Case Study: Alaska: Evaluation Through Public Engagement

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The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT) began in 1996 to redefine the agency's relationship to the public. This effort was inspired by Governor Tony Knowles who set a clear goal at the beginning of his term to improve public participation in the planning process. Through self-assessment, the ADOT determined that its communication was too oriented to public relations, which resulted in a one-way flow of information to the public. The Statewide Planning Division saw the requirement for proactive outreach to the public in the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act as an opportunity to create a two-way communication process and better define the role of the public in agency decision making.

The ADOT faces unique challenges in engaging the public due to the long distances between population centers. The ADOT must support transportation needs for an area measuring more than 2500 miles east to west. Substantial areas of the state are roadless, making face-to-face meetings with a dispersed rural population truly challenging. Native Alaskan villages are not only physically isolated, but some tribal cultures use different styles of communication thanothers. With these obstacles to communication, ADOT Planning staff turned to the people of the state to help the agency identify the best means of creating an ongoing dialogue. They then organized and assessed the public input and used what they learned to develop a public involvement plan (PIP) that in turn has been applied to updating the state long-range transportation plan (Vision 2020) and to identifying projects for the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP).

While the ADOT experience does not represent a formal evaluation process, it does illustrate the value of public input as an effective tool in evaluating public involvement practices. It also provides a useful example of continuous evaluation in the compilation of the PIP. At this time, however, the PIP defines a process that applies primarily to public involvement in planning and programming, not to project development.

Challenges of Engaging Alaska DOT's Public

Population Characteristics:

  • 2000 population - 626,000; 0.2% of US population
  • Population density - 1 person per square mile
  • 71% live in areas over 2,500 population
  • By race: 69.3% White; 15.6% Native Alaskan or American Indian; 4% Asian; .5% Pacific Islander; and 1.6 Other

Median Household Income:

$ 50,700 (est. 1998)

Land and Transportation Characteristics:

  • Total area of 615,230 square miles or 20% of US land area
  • Less than 20 percent of roads are paved
  • 16 times as many aircraft per capita as rest of US
  • Water ferry route structure of over 3500 miles

What Happened

Public Involvement Plan (PIP)

ADOT viewed the development of a PIP as an opportunity to evaluate prior public involvement practices. A wide-range of communication vehicles was used to let the public know that the agency was seeking their ideas on public involvement. These included: traditional advertisements in newspapers, public service announcements on the radio, press releases, a brochure, public meetings in regional centers, and a periodic newsletter. They also tried new ways to reach the dispersed rural population by sending attractive posters to be displayed in 200 village post offices and sponsoring a televised call-in program with the Planning Director and other staff on hand to answer questions.

The first step in the process was to ask Alaskans how they wanted to be involved. This was accomplished initially through distribution of a brochure with a mail back post card asking citizens two things: what are the most important transportation issues to be addressed over the next 20 years and what is the best way to involve them. This was followed by a simple five-question survey in a newsletter mailed to over 2000 Alaskans in the summer of 1996. The survey asked for direct feedback on current involvement practices, how best to involve citizens and when, and for reactions to the newsletter itself. As a signal that they were serious about an open process, the ADOT Planning Division staff reviewed and categorized all comments received and published them on the agency web site. More importantly, the agency mined these comments for attitudes toward the various public involvement techniques and considered the respondent's location and resulting travel and communications conditions. These views were later reflected in the draft report.

Another technique to engage the public directly was the creation of a large advisory committee, the Public Review Group (PRG). Membership on the PRG was offered to anyone interested in participating in the PIP process, and subsequent planning and programming efforts. PRG members received copies of all announcements, newsletters, draft documents, and all comments on these materials. The PRG grew to over 500 individuals by the time the PIP was adopted, six months after the process began. As with the initial survey, the PRG's comments were recorded and assessed and, along with the survey results, posted on the department's web site.

The analysis of input from these activities formed the basis of the draft public involvement plan, which was widely distributed. Procedures and techniques were tailored in response to the comments received. For example, the standard review period for ADOT documents of 30 days was extended to 45 days in response to comments that group or organizational responses were hard to develop in only 30 days. The draft PIP was announced in a second newsletter and again, public comment was solicited.

One rural resident summed up the difficulty of keeping the dispersed rural population involved when he commented on what he didn't like about the draft public involvement procedure:

". . .the assumption that rural Alaskans have access to fax machines, phones and computers. Most of us don't have running water and some don't have electricity."

