Sound public policy benefits from good public input. While local, state and federal agencies are required by law to include public comment for projects and proposals, the process can sometimes dilute the power of the public’s participation. For example, public hearings are often held very late in the process, making it less likely that input from those hearings will have an impact. For many, just getting to the hearing location can be a challenge. And hearings are often held during workday hours, making it difficult for people with a job to participate. Conditions like these can give the impression that public comment is an afterthought rather than a valued ingredient for good public policy.
“For a very long time, the public input process has been seen as a duty or requirement rather than an opportunity to improve the outcome,” says Executive Director Denise Jess of the Council. However, there’s reason for optimism. “Increasing numbers of governing entities are realizing the value of a more robust public comment opportunity,” Denise says. She cites the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s (WisDOT) Active Transportation Plan project as an example. Denise serves on the project’s steering committee.
“In one of our meetings, we were talking about where we were going to go for public input,” she says. “It was agreed that a centralized location at random times would not provide enough public participation. Instead of that same old process, we talked about other ways to get community input. We looked at different regions of the state and determined where we could show up with a booth at places people are already going to be, like community festivals and county fairs.”
Matt Schneider an urban and regional planner with WisDOT, is project manager for the Active Transportation Plan. He says the idea of taking the opportunity for input directly to the public instead of holding a meeting in a building and hoping the public will show up is one of several tools in the toolbox WisDOT calls its Engagement Action Plan. Pop-up events like those county fair booths are part of that plan.
The events were scheduled throughout the Active Transportation Plan planning period. “Pop-up events were really successful,” Matt says. “We picked five pop-up events and also attended a conference related to parking and infrastructure. We got approximately 465 responses through those specific events.” In contrast, at an announced, traditional public comment hearing held a few years ago, just three people showed up. “The pop-ups were much more productive,” Matt says. “I heard frequently that people were just happy that WisDOT was out there.”
Another approach in the Active Transportation Plan’s public engagement strategy is open houses. WisDOT organized six virtual open houses, each geared toward a particular region and one with a statewide emphasis. “Virtual open houses opened it up for people,” says Matt. He adds that daytime open houses also brought in professionals who work in public transportation.
Public surveys and focus groups are also part of the public comment toolbox informing the Active Transportation Plan. The two completed surveys netted a total of 900 responses.
In addition, four focus groups have been organized. The focus groups are made up of various stakeholders: residents of larger cities, small town residents, members of metropolitan planning commissions, professionals who share best practices, and schools.
“We’re looking to identify new focus groups in areas of tribal, disability, tourism, and county highways,” Matt says. In early January, with Denise’s guidance and facilitation, a Blind and Visually Impaired (BVI) focus group was identified and convened. The group was made up of safety and BVI advocates who represented various areas of the state, including cities and towns of all sizes.
“It was a great opportunity for WisDOT to hear suggestions, but moreso to hear from people who are using those modes of transportation,” Denise says. “Guide dog users, bikers, white cane pedestrians. A great cross section and exactly what you want in a focus group: a rich conversation among stakeholders.”
One of those stakeholders was La Crosse resident and guide dog user Liz Fryseth. “One of the aspects I liked was the sense of community involvement with the theme of safety in mind,” Liz reflects. “Having a place and space to speak lived experience and to further conversations about the future gives me hope that it will have an impact on further development of plans.”
Chip Kaufman, a Council board member from Middleton who is an avid bicyclist, was another January BVI Focus Group member. “It was great to hear from a wide variety of nondrivers about their experiences,” says Chip. “It was also somewhat rewarding to feel like my experiences were being heard. The leader did a great job of giving us all a chance to share our unique experiences navigating the world without a car. It was also fantastic to know that I was not alone in the many things that I find so frustrating about getting around on my bike with vision loss.”
In short, the BVI Focus Group is an excellent example of a state agency getting valuable information from a very specific population that is not often a part of the conversation. Chip also says that the more relaxed, less “official” setting makes people more comfortable participating and taking the next step.
Denise says all the comments are shared with the steering committee and then utilized in the next segment of the work.
For more information on the the Active Transportation Plan and to watch for future opportunities to participate, visit WisDOTplans.gov/Plan/atp2050.
Meanwhile, the Council has a couple of tips for people ready to advocate on public policy:
- Get involved now! Whatever the issue, don’t worry about getting your specific comment just right. Use the Council’s Action Alerts to better understand the issue. Sign up for alerts at WCBlind.org/News/Newsletter-signup or by emailing us at info@WCBlind.org or calling the Council at 608-255-1166.
- Encourage your local officials to improve their processes for gathering public input. Tell them you want opportunities to weigh in before key decisions have already been made.