A public agency is again using innovation and technology to gain better public input about improving the state’s transportation system. This isn’t the first time the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) has brought creativity to public outreach and input. Last October we wrote about the Commission’s foray into innovative public surveying.
Now the Commission is using new online forum technology to make it easier than ever for citizens to shape transportation policy and investment decisions. The program, Voice of Washington State (VOWS) (link to website, link to news release), utilizes two methods: (1) a seven regional online discussion forums and (2) an online survey panel. People can join the VOWS Online Discussion Forums and publicly voice their opinions, post ideas and interact with other citizens in their community. They can also join the VOWS Survey Panel to participate in occasional online surveys.
Washington state has some very diverse regions (geographically, economically, politically), and the first piece of the VOWS program, the online forum, employs a regional approach that enables the Commission to learn better how interests, opinions and needs differ from region to region. Discussions within each forum will focus on both region-specific issues as well as statewide topics, such as roads and pedestrian safety.
For example in my region (Puget Sound/Seattle) the current conversation topics touch upon reducing congestion on freeways, how to improve public transportation services, and the funding crisis facing the ferry system. In the SE Washington region (a very rural, agriculture-intensive, non-ferries region) the conversation topics touch upon road safety and making roads more usable in bad weather. One thing that’s cool about VOWS is you can look at each region to see the conversations and topics of interest.
Washington state residents take note: the Commission is particularly interested in hearing from more people in rural Washington.
The online forum approach helps overcome the challenges of public meetings (the traditional outreach method) such as low attendance and input only from the “regulars,” and limited speaking time. It also allows for more of a conversation, and more interaction, than the typical public outreach meeting.
“Sparking a robust conversation around transportation issues, and collecting survey data that indicates people’s opinions and thoughts on policy and funding approaches, will help decision makers identify possible solutions and investment priorities,” noted Reema Griffith, executive director of the WSTC. “When people share what matters to them when they drive, ride, bike, walk or fly within their communities, their needs can be more effectively addressed.”
The second piece of the VOWS program, the Survey Panel is “a way for citizens to communicate their opinions and preferences by taking occasional surveys on transportation policy, funding and tax issues. The outcome is statistically valid data representing the priorities and opinions of Washington state residents. The input from individuals is anonymous because the survey company does not attach personal information to the survey results. Each participant will receive the surveys through email.”
The VOWS program is particularly important and timely because transportation stakeholders, one of the two candidates for Governor, and some legislators are talking about a possible transportation investment referendum to the people in 2013 or 2014. The results of VOWS will certainly inform those efforts, and in fact the Commission intends to brief the governor and Legislature the ideas and data generated.
We’ll be reporting back to you how the VOWS program worked, and touching upon the results. In the meantime if your agency would like to learn more about this innovative approach, contact the Commission.