MPOs who pivoted and expanded their reach
PublicInput joined a panel of presenters at the Association Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (AMPO) Annual Conference in Scottsdale, AZ. Moderated by Bill Austin (Morgantown MPO), panelists included Lori Maher (Genesee Transportation Council), La’Kesha Stewart (MetroPlan, Little Rock, AK), Ashley Moran (Acadiana Planning Commission), and myself.
The panel of presenters shared perspectives on how MPOs pivoted during the pandemic to adjust their engagement tactics to accommodate social distancing and budgetary challenges. Here are some highlights in case you missed it.
For us, 2020 became synonymous with agility and resilience in the face of unimagined change. And for many, virtual and remote became the standard descriptor for an open public meeting. Everyone’s expectations were tested and adapted during this time.
The Power of Video
La'Kesha Stewart with MetroPlan in Little Rock, Arkansas used the power of video amid budget cuts that led to a requirement that their long-range planning initiative would be handled in-house instead of by a consultant firm.
With a limited engagement budget Ms. Stewart came in under budget by allocating her limited funds for Connecting Central Arkansas to the following outreach and engagement cost centers:
- Social Media Advertising (10.5%)
- Surveying Services (44%)
- Paid Media (29.4%)
The success of the video, paired with paid and social media advertising, helped the MetroPlan team pivot in the face of the pandemic and budget constraints. Check out the Connecting Central Arkansas final video to see how it turned out.
The Power of Social Media
Ashley Moran with the Acadiana Planning Commission in Lafayette, Louisiana used the power of social media to address the restrictions and concerns surrounding in-person meeting options. Direct email and survey communications paired with paid social media advertising resulted in a dramatic increase in engagement among the local community.
The Power of Technology
Working at an MPO during this time meant that managing new and changing expectations was a new challenging step in executing previously streamlined regular business.
Board Member Expectations:
When it came to board member expectations, it was really all over the board. Once we realized that the true impact to in-person gatherings would become so restrictive, board members expected plan development and execution to move forward quickly.
Very early on staff realized that any formal guidance from USDOT would not be immediately available so the best we could do was build a plan that was informed by CDC recommendations and try to move forward.
Community Member Expectations:
When it came to community members, suddenly we had unusual voices beginning to appear on the line. For us, community members were unreserved in their online engagement. We had people asking questions over the phone and engaging in ways we had never experienced before.
A new era began to emerge
This organic engagement via virtual meetings was one of the first real indicators of the now post pandemic demand for relevant and accessible meeting options.
Everything changed, except . . .
According to Lori Maher at the Genesee Transportation Council (GTC) there was just no going back to normal now and we tend to agree. The complicator is that regular business did not and has not changed.
For MPOs that means that the core planning documents are still due for updates and amendments. And their responsibility to collect public comment had definitely not changed.
A point in time snapshot
Around this same time the PublicInput team released a survey among the local gov and MPO users to see what the experiences were.
Here is what they found:
- 91% of respondents were actively conducting regular business using online/virtual meetings
- average virtual meeting attendance, when compared to pre-pandemic in-person meetings, had increased by 128%
- 91% of them reported that their local or state governments had amended their sunshine laws and guidelines to allow virtual meetings to be held in a formal capacity.
For Ms. Maher at GTC this meant that virtual meetings became a requirement in response to the in-person restrictions.
Even though we were in the process of procuring PublicInput to execute virtual tactics we were still planning on supplementing with traditional in-person strategies such as farmers markets, festivals, and open houses...the public health guidelines instituted during the pandemic, forced us to pivot to a completely virtual public engagement approach. --Lori Maher
As in-person meeting restrictions have become more relaxed, Ms. Maher reflected on the impact of virtual tactics and how any unified engagement strategy must include both in-person and virtual options to be effective.
Want to learn more about how your MPO or local government can expand your public engagement reach?