August 3, 2023

The COVID-19 Shift in Public Involvement: Benefitting from a Digital World

The COVID-19 pandemic forced our industry into a new way of operating. As stay-at-home orders were issued, everyone, including the Lochmueller Group Public Involvement (PI) team, had to shift their in-person efforts to include virtual options to keep time-sensitive projects on schedule. One thing became clear as restrictions eased and gatherings became possible again: the virtual component of PI would remain. Providing information and receiving feedback in a way that allowed the public to participate from any place at any time removed barriers to participation. From a pandemic necessity to a modern outreach tool, the Lochmueller PI team is using the skills gained during COVID to create engaging and meaningful involvement.

According to INDOT, the public involvement process includes public hearings, public meetings, and open houses. Public hearings are federally required meetings to help with decision making during the project development phase. Public meetings include formal presentations, a chance for the public to comment, and a detailed display. Open houses are a means of receiving public input on proposed projects before programming and funding.

When the pandemic hit, our team was challenged with a more digital approach compared to the typical in-person events. How do you get community feedback on a project without giving an in-person presentation? How do you foster community participation when you can’t meet or talk face-to-face? Thanks to technological advancements, our PI team was able to adapt quickly.

In-person public meetings and open houses turned virtual via Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams, allowing community members to join via phone, computer, or tablet. Surveys were administered online to gather project feedback. With the help of project websites, social media platforms, and emails, narrated PowerPoint presentations, project update videos, and newsletters were uploaded for all to see. Also on project websites, community members could utilize interactive mapping activities to be aware of project areas to avoid.

Although we were hesitant with the transition originally, many saw participation in the public involvement process actually increase. The virtuality of meetings and information sharing allowed for community members to access and attend wherever they were at. Busy working parents, those with impaired mobility, etc. were able to participate and attend at a time and in a way most convenient to them. The mix of information outlets still created space for dialogue and active participation, just in a way that we had never experienced before.

The Bike Decatur Regional Bicycle Plan for the City of Decatur, Illinois, was one of many projects whose public involvement was affected by the pandemic. Because in-person gatherings were limited, our team relied on a suite of low-contact solutions to continue to advance the project.

• A project website provided information and updates to the public and served as a platform to gather feedback.

• A series of stakeholder interviews were conducted with partner agencies, community leaders, and elected officials.

• Multiple interactive virtual public open houses were held.

• An online survey enabled people to give detailed feedback on their perceived successes and shortcomings of the existing bicycle transportation network.

• The project team hosted a Bicycle Design Training workshop for staff and local agencies and professionals.

• An interactive online mapping activity allowed the public to identify barriers or unsafe locations, gaps in the active transportation network, destinations, and new or improved routes.

• Social media was used to disseminate information and promote open houses.

The use of virtual means may have started with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has quickly become the new norm. The future of public involvement is neither entirely in-person nor entirely virtual, but rather a blend of the two. We look forward to continuing the use of technology in our public involvement efforts, whether that be incorporating virtual options or including new technological advancements like virtual reality. Stay tuned for more exciting projects to come, and don’t forget to get out and share feedback on upcoming changes in your community!

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