Over 300 citizens and groups responded to the draft document. ADOT immediately implemented two suggestions: an Internet web site to post all PIP related materials and toll-free phone and fax lines to take comment and provide information. Comments received also strongly supported the televised call-in program and continued use of newsletters or other printed materials to reach out to citizens in isolated rural areas that may not have access to modern technology. The planning staff was surprised by the support expressed for traditional public meetings, which had previously been criticized. A number of comments indicated that public meetings provided a valuable opportunity to hear others speak on issues.

The draft PIP also proposed the use of a second committee to develop policies for major plans and updates, such as Vision 2020, the Statewide Transportation Plan. This 24-member group, known as the Policy Advisory Committee (PAC), was proposed to include representatives of key transportation, business, environmental and civic interests, to be appointed by the ADOT Commissioner. The continued role of the PRG to provide input and review draft products also was included in the draft. The agency managed communication with this geographically diverse group through the web site, toll free phone and fax lines and the U.S. mail. Interns from the University of Alaska organized and recorded the substantial volume of comments, which were then posted on the web site. Subsequently, both the PRG and the PAC played key roles in the development of the Vision 2020 plan.

The draft PIP proposed five objectives for involvement in planning activities:

  1. Promote an early role for the public
  2. Engage the public in developing the PIP
  3. Identify and involve those traditionally underserved
  4. Use a combination of involvement techniques to meet the diverse needs of the public
  5. Provide explicit consideration and response to public input.

These objectives in turn provide a basis for evaluating the success of the agency's efforts. In the PIP process, ADOT enlisted the public's help in developing the PIP using methods that tracked with these objectives in several ways. First, the public had an early and meaningful role in developing the PIP and in determining how it would be applied to later planning and programming activities. The efforts to engage rural residents and native Alaskans, who traditionally have been difficult to involve or to serve, resulted in a substantial volume of comments from many remote locations. The PIP also defined specific methods for accomplishing the objectives and committed to using these techniques in the development of subsequent plans and improvement programs. Finally, ADOT demonstrated their interest and response to public comment by posting the comments received on the web, and making clear changes in the agency's outreach techniques based on this input. This established a transparent and responsive process as called for in the fifth objective.

The Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS), the Anchorage Metropolitan Planning Organization, also revamps its public involvement process

Long Range Plan - Vision 2020

With the adoption of the PIP, the Statewide Planning Division then tested this new approach through the update of the Long-Range Plan, Vision 2020, and later the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). In testing the PIP in major agency activities, certain techniques were altered or supplemented primarily based on the public's suggestions. For example, although the televised call-in program during the PIP process was praised, the Department responded to suggestions of residents in remote areas to use a radio call-in show instead of television for Vision 2020. Overall, the techniques defined by the PIP and the objectives for involvement were used to update the long-range plan.

The backbone of the outreach for Vision 2020 was the widely distributed newsletter, which was developed during the PIP process. During the Vision 2020 efforts, three more newsletters were produced incorporating proposed ideas, providing timelines for actions related to the plan, responding to comment on earlier issues, posing new questions for comment and providing contact information. Based on the number of comments received and their wide geographic distribution, the newsletter appears to have been the most consistently successful outreach tool for the widest audience.

Other techniques included the continuing role of the PRG and the formation of the Policy Advisory Committee, or PAC. Both groups had access to the same information, but PAC members were brought together for meetings, giving them more opportunity for interaction with each other and ADOT staff. Despite the perception of two different levels of involvement, comments were generally positive about both groups largely because of the openness of the process.

State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP)

In the PIP process, the ADOT Planning staff found that the Internet is a good way to communicate with many Alaskan's, especially local governments. In an effort to establish a more open STIP process, ADOT in the late 1990's started using the web to post notices of STIP development, draft STIPs, and project ratings by the selection committee. The planning staff has also used public input over the last three years to help define, and then refine, the criteria used to evaluate improvement projects. A six-person selection committee uses these criteria in ranking most ADOT projects, except the National Highway System (NHS). The ratings by individual committee members are also posted on the web

From the public perspective, the open STIP process has proved highly popular and is perceived as a positive outcome of the PIP process. According to Cheryl Richardson, Director of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition, the great success of the planning process has been "to make programming accessible and accountable." However, Ms. Richardson would like to see the criteria directly linked to the state long-range plan and Anchorage's comprehensive plan and cover all ADOT projects.

