Rapidly converting to an online public involvement process
By Scott Rollins - Maine Department of Transportation
Needing a safe solution that would allow the Maine Department of Transportation to conduct public meetings under social distancing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DOT went virtual with its public involvement process in April 2020. Our new virtual approach is redefining how we interact with the public, the quality of data we receive and the quantity of those we reach. It is now our preferred method of public engagement. As a result, our project schedules continue to run efficiently.
When the pandemic required us to accelerate our shift to virtual public involvement, everyone responded quickly, knowing the importance of moving our projects forward. The following are some of the steps we took:
- We involved many staff in the decision. Going virtual no longer was a question of when or if but how. We gathered the project development staff, our director and our program managers to discuss what public involvement would look like in light of the new social distancing restrictions. We quickly mapped out a new strategy for virtual public involvement and outlined its processes on a Microsoft® Teams site so that all appropriate DOT members could see it.
- We adopted a web-based application. Before the pandemic, MaineDOT experimented with various tools as part of the Federal Highway Administration’s Every Day Counts Initiative for Virtual Public Involvement. We chose the Public Involvement Management Application because it is a comprehensive, all-in-one system. We adopted the application in March 2020, issued a contract for its use in April and held our first public meeting using the application in June.
MaineDOT belongs to a consortium of DOTs using and improving PIMA. We were one of the first four states to sign a Memorandum of Agreement with the Iowa Department of Transportation. According to the agreement, when a participating state adds an enhancement to PIMA, they share it with Iowa DOT and the rest of the consortium. Iowa also has created a Microsoft Teams site exclusively for consortium members to share what’s working and what’s not.
- We created a public involvement website. Our new website is dedicated to MaineDOT’s virtual public involvement efforts. The website is directly integrated with PIMA and is populated with all of the active projects available for public comment. Each project has a dedicated webpage using Esri Story Maps, prerecorded public meeting PowerPoint presentations, supporting project documents, photos and potential property impacts.
Those watching a public meeting presentation can type their comments into the PIMA comment form to the right of the presentation while viewing it. It’s a time-saver. Rather than sitting through the entire public meeting and waiting until the end to offer comments, they can go in, log their feedback on the project topics that interest or concern them and receive a response from the DOT.
- We post all projects. Visitors to our public involvement website can see all the active projects accepting public comment. All of the projects that previously would have had an in-person public meeting now will have a virtual meeting. Visitors have access to all active projects, which allows them to learn about and comment on the projects that interest them, not just those that impact their lives or properties. Further, it adds to our efforts to be transparent and underscores our genuine desire for community input. Once a comment period is over, we transfer the project to a project library page, where it remains available for viewing until construction is complete.
- We use social media ads to publicize public meetings. When we elected to take our public involvement process virtual, we also kept our existing method of mailing public notices or publishing meeting announcements in newspapers to notify those that are not online. However, posting Facebook ads that appear in people’s feeds now has become a best practice. The ads publicize our virtual public meetings and drive traffic to the website. Printed notices also include a link to the website. Facebook allows us to engage many more people. We have reached upwards of 20,000 people in larger, urban projects and as many as 9,000 residents in rural communities.
- We segmented online public meeting presentations. The on-demand public meeting presentations housed on the project pages of our website are broken into a series of brief, prerecorded segments. Like chapters of a book, visitors can click on only those segments of a presentation that interest them – the project manager’s introduction, the project’s background, the design alternatives, the selected alternative, the right-of-way process, project funding and schedule, etc. Closing remarks invite viewers to offer their comments or contact the DOT if they have not done so by using the online form displayed at the right of the presentation.
- We grant access to DOT staff. More than 100 members of our department have read-only access to PIMA, enabling them to logon and see what constituents are asking about or commenting on. Most of those who do logon are project managers, but some are staff members who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend a public meeting.
MaineDOT continues to enhance how virtual public meetings are conducted and how we engage with constituents in real-time. And, we may continue to make refinements to our process as we use it. For now, our new virtual public involvement approach is allowing us to gather public input, involve more public stakeholders and continue to move projects forward.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Rollins is a senior project manager for the Maine Department of Transportation and is leading the Virtual Project Involvement initiative. Rollins has more than 33 years of state government experience, with more than 25 years at MaineDOT. He has worked in various areas of the MaineDOT, including project development, planning and in the environmental office. Contact him at (207) 624-3550 or email@example.com
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