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Structured Public Involvement

Structured Public Involvement: “

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What is Structured Public Involvement, or SPI?

Structured Public Involvement, or SPI, is a high-performance public involvement and decision support framework developed eight years ago by Dr. Keiron Bailey (now of the University of Arizona) and Dr. Ted Grossardt (now of the Kentucky Transportation Center). The aim of SPI is to increase stakeholder satisfaction with public goods decision making process and products in democratic societies. They define stakeholders as the public, public officials, designers, engineers, planners and other consultants, and other interested organizations. SPI features a strongly theorized approach to public involvement that integrates decision theory, facilitation and group process expertise, and advanced technologies such as visualization, GIS and electronic polling, into a collaborative decision support system.

Over the past decade SPI protocols and their associated methods, Casewise Visual Evaluation (CAVE) and the Analytic Minimum Impedance Surface (AMIS), have been applied to a wide range of planning and design issues in collaboration with different stakeholder groups. These projects range in size from the $4.2 billion multi-State Louisville Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges project through regional interstate highway and electric power transmission line location, to neighborhood scale transit-oriented development and rural highway improvements.

What are the principles of SPI?

For public goods allocation issues, i.e. those involving public expenditures or the social allocation of risk, stakeholders, including citizens, should perform a more meaningful role. But, at present, large group processes are often considered difficult to manage, ineffective, and in some cases are viewed as a waste of stakeholder and project sponsor’s time. This leads either to a reluctance to undertake such processes, and/or to low-quality, proforma public involvement being conducted.

What philosopher John Rawls termed procedural justice can result in stronger outcome justice, as assessed by stakeholders and not solely officials or technical experts. Achieving procedural justice demands broad mindedness, and lack of attachment to specific policies, departments and plans. More direct and effective communication can be achieved with large, heterogeneous groups including citizens, elected and appointed officials and their consultants and employees, if certain preconditions are met.

To move forward, the entire stakeholder involvement system should be designed with the assumption that stakeholders are mature and responsible. All participants know that not everyone will get exactly what they want but they will be more satisfied if they have had a genuine say in how policies are determined than if not. This is a different philosophy from choosing A, B or C from a restricted menu, or hiding these processes from public view and presenting citizens with predetermined outcomes and trying to coerce them into ‘buying in’ to these restricted solutions. These subversions of meaningful public involvement should not be tenable in so-called democratic societies where the public bears both the expense and the risk of such projects.

Moreover, Bailey and Grossardt suggest that rhetoric about consensus is unhelpful and even counterproductive. Consensus is not achievable with large groups. Decoupling justice from consensus is an essential step in developing sustainable solutions to large-scale problems. One key theoretical innovations include accepting that consensus is impractical does not have to result in less justice, or lower decision quality. They propose that, with a more analytic methodology based on John Rawls’ principles of procedural justice, higher performance public involvement can be achieved [1]. They define higher performance from the viewpoints of the public; sponsoring agencies; design and planning professionals; construction firms; and other participant groups such as citizen’s coalitions. High performance public involvement should satisfy the following criteria: efficient with participants’ time, fair, equitable, and provide designers and planners with clear recommendations that reflect community desires. This should occur within an envelope that is constrained by legal, technical and financial considerations [2]


Structured Public Involvement was originally developed by Drs. Bailey and Grossardt when they were both graduate students in geography at the University of Kentucky. Working initially in the transportation field, they realized that highly contentious, large-scale public goods allocation questions demanded broader-based, more transparent, and more meaningful participation than the existing systems permitted. They felt that there is no reason why large public groups should not be involved in more meaningful ways, contributing to public policy decisions and the management of public goods. What was lacking was a theoretical framework that would allow such large-scale involvement to be handled effectively, and that would maximize the sometimes-unrealized potential of technologies such as GIS and visualization. They also found the lack of performance indicators for public involvement surprising, in view of the huge amounts of public money being spent. To ensure value for taxpayer dollars, many other publicly funded processes are subjected to more stringent assessment and performance evauation – so, they asked, why not in transportation and infrastructure?

