Virtual Engagement Guidebook 1. Introduction

  • Date: December 2, 2021


Virtual public engagement, also known as e-participation within the context of governance, is public engagement facilitated by information and communication technologies (ICT), such as web tools. When virtual engagement first came to the fore, it was believed that it could increase citizen participation in public decision-making processes by reducing the time and effort required to access and respond to information, essentially making the process of participation easier for stakeholders.

Defining Engagement:

In this guidebook, we define engagement in terms of interaction: where information is shared by the organization and where the organization receives feedback, input, or comments.

Studies have found that with the increased use of online tools for virtual engagement, it takes less effort for individuals to participate in meetings and events, but there has been little increase in the overall number of participants in these public processes. Some believe that the reluctance of stakeholders to participate is based on low levels of motivation — relatively few stakeholders are aware of how issues affect them personally and are, therefore, less inclined to participate in a formal engagement process.

Thus, while this guidebook explores approaches to online engagement, technology alone will not necessarily increase the level public participation. ICTs can allow for wider, faster, and less expensive engagement processes, but they do not guarantee citizen buy-in or increase motivation among some population groups in the same ways that more personal, one-on-one traditional engagement approaches can.

The purpose of this Virtual Engagement Guidebook is to offer a reference tool for transit agencies, mobility managers, human service transportation providers, tribal transportation programs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that seek to expand or diversify their practices for collaborating with their teams, policymakers, stakeholders, partners, and members of the public.

This guidebook is designed to highlight industry practices that transportation providers have employed to address their engagement objectives, as well as identify the approaches and tools available to a wide range of organizations, including those with dedicated outreach staff and access to budgets and software tools to facilitate engagement efforts virtually, as well as smaller, resource- constrained agencies seeking to sustain or improve their engagement efforts virtually.

In this guidebook, engagement refers to the practice of organized interaction to serve an established objective. This interaction is achieved by soliciting participation, sharing information, and receiving feedback. These functions often take place in a meeting or workshop setting, but can also include any number of other efforts where an organization’s representatives convene dialogs with select groups of participants and/or members of the public. Engagement occurs when these dialogs are focused on specific issues in and carried out in forums or using tools established by the transportation organization.

A transportation organization’s engagement efforts might include soliciting input on a service plan, fare study, or other planning or policy initiative through workshops, town halls, open houses, public meetings, charettes, presentations, interactive surveys, and other events. Engagement could also involve regularly scheduled policy board meetings, hosting advisory committees, or other standing meetings with elected, appointed, or volunteer representatives and members of the public. It may also require staff to represent the organization at events, forums, or gatherings hosted by other organizations. Holding seminars, travel training and programs to educate users, ambassador programs—all are further examples of how transit agencies and other transportation programs seek to engage their communities, clients, and stakeholders.

Engagement is different from a pure marketing function, for example, where the objective is typically to attract riders, promote initiatives, or to build a brand, but not typically to solicit the input sought in an engagement effort. Marketing can include sharing information about service disruptions, legislative or tax proposals, new products (e.g., fare media, specialized services, or new facilities), health guidelines, etc.

Likewise, a customer service function is established to address inquiries and provide support in response to consumer needs, based on their day-to-day experiences with a transit system or transportation program (e.g., route information, fare card technical issues, etc.). While customer service can field comments and concerns from an individual, the focus is not on initiating discussions about policies, programs, or plans – these are engagement objectives.

Using This Guidebook

In developing the guidebook, the research team contacted several transportation organizations – MPOs, transit agencies, human service transportation providers, and others – to gather input and insights on the tools and approaches that they use. Many of these organizations had limited experience with virtual engagement prior to the onset of the pandemic, and shared highlights of how they modified their in-person engagement approaches to become virtual. Some organizations had already been using virtual engagement tools and tactics for many years, but the pandemic led to shifting more of their engagement efforts to remote meetings or events. While some organizations offered exemplary narratives of successes with virtual engagement, most identified tradeoffs, including obstacles they faced when trying to support remote engagement efforts. These brief case studies are included in the appendix to this guidebook, but references are offered to illustrate examples in all the guidebook sections.

This guidebook highlights the diversity of practices and options available to transportation-focused organizations of any size. Each chapter addresses a different key topic.

Chapter 2 begins with an overview of the reasons, or “motivators,” to engage various audiences. It focuses on approaches and ideas to help an organization identify its objectives in developing or expanding its engagement efforts. The discussion includes a definition of virtual engagement, its benefits and challenges, and rules and regulations governing engagement.

