Public involvement in project development, project planning, construction implementation and long-range planning have long been part of the DOT’s responsibilities. Likewise, public expectation for accountability and transparency are not new to DOTs, but those expectations are growing. The nature of public interactions is changing because of the options presented by new technology. State DOTs need to adapt, employing strategies that make the most effective use opportunities for public input.
For example, in response to increasing public concern about the impact of extreme weather and increased competition for natural resources, some DOTs have begun to adopt goals related to sustainability. Sustainability seeks to balance social, economic and environmental needs – considering both current and future generations. Meeting this “triple bottom line” requires agencies to rethink their mission(s) and operating principles. Stronger interagency partnerships, expanded public participation, and adoption of risk-based, adaptable decision-making processes are required.
Sustainability isn’t the only concern gaining public traction. The increase in the number and presence of other advocacy groups promoting multi-modal options, equity and equality in transportation, and public health initiatives such as active transportation, air quality, and access to medical care add to the challenges facing DOTs as well.
Addressing these growing public expectations can be made easier with the use of technology. Some of the potential impacts of technology on how state DOTs address the need for better public communication include:
- Public Involvement: Technology offers potential new ways to involve the public in project development and long-range planning that may be more efficient and cost-effective than traditional “town hall” style public meetings. Legal requirements for public involvement may need some overhaul to allow use of new methods while still ensuring that everyone in the public has an opportunity for comment. New skills may be needed at the DOT to identify and involve previously uninvolved segments of the public, as well as to gather, analyze and address a wider variety of public input.
- “Real-time” Information: The public increasingly seeks better information access and real-time data accuracy, given the technology advancements occurring. This can be an opportunity for DOTs to better demonstrate performance progress and the value that transportation adds to the public good. It also presents workload challenges for DOTs and requires improvements to capabilities that enable more agile and efficient information delivery.
- Social Media: With the growth of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, State DOTs need to be increasingly customer-responsive. The ability to respond quickly and diplomatically to customer complaints – or kudos – on social media requires specific skills and can occupy a significant amount of staff time.
- Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests: State DOTs have processes in place to respond to the specific requirements for transparency and timing specified by FOIA. These requests are increasing, but as importantly, new challenges arise because technology can make reams of data available in response, sometimes inadvertently exposing private information that would otherwise be exempt from FOIA. E-mails, databases, electronic documents are all subject to FOIA requests. The DOT may need to update its FOIA processes and policies to ensure exempt information remains private. DOTs will also need to improve efforts to ensure all staff are aware of the potential “FOIA-bility” of all their electronic documents.
- General Communication: The transition from paper to electronic information has cut costs, but it also requires state DOTs to continually improve how they communicate, keeping online information up to date, sharing information through electronic mailing lists, and expanding those lists to widen and improve communication. It may also require the DOT to update and review publication policies to ensure online information still complies with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).