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Exploring the Potential Use of Social Media in NEPA

Social media sites have changed the communications landscape. The increasing dominance of social media in the communications culture means new opportunities and challenges for the public sector, both in providing access to information and in establishing and maintaining relationships with constituents. The instantaneous access to information available through the Internet has led the public to expect increased transparency from government, including access to information about the decisions that affect them. This is bound to be felt profoundly in the application of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process by state Departments Of Transportation (DOT), where expectations and requirements for substantive stakeholder engagement are well established.

Some agencies have been quick to respond to the opportunities presented by social media and web-based tools by creating blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. As communications technology continues to evolve, it is critical for the planning and transportation community to seize upon the opportunities provided by social media to help with public involvement efforts. Federal regulations and best practice require proactive engagement of stakeholders in project decision-making, and the interactive nature of social media can be a useful tool in achieving broad-based and active involvement.

A recent American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) survey1 revealed that, while most DOTs use social media, their focus is mainly on one-way communication (providing information) rather than two-way engagement on transportation issues and decisions. Further, even as the popularity of social media grows, the use of social media for individual transportation projects is rare. While most major projects have a website which makes information available, few utilize social media to its fullest potential, and those projects that do often use it to push out information rather than to engage residents.

To advance the state-of-practice of social media in transportation decision-making, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) selected Parsons Brinckerhoff to research the barriers and opportunities in using social media for project development, specifically during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process. This article provides an overview of the concerns that are holding back use of social media during the NEPA process, and the approach to be taken by Parsons Brinckerhoff in conducting this research.

Social Media and NEPA: Awkward Bedfellows

Social media and web-based tools offer transportation agencies the potential to access a broad and diverse public, including traditionally hard-to-reach populations, particularly when mobile applications are provided. A 2010 PEW study noted that usage of the Internet and social media applications via mobile phone connections has increased significantly, particularly among minority groups, a critical stakeholder during NEPA.2

Some within the transportation industry have responded to these opportunities by adopting the use of social media and web-based tools as a means of connecting with stakeholders. An AASHTO survey of state DOTs conducted in the Spring of 2011 found that 38 state DOTs are using social media—up from 31 DOTs in 2010—and of that number 31 use Twitter and 25 use Facebook. Other popular applications include YouTube, Flickr, and other photo-sharing sites.

A total of 19 DOTs offer mobile applications.3 MPOs, local governments, and transit agencies are also users of social media. What is not known is how many agencies are taking social media use to the next level—the project level—where people are most interested and where public participation can have the most influence on project outcomes and decisions.

Parsons Brinckerhoff uses social media on five non-NEPA projects in the US. The measurements and data gathered show a tremendous advantage of connecting with stakeholders in this way. As the projects progressed, social media “followers” have been the projects’ most engaged audiences. For example, the Huey P. Long Bridge Widening Project outside New Orleans has garnered more than 4,400 Facebook “likes” and more than 1,100 Twitter “followers.” The numbers only tell part of the story. In a recent week, more than 6,000 people saw content associated with the Facebook page, and several hundred more made comments, “liked” a post or shared information in some other way. Social media sites are used to convey important information about project impacts and upcoming events, and also to share information about the surrounding community, weather forecasts and other matters that people care about.

While the benefits are clear, many agencies face substantial obstacles in implementing social media as a public involvement tool for projects. These challenges include institutional barriers, such as policies restricting access to social media sites at the workplace, concerns on how to respond to inbound messaging, a lack of knowledge on effective use of these tools, and a hesitancy to venture into processes with unknown consequences. Some agencies have expressed concern regarding how to work with social media’s rapid communication context to support agency decision-making processes that can be slow and deliberative.

An emerging question for DOTs is how to use social media to support projects undergoing development, environmental analysis, and review in conformance with NEPA. As NEPA has evolved, so has the regulatory environment that governs it. NEPA and its supporting regulatory structures require all major actions using federal resources to include comprehensive public involvement throughout the decision-making process. Federal regulations and other laws and policies4 emphasize public involvement and access to decision making by specific populations that are traditionally underserved by transportation systems, and under-involved in decision making.

The dynamic and evolving nature of online interaction has created uncertainties about the best way to use these tools in a constructive manner. An evaluation of the use of social media and web-based tools to support NEPA must consider the full range of potential public involvement tools and techniques available to an agency to meet a project’s public involvement goals and purposes. There are times when face-to-face interaction is the best approach to building rapport, establishing trust, providing detail, and responding to complex and sensitive issues. Social media and web-based tools have their own advantages. In particular, they provide the opportunity for more cost-effective outreach to a broader segment of the community, particularly to traditionally less involved populations, and to those who may find the Internet to be a more convenient and/or comfortable means of accessing information.

To date, the transportation industry lacks documented best practices and guidance on when and how to effectively use social media and other web-based communication tools to support a NEPA project development process. Legal issues also muddy the waters.

For example, NEPA has a requirement for very careful documentation of project decisions, often met by developing what is known as an Administrative Record, which preserves all decision-related documents, including public comments. The Administrative Record is kept in the event of a legal challenge in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act. The role that social media would play with respect to the Administrative Record has not been established, and DOTs are in particular need of guidance in this area. Related legal issues may include documentation of comments provided by members of the public via social media, and copyright issues relative to the posting and sharing of material over the Internet.

Addressing Uncertainty Through Research

This NCHRP research project, undertaken by Parsons Brinckerhoff, will refine the experience of transportation agencies in their use of social media and other web-based tools to support NEPA public involvement, analysis, and documentation during project development. Our work will identify the barriers and challenges that agencies face in using the tools and offer transportation agencies meaningful guidance on evaluating and measuring costs and benefits. It will also address the following specific issues:

  • The need for resources (human and otherwise) to provide timely response to public input;

  • Guidance on ensuring consistency and coordination in messaging across communication modes;

  • Preventing and addressing misuse (public “hijacking”) of project messages and branding; and

  • Determining the most appropriate means of collecting, using and responding to public comments and other interaction provided on social media as part of the project’s permanent Administrative Record.

Most importantly, the research will demonstrate to state DOTs the beneficial and cost-effective use to be made of social media and web-based tools in the NEPA process, and how to manage legal sufficiency issues related to the use of social media.

The project is expected to kick off this summer with an anticipated 12-month research schedule. Look for NCHRP 25-25, Potential Use of Social Media Impact in the NEPA Process, available in fall 2013.Our investigation will draw on Parsons Brinckerhoff’s experience with public involvement in transportation, particularly in supporting the NEPA process, and in the design and implementation of social media to support transportation projects throughout planning and development. Our research will also draw upon the experience and ideas of our targeted audience, decision makers, and practitioners, particularly from state and local transportation agencies. Multiple avenues will be provided for collaboration, including an electronic survey, telephone interviews, and social media sites. The primary goal would be to generate a comprehensive understanding of experience among transportation agencies.

 

Notes:

1. & 3. AASHTO Communications Brief: Twitter, Facebook Growing as Effective Media Tools for State Departments of Transportation, August 2011.
2. Pew Internet & American Life Project, Mobile Access 2010: Summary of Findings, http://pewinternet.org/ Reports/2010/Mobile Access-2010.aspx
4. These policies include the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and regulations focused on the implementation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, including Executive Orders 12898 and13166. Each of these adds additional safeguards and requirements with regard to the public involvement programs that are implemented to support NEPA decisions.


Image Header Source: Ed Yourdon (Creative Commons)