even more public input. Valerie Brewer, one of the Iowa DOT’s two public involvement managers, said, “For in-person meetings, we used several outreach efforts to get information about the meeting to those who might be interested. Then those people needed to attend that meeting at an appointed time. Oftentimes, attendance was very low. Those who did attend were able to view paper documents related to the project and presentations by DOT staff. Comments were collected in writing. This process did collect valuable input, but we knew we could do more to involve those people who rely on the transportation system in their area.”
For the past five years the Iowa DOT, with the assistance of a consultant, has been developing our virtual public involvement management application to increase the amount of citizen input into transportation projects, reduce the manual processes, and improve the consistency of data collection for both in-person and online public meetings. The tool is an interactive, electronic way to manage stakeholder outreach and improve project decision-making.
Jon Rees, a public involvement manager who works alongside Brewer said, “The solution started by focusing on the management of the public involvement process and providing a way for anyone to submit comments. It allows us to easily respond to and manage those comments electronically. Now, five years later, the tool has developed into a robust virtual involvement program that is being shared with DOTs around the country.”
How does the tool work?
The details of each public meeting, either in-person or online, are advertised in local newspapers, posted to social media, and letters are mailed to property owners who could be potentially impacted.
Rees said, “The tool is designed to capture information digitally, but we have adapted it to be used at in-person public meetings, too. But currently, all meetings are being held online due to the pandemic.”
When the in-person meetings are held, attendees are asked to register in the online system using an Iowa DOT iPad. If they aren’t comfortable using the device, one of our project administrators is there to assist. If the meeting attendee doesn’t want to share personal information, the comments can be captured without identifying the user directly.
For the online meetings, all the same materials are available on the website at any time. Users can leave written comments online as they are watching the meeting. Brewer said, “The meeting materials can consist of YouTube videos, ArcGIS StoryMaps and/or pre-recorded PowerPoint presentations. We are also investigating the use of live streaming meetings.”
No meeting? No problem.
Collecting the information from public meetings is very important, but meetings are not held for all Iowa DOT projects around the state. Rees said, “We thought it was important to make the details of all of our projects available to the public, so we developed a public portal that allows anyone to locate any Iowa DOT project that ties into the public input collection tool. The portal gives the user information on the type and description of the project and details from any past public meetings that may have been held related to the project. It also displays the level of support the project has received which is gaged by comments that have been submitted. Most importantly, it allows for anyone to reach out and leave an electronic comment, to have their voices heard. The public portal can be found here by clicking the “Map Search” icon.
Rees added, “The public portal gives people the opportunity to reach out to us and start a conversation. If you register your contact information in the system, we can respond to you about the impacts of the project and you can sign up to receive future emails about the project.”
As comments come in, our staff can monitor and respond electronically. Staff can analyze the comments for sentiment and content. The executive dashboard provides a summary of each public involvement event to gain a better understanding of the status of the project.
Brewer said, “The system has become our ‘one-stop-shop’ for all of our public involvement activities leading up to, and after a public information meeting or hearing. We can quickly and efficiently gauge the public sentiment and lookup analytics of a particular project within seconds.”
Spreading the word to other states
The intent by the Iowa DOT was to develop a tool that other agencies could benefit from. The system has been demonstrated at various venues and in one-on-one presentations with numerous state DOTs. The Iowa DOT and our consultant have an agreement to provide the application to other agencies with minimal cost with the agreement that any future development by any participating state be shared with the other participating states. So far, two other state DOTs have incorporated the application into their processes and many others are looking into possible implementation.