Measuring Success

ADOT planning staff views the PIP process as setting a positive course for the planning program by creating the kind of "two-way communication" they determined was lacking prior to the new PIP. The agency has attempted to achieve the five objectives set out in the PIP through both the planning and the programming (STIP) processes. Their level of success in accomplishing each of these objectives has varied between the planning and programming process. However, the fifth objective: Provide explicit consideration and response to public input, appears to have become a new way of doing business for the ADOT Planning Division, and it's application to the programming process is especially noteworthy for the transparency of the selection process.

One measure of effectiveness used by many state DOT leaders is the test of public support. In the last decade, the ADOT has lacked state support for funding some of its mission critical activities such as maintenance. Planning Director, Tom Brigham, is hoping that one outcome of the open public process will be increased public understanding, which will lead to legislative support for maintenance funding and for operations.

Through this process of development and testing involvement approaches by trying them and monitoring theresults, the new PIP meets the "two-way communication test" set by the ADOT. It is not yet clear if the public interest in the PIP and Vision 2020 process will translate into adequate state financial support for operations and maintenance.

In terms of cost, the much-expanded efforts of the ADOT to involve citizens in designing their own involvement process have fit well within the agency budget. While more staff time was required in the process than previous efforts, ADOT used five student interns to manage the increased workload of the PIP and the Vision 2020 processes. This was accomplished through a state reimbursable service agreement, which set an hourly rate for the student's efforts. Among other tasks, the students managed the time-consuming effort to organize and analyze the content of comments, supervised by Planning staff. UA students also undertook a number of other substantive and research tasks for the Vision 2020 plan and were responsible for the layout of all project newsletters. Costs of newsletter distribution and call-in shows represent new, but modest direct costs of less than $20,000 total. Although staff costs were not attributed to the effort, staff views the cost of the new PIP as moderate and a good investment given the outcome. Marti Dilley, project manager, sees the new public involvement approach as a new and better way of accomplishing required planning and programming activities.

Lessons from ADOT's Experience

Lesson 1: public INPUT IS A KEY TOOL FOR evaluating public involvement

"It is critical that the public be involved. Glad you recognize this. Communities know what is best for their community,"

- Citizen responding to the questionnaire included in the newsletter announcing the draft PIP

At every step, the ADOT planning staff sought the public's opinion and made the responses available to everyone who was interested. All comments were published on the web site, where they remain today, and the draft documents included appendices with these same comments organized by topics. This enabled the public to track the response to their views, learn others' opinions and see how the final product was affected by the public input.

In effect, the ADOT process was a public evaluation of the public involvement process. With the result being a range of involvement techniques more responsive to a diverse public audience than previous practice.


"Public concerns are often about project-level decisions, but the PIP process and Vision 2020 are about the planning process. People are not generally as interested in planning because it is hard to see how it affects them."

-- Marti Dilley, project manager, ADOT

In initiating the process, the agency was faced with the familiar problem of trying to engage citizens in process and planning, when their primary interest is in the resulting projects that affect them. However, during the course of developing the PIP, ADOT received over 1000 comments from communities in all areas of the state. The agency extended an invitation to serve on the PRG to anyone who was interested in participating in the PIP process and subsequent planning and programming. This group grew to over 500 people only six months after the process began.

"There has been more and better information in the last five months than in the last five years"

- Citizen responding to the questionnaire included in the newsletter announcing the draft PIP.

This level of interest in the PIP process illustrates the power of simply asking people what they want and demonstrating a willingness to listen and act on the input provided. A meaningful number of people were willing to help ADOT improve how the public is involved in planning transportation improvements. Lesson learned: the audience for process and planning exists if agencies can find the right way to ask and to respond. The openness of the process added tothe willingness of the public to participate and to the agency's credibility.

Thanks to this process, residents too busy to attend meetings or living in remote locations can be kept informed through regular newsletters delivered via U.S. mail or, with access to electricity, phone lines and the internet, use the web site or toll free lines.

Lesson 3: People want to know What Other people think

The ADOT staff had heard complaints over the years that public meetings were inadequate and, that public meetings for the many people living in remote areas were not practical. Further, the ADOT public meetings were not always well attended. But when they asked people what they wanted, the staff found that public meetings had a role that was not easily replaced. People want to see other people and hear what they have to say. Even if they can not attend, there appears to be an interest in knowing that there has been a public forum with real people. Possibly for the same reason, publishing the public comment in the reports and on the Internet also was popular: People appear to want to know other people's views. Providing this information to the public during the evaluation process also lends credibility to the effort.