How SPI works compared with unstructured public involvement

For design problems, like bridges or transit developments, public involvement typically involves consultants showing images A, B and C. In this way, some managers argue that the public was involved because they exercised choice. But from the stakeholder viewpoint, instructing them to pick A, B or C, and then patronizing them by claiming they were involved, when they had no say in determining the goals or outcomes of the development, leads inevitably to process failure. People don’t respond well to this approach. Immediate problems include poor technical solutions and the longer-run outcomes include erosion of confidence in the political regime and diminution of willingness to participate in public processes. Similar – or worse – problems obtain in other public goods cases, such as location of electric power transmission lines and nuclear power stations.

SPI employs a different methodological approach, soliciting feedback on a much wider range of possibilities and using some advanced geovisual and geospatial modeling systems to distil this information in ways that provide clear decision support for professionals. By delivering an easily scalable public process and by soliciting as many participants as possible, Bailey and Grossardt explain that clearer, more representative and more useful information can be obtained. This results in a clearer, more transparent and defensible decision and therefore benefits all stakeholders.

There are some major differences between SPI and more conventional, unstructured public involvement.

In SPI protocols, unlike many others, no design or outcome is preselected before public meetings begin.

The actual public involvement process is very streamlined. Bailey and Grossardt argue that meetings should be scheduled and hosted at times, and in places, that make sense to stakeholders, e.g. in a transit development study in a low-income minority neighborhood, at schools, community centers, churches and so on. Equipment must not impose demands on participants. It should respond to stakeholder needs, not drive the process. Portable systems must be used [3].

They write that meetings should not last more than 90minutes. These meetings should not involve the public being lectured for long periods followed by a brief, and constrained, period for comment. The meetings should not permit special interest groups, professional meeting-goers, or those with the loudest voices and biggest egos to dominate. Instead, all meetings should elicit a large volume of clear and useful data that helps the designers and planners make choices. Electronic polling allows people to provide feedback anonymously, rapidly, confidently and effectively. The AMIS and CAVE decision support systems allow rapid conversion of large data sets into a model of community preferences for designs, plans or strategies.

What SPI does

Provides an analytic framework that allows public values to be better understood by professionals
Uses public and professional time more efficiently, resulting in less conflict
Allows professionals to generate solutions relevant to the community in question
Increases public satisfaction with process and product by handling public goods allocation in accord with the principles of a representative democracy – proven by large-scale, real-time, anonymous public satisfaction polling during the process.
Strengthens appreciation of democratic mechanisms for planning and risk allocation

What SPI does not do

Turn the complete design domain over to the public
Create more need for public involvement to solve problems created by poorly structured input
Force ‘consensus’ in large-scale and contentious processes when this is practically unachievable
Allow individuals, either public demagogues or professionals with a predetermined ‘best’ option, to dominate and shape outcomes in opposition to majorities
Eliminate all disagreement and objection to proposals

How does SPI work?

To apply SPI to a design or planning problem an expert partnership is formed with selected design professionals, such as civil engineers and landscape architects, under the direction of project sponsor such as a State Department of Transportation or a Corporation Commission. The team works with the professionals and sponsors to establish the framework within which public involvement should be conducted, and to exclude illegal, infeasible or unfundable design criteria from public consideration. Once this design envelope is established, the team then designs an SPI protocol to obtain useful information from the public. Typically a series of open public meetings are conducted at which valuations are gathered, or for design cases, feedback on visualizations or design options, or other stakeholder values, is obtained through real-time electronic polling. Commentary and discussion are elicited to clarify the statistical information they gather. If a design is polarizing, for example, they ask participants why. This information is then analyzed using geospatial and geovisual decision support systems, such as Analytic Minimum Impedance Surface (AMIS) [4] or Casewise Visual Evaluation (CAVE) [5] methods, and the public evaluation is converted into planning or design guidance that can be interpreted by the relevant professionals. Iterative public feedback is then sought on detail designs and plans generated by this process.