Chapter 3 covers virtual engagement activities. The guidebook provides an overview of the various types of meetings as well as non-meeting forms of virtual engagement. For each meeting or event, examples include the types of technologies that might be employed, tools appropriate for reaching various stakeholder groups, suggestions regarding the number of individuals who can be engaged via the technology, and trade-
offs. Information in the sidebar next to each example briefly summarizes the key audiences, approaches, and reasoning for each application.

In addition to defining the activities, the chapter highlights how transportation-focused organizations can maximize the effectiveness of their virtual engagement efforts, offering practices for effective virtual meetings and strategies for soliciting meaningful feedback.

Chapter 4 provides information about how a virtual engagement effort can be implemented. The discussion includes descriptions of the many types of virtual engagement tools that are available, how tools can be used to support a transportation organization’s engagement objectives, examples of how different organizations have used these tools, and specific examples of software. The chapter also includes a discussion about how to engage vendors to supply these tools and other considerations such as accessibility.

A discussion of building a culture of expanded public involvement in Chapter 5 is intended to illustrate how even a small transportation organization can expand its toolbox to promote more engagement with the communities it serves and its partners through equitable, accessible, and ongoing interactions. The concluding chapter also highlights how transportation organizations can use volunteers to support their efforts, can grow a more responsive social media presence, and can use engagement to build nurturing partnerships for the organization.

The guidebook’s appendix features samples and templates that transportation organizations can tailor for their own purposes such as hosting meetings, scheduling events, and securing the resources needed to ensure successful engagement.

Focus on Equity and Accessibility for Virtual Engagement

Equitable virtual engagement is essential to ensure an inclusive community planning process: meaningful and creative ways to engage non-English speaking communities, people with disabilities, low-income populations, minority populations, and other underserved communities. In doing so, planners and facilitators expand the scope of opportunities to incorporate the voices of traditionally underrepresented communities into the conversation.

Equitable virtual engagement can be challenging at times. However, it is important for planners and facilitators to think beyond preliminary meeting constructs and tools. This will allow them to consider the quality of engagement, the effectiveness of engaging hard-to-reach communities, and methods to achieve wider and more meaningful representation in public decision-making.

Equitable Virtual Outreach

Effective engagement requires an understanding of potential power dynamics between a transportation organization or technical specialists and community decision-making roles; knowledge of a community’s history, experience, culture, and language; familiarity with community resources; and an understanding of population characteristics, including how and where people use transit services, the limitations of the transportation network, how important transportation is compared to other services and activities, and general familiarity with the public participation process.

In developing the case studies in this guidebook, transportation program representatives often expressed concern that they were missing underserved populations in their virtual engagement efforts. Some organizations highlighted examples where they felt they had made some inroads, such as online interpretation and easy-to- access videos. While almost any outreach specialist will acknowledge that virtual engagement for a predominantly immigrant community is not the same as a face-to-face interaction at local community-sponsored event, the tools to encourage participation are largely the same. A comprehensive information distribution approach that focuses on hard-to-reach communities may be the most useful tool for pursuing more equitable virtual engagement.

The Digital Divide

The term digital divide refers to a population’s limited access to communications tools, such as computers and smartphones, connectivity to the internet, and the capacity to comfortably access and navigate virtual services and technologies. For example, some population groups, such as older adults or low-income communities, have less experience with and access to communication technology tools than younger, more affluent populations. Not only is it more challenging for this group to participate in virtual activities, but they also have less experience using these tools, making virtual engagement unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable.

Technology has made it easier to engage with people who speak languages other than English. These include:

  • Internet browser settings can allow users to select their language of choice and automatically translate web pages.
  • Virtual meeting or webinar platforms sometimes allow for on-demand interpretation (or multiple channels to accommodate different languages).
  • Video players can embed subtitles, which can be presented in various languages.

These tools support more equitable engagement for various populations who can access these technologies.

Accessible Information, Outreach, and Meeting Tools

Equitable engagement means ensuring that all people have an opportunity to participate, regardless of disability. Virtual engagement has made it easier for some people with mobility limitations to participate because it negates the need to travel to a meeting site and potentially also encounter onsite accessibility obstacles. Meeting tools now feature closed captioning for people with hearing impairments, as well as on-screen slides and visuals. These include volume controls, options to download meeting materials into screen readers (rather than receive print-only versions), screen zoom features, and built-in accessibility technologies on computers and smartphones. Nonetheless, not all tools are accessible. Transportation organizations assessing virtual engagement tools should review and understand how accessibility features can be used. In addition, a skilled meeting facilitator will also confirm the accessibility preferences of meeting participants and work to ensure that information is communicated effectively during the meeting.