Meaningful Engagement and Collaboration: Session Summary

Posted on: June 4th, 2012 by Kate Humphrey

In the “Meaningful Engagement and Collaboration: Develop a Participation Plan” session at the 2012 National Rural Transportation Conference, speakers shared their experiences and methods of engaging the community in the planning process. Leanne Doran, a public involvement specialist with McCormick Taylor, moderated the session. Read a detailed summary below, or click here to watch the video and see the slides.

The first presenter was Lewis Grimm from the Federal Lands Highway (FLH) Eastern Division. He began by explaining several similarities and differences between FLH and other Federal-Aid agencies. While they are all responsible for oversight and stewardship of surface transportation funds and providing guidance to partners, they cover differing scales of geography and have different missions. Grimm posed the question of how to “better coordinate the similarities and bridge the differences, as appropriate at the various levels of planning?”

FLH currently has several initiatives underway to promote a better long-range planning process at all levels, including project coordination and linkages between programs. The Federal-Aid Stewardship and Oversight Umbrella covers many different activities and levels of planning, from statewide to project-specific. The proposed multimodal transportation planning process for Federal Land Management Agencies (FLMAs) maintains the same framework—regardless of what organization is on top, the FHWA requires the same oversight. FLH is responsible for plans for multiple agencies at the national, regional, unit, and project level.

FLH performs the same duties as state DOTs but on small pieces of land (in most cases) and has only three divisions, Eastern, Central, and Western. These regions overlap in different ways with boundaries of partner agencies such as the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service, which can complicate planning and coordination efforts.

To approach transportation planning at a larger level, FLH provides guidance to FLMAs. It defines basic elements of a regional long-range transportation plan (in a way similar to FHWA guidance for statewide multimodal plans), including the public involvement process. FLMA agencies must “include reasonable and appropriate opportunities for public involvement in the development of their transportation plans” and coordinate with state DOTs and MPOs when appropriate. There are also a number of specific actions that the public involvement plan component should include, such as documentation of the process, public notice and review throughout the process, and “consideration of the needs of traditionally underserved population groups.”

As part of an evolving process, each FLMA has a different perspective and uses a variety of techniques for public involvement. Some common examples include planning update processes, national and regional websites, and general outreach through brochures or electronic media. At this point, there is no clear best practice or most effective technique as each planning process is unique. A session participant asked if any tools, such as social media, stand out. Grimm responded that each FMLA is trying to interact with different types of people, and although there is more social media engagement now than a year ago, there is still no predominant method. Another participant asked if comments made through social media are becoming part of the official record of public comment, meaning agencies would be required to respond. Grimm explained that this is a challenging issue due to privacy concerns, but said that constructive comments are likely to be passed on anonymously.

The second presenter was Jeff Kiely, the executive director of the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments (NWNMCOG). He focused on addressing issues of diversity because of his experience working and collaborating with tribal communities in his area, a very low density 3-county region where 50 percent of the land base and population are Native American. The Navajo in particular have a strong presence in the region. This context presents many challenges for transportation planning, including low population density and limited tax revenues because many of the Native American settlements are in “land islands” surrounded by state- or federally-owned land. Kiely said it is difficult to assemble the resources often required for local funding matches, even with high levels of civic will. Many roads do not qualify for federal support, and there is “low federal funding with high federal presence.” Finally, there is a lack of training for technical planning tasks and the need to consider sovereignty issues with respect to tribal independence and self-governance.

The challenges listed above create the need for collaboration, and the regional impact of transportation creates the opportunity to bring different sovereignties together. In addition to playing several roles in this process (inclusion, facilitation, partnership, problem solving, and technical assistance), the RTPO is required by law to consult and coordinate with tribal governments. The FHWA’s definition of consultation is “respectful, effective communication in a cooperative process,” a standard that the NWNMCOG goes beyond. Kiely said that consultation should result in incorporating proposed changes into the final plan. He also emphasized the importance of building relationships, a belief shared with Navajo culture. Strong relationships serve as the base for promoting partnerships, where it is important to specify rights and responsibilities for successful outcomes.

Kiely then explained ways that NWNMCOG has found collaborative solutions for working in its diverse region. One example is using Memoranda of Agreement between agencies to resolve complex cross-jurisdictional issues and move across boundaries to support cooperation. NWNMCOG also helps tribes get more access to funding and coordinated project development with “full circle funding” that seeks funding sources year-round to bring all necessary resources together and promote larger projects without waiting for federal funds for which many projects are not eligible. Another example of successful collaboration is the road forums and road guides. Many Navajo chapters attended the forums, where planners provided a technical assistance orientation and distributed road guides with more resources. One important element is training people to identify projects where there is an overwhelming need.

Kiely presented details of several successful projects that highlight the importance of inter-sovereign collaboration before concluding with lessons learned. He spoke about the role of relationship building and respect for values. Mutual projects require an honest and equal approach to engagement, which can lead to tribal communities becoming important allies. Kiely cautioned against “swooping,” wherein agencies quickly enter a community to educate them about a project without asking how they could collaborate together. NWNMCOG’s experiences show how collaboration and engagement in planning can improve quality of life and quality of place in diverse rural communities.

The third presenter was Vicki Rusbult of the Eastern Maine Development Commission (EMDC), who spoke about a community-based approach to linking four rural counties. Maine’s status as the most rural state in the U.S. is one of several transportation planning challenges, along with the state’s growing senior population and the lack of major metropolitan cities and public transportation. The project’s goal of exploring transportation options for rural residents was supported by a two-year TIGER 2 planning grant from the U.S. DOT.