SPI protocols demonstrate uniquely and consistently high levels of public satisfaction. These evaluations are unique because they are obtained through anonymous real-time electronic polling at open public meetings dealing with sometimes contentious projects. These evaluations are high because SPI is efficient in its use of participants’ and experts’ time and generates useful output with a minimum of conflict. It gives participants a real sense of inclusion as they literally see the design team responding to their input and incorporating their values into the product. SPI positions professionals, sponsors and the public in alliance on a design problem and helps produce truly context-sensitive solutions. SPI does not turn over control to the public, sell the public on a particular design, nor does it manipulate them into accepting options unsuitable for their communities.

Some ongoing SPI projects include:

Collaborative nuclear power station location using GIS/multicriteria methods
Electric power transmission line corridor evaluation
Large bridge design using CAVE
Integrated transportation/land use modeling using CAVE
Context-sensitive highway design for safer operation

Impact of SPI

SPI research has acquired an international reputation for excellence. It has been published in a wide range of international peer-reviewed journals. SPI pilot research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Federal Transit Administration, Transportation Research Board, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the Arizona Board of Regents and other organizations. SPI demonstrations have drawn high attendance and generated high impact at national and international conferences such as Transportation Research Board’s Annual Meeting, the Annual Meeting of the American Planning Association and CORP GeoMultimedia in Vienna.

In January 2008, Bailey, Grossardt, John Ripy and Ben Blandford were awarded the Greg Herrington Award for Excellence in Visualization in Transportation at the Transportation Research Board’s Annual Meeting for their work on integrated transportation and land use modeling using the Orton Family Foundation’s CommunityViz software.

SPI Case Study: Context-Sensitive Large Bridge Design

The Louisville Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges project, otherwise known as LSIORB, is the fifth largest publicly-funded infrastructure project currently underway in the United States [6].

Between 2005 and 2007 the SPI developers worked with Indiana Department of Transportation and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet project managers and engineering partners at Michael Baker to develop the bridge design parameters that were available for public input. Infeasible design parameters were excluded. An SPI protocol including electronic polling was used to gather data from hundreds of participants at open public meetings on both sides of the river. Casewise Visual Evaluation was used to determine which combinations of design elements were most preferred by the respondents. The engineering partners then created visualizations showing these preferred designs which were evaluated again. The most significant project finding was that anonymous, real-time process evaluations by hundreds of participants at open public meetings yielded process satisfaction scores between 8.0 and 9.1 on a 10-point scale, where 1 is ‘awful,’ 5 is ‘OK,’ and 10 is ‘wonderful.’ The reasons for these very high process satisfaction ratings are that every design fits all technical, engineering and budgetary constraints, all designs are truly context-sensitive. People who attended the meetings saw how their feedback was incorporated into the final design candidates.[7]

Other SPI projects undertaken since 2000 show similarly high process satisfaction scores:

In view of the enormous expenditure of public money on these projects, it is surprising that no other large structure design of this type has been handled in this way and no other large project has data from such a large number of participants validating the quality of the process. This project demonstrates how an analytic approach to public involvement can yield dividends especially in large, complex, potentially contested infrastructure design cases.

The CAVE design support system is modular and can be applied to any design question that requires a component of visual evaluation. It has shown similar high performance when applied to noisewall design in humid and arid zones [8], landscaping of berms, rural highway improvement, and block-scale transit-oriented development in a low-income neighborhood [3] in a wide range of contexts in states such as Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

In an ongoing project the CAVE method is being used in conjunction with civil engineers to gauge driver response to highway design. The purpose of this is to investigate within the parameters specified by the AASHTO Green Book which highway design characteristics e.g. shoulder width, type, median type, fence type, height etc., influence driver operating speeds most strongly. Ultimately this research will generate context-sensitive designs that increase highway safety. With standard statistical approaches to this problem, a large number of samples is needed for reliable description. The fuzzy logic modeling system, CAVE, requires less data and yields useful output with a small set of visualizations. This makes open public evaluation more practical and meaningful.

A method for collaborative alternative energy futures, which may include a subset of questions on nuclear power station location, is being investigated in collaboration with power engineering expert Dr. Ward Jewell of Wichita State University.

