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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2022. Virtual Public Involvement: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26827.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2022. Virtual Public Involvement: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26827.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2022. Virtual Public Involvement: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26827.

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1  S U M M A R Y The first COVID-19 case in the United States was identified in January 2020, and by mid- March 2020, many states and cities were issuing stay-at-home orders. The shift from in-person to virtual came with very little warning and imposed difficulties for most agencies. Agencies quickly went from working partly or entirely in-person to entirely remote and, simultaneously, had to figure out new tools and strategies for internal and external planning and virtual engagement. Agency staff had to learn new platforms and develop and adopt policies for virtual engagement on an extremely accelerated timeline. All of this took place during a time of extreme uncertainty. Much of the economy was shutting down, and the duration of the pandemic was unclear, with agencies not knowing whether to expect stay-at-home orders to last for weeks, months or years. Many agencies might have made different decisions at the onset of the pandemic if they had known how long COVID-19 would impact daily life. With the onset of COVID-19, agencies had to transition rapidly to virtual engagement, with varied levels of experience and knowledge of how to do so. Most of the study participants did not experience the benefit of receiving formal virtual public involvement (VPI) training, with only 42 percent of survey respondents indicating they received any form of training. Most staff had to rely on trial and error and informal guidance and relayed that learning VPI commands a very different skill set than traditional engagement. As many agencies did not typically offer formal VPI training, study participants shared other strategies to acquire VPI skills. The most cited was participating in internal or external peer exchanges. For some agencies, the lack of formal staff training opportunities did not significantly impede VPI implementation due to the supporting role of consulting firms, with a majority of participants relaying that consultants either implemented or assisted with implementing VPI during the pandemic. Survey respondents, focus group and interview participants discussed various ongoing needs related to virtual engagement training that would be helpful to their staff moving forward. Increasing and, perhaps, formalizing knowledge-sharing on VPI practices and strategies within and among agencies was discussed as a largely unmet training-related need that would yield diverse and enduring benefits. Other key topical areas of training interest and need focused on the following:  Training on VPI technologies, resources, and platforms  Virtual meeting facilitation  Virtual material presentation  ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance and equitable engagement Early in the pandemic, it was unclear which virtual engagement tools were most effective and reliable, so the agencies cycled through many tools to find the most suitable. As noted, the skills and preparation needed for virtual meetings were very different from what traditional in-person interactions required. VPI posed new issues to address, such as network outages, uninvited participants disrupting meetings and constituents who either did not have access to technology or

2    did not know how to use it. New protocols had to be developed, including identifying backup meeting hosts and understanding how to utilize virtual breakout rooms. The most used tools were virtual public meetings, social media, dedicated project websites or webpages, email blasts and electronic surveys. Each of these was used by at least 75 percent of the respondents during the pandemic. Virtual meetings were most commonly reported for all agency types [departments of transportation (DOTs), rural planning organizations (RPOs), and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs)]. Tool functionality was the most important factor cited when participants were asked how they chose which tool to use. In addition to tools used to implement VPI, survey respondents were asked to identify the most effective resources to promote and spread the word about upcoming VPI events during the pandemic, with social media being the most common. Another strategy that agency representatives found effective was promoting virtual engagement through more traditional means. Since a significant concern was reaching groups that may not have experience with or access to technology, virtual events could not be effectively promoted solely through digital strategies like social media, websites, and emails. Instead, agencies reported using traditional strategies, including text messages, printed flyers, and radio, newspaper, and bus advertisements, to promote virtual meetings and project information. The success of these offline methods highlights a point that practitioners repeatedly stressed: just as with in-person methods, there is no one-size-fits-all VPI tool. The challenges that came with virtual engagement also presented new opportunities. Agencies began posting meetings and presentations online, allowing for asynchronous virtual engagement and providing self-guided opportunities for participants to learn at their own pace and at times convenient to them. In addition, virtual meetings were broadcast in real-time on multiple platforms and allowed for live polling, virtual breakout rooms and use of collaborative tools like virtual whiteboards to enhance the meeting quality and feedback. Though varied, agency experience with virtual public engagement was generally positive during the pandemic. Some agencies had better experiences reaching older adults and other vulnerable groups with virtual engagement compared with in-person engagement. In contrast, other agencies found that these groups were harder to reach virtually. Many groups that were difficult to engage in person were still challenging to engage virtually. The barriers to in-person engagement, such as transportation, childcare and time, were replaced by new obstacles, including unreliable internet, limited digital literacy and lack of an available computer. Nonetheless, while not universal, most agency representatives conveyed that virtual engagement was a net positive and increased vulnerable groups' overall participation. Agencies reported helping participants overcome the barriers to VPI by providing one-on-one training, providing technology to participants, allowing for on-demand engagement, and using virtual meeting accommodations like captions. Additionally, the telephone has continued to prove to be an effective method of virtual engagement, especially for those with limited access to or comfort with other forms of technology. Many agencies and practitioners found that working with community groups was one of the most effective ways to engage vulnerable groups. However, agencies noted that it was difficult to determine who they were engaging because it was challenging to collect demographic information in virtual meetings. Demographic information also is limited with on-demand engagement, where agencies can track the number of

3    people who view material on a subject but may not be able to determine who is using the on- demand tools. Moving forward, most agencies expect to use a combination of in-person and virtual engagement. Now that the agencies have the infrastructure for VPI in place, they can continue to take advantage of VPI while also offering in-person options. Virtual and in-person public involvement present different accessibility challenges and offering both options was considered a best practice. This hybrid approach is now becoming standard, with most survey respondents saying they had hosted hybrid events during the pandemic. The combined outreach approach presents new opportunities and challenges for agencies to work through. For example, it is important that messaging is consistent both in-person and online. The public may misunderstand or even distrust the agency if messaging differs for different audiences. Consultants in the focus groups noted it was important to have guidance or a policy from agencies on whether projects could, or should, do in-person, virtual, or hybrid engagement. These challenges are worth working through to ensure that planning agencies do all they can to facilitate effective and equitable public engagement.       

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, transportation agencies' most used public-engagement tools were virtual public meetings, social media, dedicated project websites or webpages, email blasts, and electronic surveys. As the pandemic subsides, virtual and hybrid models continue to provide opportunities and challenges.

The TRB National Cooperative Highway Research Program's NCHRP Web-Only Document 349: Virtual Public Involvement: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic discusses gaps that need to be addressed so that transportation agencies can better use virtual tools and techniques to facilitate two-way communication with the public.

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