During the first year of the project, EMDC focused on convening a group of experts and stakeholders to form the advisory group. This stage also included defining the project scope, collecting data, and planning for a survey. EMDC used information compiled during the second year to plan ways to bridge gaps and increase transportation opportunities for rural communities. EMDC will seek more funds to implement projects from the list of feasible options.

The advisory group has played an ongoing role in developing the project. It has members from a diverse group of organizations from all four counties—Rusbult called the group large, well-represented, effective, and engaged. The advisory group is connected to another economic development group, Mobilize Eastern Maine, which uses a bottom up approach with public and private stakeholders and partners. [See the 2011 NADO Research Foundation report on Mobilize Maine for more details on that asset-based economic development effort.]  Overall, members have longstanding relationships with the communities they serve. To respect members’ time, EMDC would cancel meetings if there were no issues to discuss and offered stipends for participation and effort. A subcommittee developed the survey with the help of experts, freeing the full advisory group meetings for larger issues.

Rusbult then showed excerpts from the survey and presented findings, primarily that a multi-modal approach is needed to close the gaps. The proposed “network of networks” would include transit stations and intelligent transportation infrastructure, such as wiring for high speed internet connectivity that would help residents arrange rideshares. The same technology could also be used to reduce the need for transportation, giving access to medical, education, and banking resources from home.

Rusbult concluded by reviewing the successful elements of EMDC’s participation process. It is critical to involve a cross-section of the community to ensure that all voices are heard. Furthermore, using a variety of engagement methods, such as small focus groups and one-on-one meetings, will help reach more stakeholders. Frequent communication, especially about outcomes, can also keep stakeholders engaged. This level of communication was vital in encouraging response to the survey, which had a high response rate of 24 percent.

The fourth and final presenter was Rachel Beyerle of Easter Seals Project ACTION. She provided an overview of the project and introduced new resources for inclusive planning and an in-person technical assistance program. Project ACTION, Accessible Community Transportation in Our Nation, promotes mobility and transportation options for those with disabilities through four core activities: training, technical assistance, research, and outreach.

The new resources focus on supporting inclusive planning processes and include guides on assessing needs, meeting etiquette, and advisory committees. The materials are relevant for many different stakeholder groups, including those that work with youth, health care, or social service agencies. The Rural Transportation Topic Guide Series contains information for rural communities to address their transportation needs, particularly for people with disabilities and older adults. The first guide, “Community Assessments and Gap Analysis Studies,” has resources to help communities identify existing transportation services and form a plan to address the gaps where needs are not being met.

The second resource is the “Communication and Meeting Etiquette Pocket Guide.” The brochure provides information about respectful language in conversation, interviews, and meetings. It includes ways to ensure that everyone can participate in meetings, by using meeting spaces that are accessible to those with disabilities and can accommodate those with hearing or visual impairments. The third resource is called “Effective Transportation Advisory Committees: Creating a Group that Reflects All Community Voices.” Similar to the Meeting Etiquette guide, this resource contains ways to improve committees and make them more accessible, from purpose and membership structure to running meetings.

Beyerle then explained why creating accessible communities through an involved planning process is important, especially to those with disabilities and older adults.  It helps 36 million people in the U.S. maintain a safe, independent lifestyle and enhances economic and social vitality. To further this mission, the Easter Seals have introduced an in-person technical assistance program, Accessible Transportation Coalitions Initiative (ATCI). ATCI is an annual two-day event that helps communities define needs and develop visions and plans. In 2012, 10 communities were selected to participate by a competitive application and also received one year of follow-up technical assistance.

A session participant asked Beyerle for advice on operating special services on limited budgets. She replied that the most effective approach is to take tools out into the community, rather than bring the community to you. It is also helpful to use tools that the target group is already familiar using.

A brief panel discussion followed the formal presentations. The first question asked about effective ways to get large geographies to a central location. Rusbult spoke about giving people the opportunity to call in or video conference, though this is not always possible with smaller communities. The EMDC’s network is built so that the advisory members represent their communities and assume the responsibility to go back and report. Overall, electronic communication is very important to continue dialogues for those who cannot attend meetings. Kiely explained how NWNMCOG organizes committees according to purpose and scope and carefully defines the purpose of meetings to make sure that it is best served by a physical meeting of those people in that way. Broader regional meetings are less frequent than smaller subgroup meetings, and it is often more efficient to send one representative to a subgroup meeting than to convene a separate one. NWNMCOG is also beginning to find success using video conferences.

Beyerle spoke about Easter Seals’ national online dialogues, which have included topics such as paratransit and transportation needs of veterans. These have been an effective way to increase access to resources as participants can contribute comments and questions to keep conversations going. They also maintain a comprehensive email contact list that includes MPOs, university groups, and state DOTs as part of efforts to reach broad groups of stakeholders.

Another participant asked about tools to engage Title VI and environmental justice populations in rural communities. Grimm called this an “overwhelming challenge,” especially in rural settings. He recommended going to the communities and using existing activities and events as an opportunity to reach out and speak about issues. These settings can also identify community leaders who can help by disseminating information more broadly. Kiely considers participation by groups involved in environmental justice an opportunity to address interdisciplinary topics. Rusbult said that the EMDC advisory group represents those individuals so they are included in the planning process.

Finally, a participant asked if the speakers were using email, Facebook, or other social media tools to engage people who may otherwise be hard to reach. Rusbult relies on existing email lists, and Kiely reaches out to teachers and educators to engage youth.



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