Why is this method not more widely used?

In view of SPI’s documented high performance, it seems surprising that this approach, or other analytic approaches that show high performance, are not more widely used.

Bailey and Grossardt explain that many stakeholders do not know that there are better options for public involvement in these type of projects. Despite mandates for public involvement contained in legislation such as National Environmental Policy Act, various State Environmental Quality Acts (e.g. CEQA), the form, content and objectives of this public involvement are not clearly specified. The process of determining how many meetings, what their objectives are and so on, are left to project managers and engineers who are not trained in public involvement.

Sometimes project sponsors hire consultants to perform public involvement. But, because these processes lack an analytical framework, they can resemble black magic or witch doctory. It is unclear how participants’ feedback is translated into specific design guidance. In some cases, it is unclear to meeting participants what the purpose of a public meeting is. This ambiguity and lack of accountability can allow egocentric designers free rein with large amounts of taxpayer money. Bailey and Grossardt argue that this situation is untenable in democratic societies and that public involvement dealing with public goods allocation should demonstrate high performance.

In some cases, they note that suppression of information by powerful stakeholders permits such processes free rein. Such nontransparent and unaccountable processes are more expensive for society at large. In the short term they lead to more legal challenges. Over the long run they produce dissatisfaction with the responsible public organizations and their consultants, and they erode the legitimacy of democratic institutions charged with allocating public monies.

Broader Significance

Bailey and Grossardt have identified several key public goods and infrastructure domains that present challenges in the medium term. These include:

Alternative energy futures, which may include wind and/or wave and/or solar energy farms, and nuclear power station location.
Integrated transportation and land use planning and management
Oil, gas and water pipeline, and electric power transmission line location

Enormous amounts of public money are spent on public goods allocation and management. Yet current performance levels are very poor, if they are even measured at all. Bailey and Grossardt argue that the field of public involvement is in dire need of improved methods. They believe that as resource crises intensify, the challenges to democratic political systems will become more problematic. Under these conditions, nontransparent, or proforma, public involvement will become increasingly unacceptable, and decisions made out of public view by unaccountable bodies of experts will become illegitimate. These problems will become increasingly intolerable to stakeholders. As a result, democratic political systems that do not address these issues will experience serious crises, particularly in view of the fact that high performance methods for involving large groups already exist.

It is sensible and right to include as many people as possible, in the most meaningful way possible, in these discussions. High performance public involvement methods, such as Structured Public Involvement, will be increasingly useful in building legitimate and effective and genuinely collaborative solutions to these problems.


[1] Grossardt, T. and Bailey, K. 2007. Grounding Justice in Public Meeting Practice. Available at:

[2] Grossardt, T., Bailey, K. and Brumm, J. 2003. Structured Public Involvement: Problems and Prospects for Improvement. Transportation Research Record 1858: 95-102.

[3] Bailey, K., T. Grossardt and M. Pride-Wells. 2007. Community Design of a Light Rail Transit-Oriented District using CAVE (Casewise Visual Evaluation). Socio Economic Planning Sciences 41(3): 235-254.

[4] Bailey, K., T. Grossardt and J. Brumm. 2001. AMIS: Geographic Information System-based corridor planning methodology. Transportation Research Record 1768: 224-232. Abstract available at:

[5] Bailey, K., T. Grossardt and J. Brumm. 2001. Towards Structured Public Involvement in Highway Design: A Comparative Study of Visualization Methods and Preference Modeling using CAVE (Casewise Visual Evaluation). Journal of Geographic Information and Decision Analysis 5: 1-15.


[7] Bailey, K., J. Williams, L. Toole, T. Grossardt and B. Bryant. 2007. Context-sensitive large bridge design using Casewise Visual Evaluation: Case Study Section 2 Ohio River Bridges Project. Transportation Research Record 2028: 85-92.

[8] Bailey, K., and T. Grossardt. 2006. Structured Public Involvement in Context-Sensitive Noisewall Design using Casewise Visual Evaluation (CAVE). Transportation Research Record 1984: 112-120.

(Via Wikipedia – New pages [en].)

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