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Promoting Public Engagement in Local Road Planning

Posted by InfraUSA on Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

MINNESOTA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

Persistent resource shortfalls and historic changes in usage of local road systems are challenging the sustainability of local road systems in Minnesota and elsewhere. The exact nature of the sustainability issues is difficult to pin down to one or two sources. Clearly, there are multiple sources of road system sustainability challenges. It is also true that the nature of the local road system sustainability problem is partly in the eye of the beholder. Divergences and convergences in information, perspectives, and preferences among the stakeholders in this issue potentially constrain or enable effective actions to address the challenges. In addition, the general public and elected officials may not be aware of the full extent of the challenges, in part because county engineers have been creative and effective in managing the road system, or because the costs of deferred maintenance activities are not immediately or yet visible to the public. Therefore, there is a need to develop and evaluate practical methods for communicating with and engaging diverse stakeholders in decision making regarding the complex, contested policy issues associated with local road systems. In addition, there is a need for additional research to understand the consequences of different engagement practices and to develop improved methods for evaluating public participation.

This report documents the methods and findings of an engaged scholarship project in which the research team collaborated with the public works leaders of three counties in Minnesota in a problem-solving approach to designing solutions to local road system policy issues that they prioritized. The research method included implementing and evaluating communication and engagement techniques for involving the public in decision-making regarding local road policy issues in Minnesota. In particular, it involves three focused study areas: Beltrami, Dakota, and Jackson counties. This report proceeds as follows:

The relevance of this project for local road systems issues, developing public engagement capacity, and advancing basic research (Section 1)

  • Synopsis of research methods (Section 2)
  • Key local road sustainability issues as identified by stakeholders (Section 3)
  • A communication tool for addressing information gaps about local road system sustainability (Section 4)
  • Case studies of three different public engagement models (Section 5)
  • Public preferences regarding engagement methods and evaluation criteria (Section 6)
  • Recommendations (Section 7)

This report analyzes qualitative and quantitative data collected from 91 study participants through the observations of policy dialogues, media content analysis, interviews, focus groups, and surveys of attitudes about these policy issues and public engagement methods. In-depth case studies of three counties describe the local road policy issues, the public engagement approaches, and their effects. This research identifies convergences and divergences in information and perspectives among stakeholders. Tools developed for addressing the communication gaps are available at http://tinyurl.com/local-roads.

The three forms of public participation examined had different outcomes, as presented in Section 5. In Beltrami County, study participants looked at the challenges posed by the combination of limited resources and a countywide road system with many roads in poor repair. Pre- and post-meeting surveys of the participants, and the dynamics of the meetings themselves, reveal that many participants changed their perspectives on what road management options were achievable and acceptable. On several policy options, through dialogue they moved from high divergence to near unanimity. Analysis of the data reveals the importance of the engagement design in explaining that shift, notably the active recruitment of diverse stakeholders, focus groups with individuals of similar backgrounds, and a facilitated policy roundtable among all the different stakeholders.

In Jackson County, a study group approach brought together a small group of neighbors and policymakers to address the concerns of the residents about safety at an intersection. However, current legislation and best practices for signage constrained what could be changed, and the case study demonstrates the need for careful communication about what can (and cannot) be negotiated, to avoid resentment.

In Dakota County, public engagement had already occurred about the effects of a new roundabout on traffic flow, through a traffic study and a series of open houses. The researchers interviewed participants in those meetings about their perspectives on these public consultation methods. The participants expressed mixed attitudes. On the one hand, they emphasized that good public engagement processes should allow them to have meaningful input and support decisions that are reached in transparent and fair ways. On the other, some expressed their displeasure that decisions had already been made, without taking their opinions into account or allowing them to influence the outcome.

The implications of this study extend beyond the three case study areas in several ways. They provide models and guidance for local governments that are grappling with transportation issues that similarly involve complexity, resource constraints and tradeoffs, and stakeholders with diverse kinds of knowledge, interests, and needs. In addition, this research advances knowledge in two areas of interest to scholars and practitioners of public engagement by providing participants’ accounts of two phenomena:

How participants come to change their minds through deliberative dialogues. Research interviews with participants and analysis of the focus group and roundtable transcripts suggest several reasons for participants changing their minds. The dialogues allowed people to gain more complete information about the issues and become better informed about options. Participants gained new perspectives and became more empathetic by associating the issue with individuals and their stories. With additional information and an enlarged view of the issues, new measures for evaluating and managing the problem emerged.

Participants’ criteria and preferences for evaluating public participation. Scholars and practitioners acknowledge that evaluation methods for public participation are poorly developed. This study documents a fresh perspective by identifying participants’ likes and dislikes about how participation processes are organized. Their preferences, summarized in Table 3, are very consistent with what previously published research suggests about public engagement. This contributes an important validation, and triangulation from a fresh and thus far missing perspective, of the previous findings of researchers.

On the basis of these findings, the study recommends the following (Section 7):

  • Create a go-to location for information about local road system sustainability issues that is informative, understandable, and reliable.
  • Actively involve diverse stakeholders in local road system sustainability discussions.
  • Consistently keep the public informed about local transportation issues and projects, but reserve public engagement efforts for complex issues that require more than technical expertise to address.
  • Take an approach of sustained, deliberative dialogue to involve stakeholders in complex local road system issues.
  • Introduce tested and commonsense criteria for public engagement efforts.
  • Adopt and refine the public engagement methods used in this study through application in other jurisdictions and further study.

Download full version (PDF):  Building Local Agency Capacity for Public Engagement in Local Road Systems Planning and Decision Making

About the Minnesota Department of Transportation
www.dot.state.mn.us
Vision: Minnesota’s multimodal transportation system maximizes the health of people, the environment and our economy. Mission: Plan, build, operate and maintain a safe, accessible, efficient and reliable multimodal transportation system that connects people to destinations and markets throughout the state, regionally and around the world.

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