Challenges Ahead

ADOT began a process in 1996 to learn from its audience. The agency judged that its credibility had been harmed by conducting one-way communication exercises and set out to listen to the public and to respond. The Planning Division's effort illustrates the importance of public opinion in evaluating public involvement.

"To evaluate you have to ask the public. A self-assessment is not enough with a diverse population. We received ideas that we wouldn't have otherwise."

-- Marti Dilley, project manager, ADOT

This effort was characterized by a careful assessment of the use of media appropriate to the dispersed population of Alaska, which resulted in a wide geographic range of participants in the planning process. They also developed techniques to improve the involvement of the many native populations by asking how each culture wanted to be contacted and tailoring their methods in response. The ADOT staff demonstrated an ability to listen and a willingness to modify their proposed process.

At the current time, this process applies primarily to planning and programming. The comments received during the PIP and Vision 2020 process consistently indicate a strong interest in project level involvement. In response, the Design and Engineering Services Division has started posting more project information on the Department web site. And the agency has made a commitment to training staff in public involvement including project engineers.

The Bottom Line:

Staff Costs: Not calculated, but no new staff was hired.

Additional staff needs were met through an intern agreement with the University of Alaska.

Direct Costs:

Newsletter Printing and Postage Each - $2,600

1 Hour Television Call In $4,000

1-Hour Radio Call In $2,700

The public recognizes the benefits from the open STIP process that allows them to track specific projects. According to Cheryl Richardson, Director of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition, the great success of the planning process has been "the creation of regional transportation plans and to make programming accessible and accountable." However, Ms. Richardson would like to see the criteria directly linked to the state's long-range transportation plan and local comprehensive plan, as well as cover all ADOT projects.

Keeping up the regular communication established by this process is a challenge to a resource-limited agency. The newsletters, toll-free lines and web site updates proved effective, but the effort required to respond to email, letters, and toll-free lines on an on-going basis can be costly. Monitoring the effectiveness of these techniques and making refinements is important to continuing to build public dialogue in a way that is both responsive to the public and cost effective.


Statewide Design & Engineering Services.
Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
3132 Channel Drive
Juneau, AK 99801-7898
Phone: 907-465-6988

A Lot Going On in Alaska to Improve Public Involvement

Building on the success of the revisions to the ADOT Public Involvement Plan (PIP), the Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS) sought to revamp its relationship with the public in an effort begun in 1999. The Municipality of Anchorage is the largest urban area in Alaska with approximately 40% of the state's population and is the only metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in the State. The Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS) is responsible for all elements of long-range transportation planning, the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) and public involvement in Anchorage.

AMATS also took the initiative to review and revise its public involvement program in 1999. Unlike the ADOT's public involvement process that addresses a largely rural population, Anchorage faces some unique public participation challenges in a predominately urban environment where the characteristics and lifestyles are different. With its partners at the University of Alaska in Anchorage (UAA), the AMATS submitted a Transportation and Community System Preservation grant to design a new public involvement process and then to test the new process on a complex land use and transportation planning project, the Ship Creek Plan. The USDOT awarded the grant and in less than 18 months AMATS completed an extensive public process to develop the new public involvement plan, which is now in draft form.

The new public participation plan called "Anchorage on the Move" began with some basic questions, What do people know about transportation?, What do they want to know? and How do people want to be informed about transportation issues? Similar to the ADOT's finding, most people are interested in project level transportation issues when the survey stakes show up in their neighborhood. The longer-range planning is of little interest to the majority of the public.

The process for developing the proposed PIP included ongoing evaluation of public involvement techniques that are of great interest to the larger DOT and MPO community. These techniques include: in-depth interviews with community representatives; a baseline telephone survey and two subsequent surveys to judge the public's awareness of the impact of transportation on land use; a feedback loop to track all comments and response; use of control groups to gauge effectiveness and potential hurdles. The test of these refined methods will be applying them to the next stage of implementation with the Ship Creek study over the next year.

Lance Wilbeur
Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Study
P.O. Box 196650
Anchorage, AK 99519-6650
Phone: 907-343-4252