, Associate Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
Zhirong Zhao, Former U of M Faculty, Humphrey School of Public Affairs
Aging infrastructure, changing patterns in road demand, and persistently constrained revenues challenge the sustainability of local road systems. This research is a comparative analysis of public engagement methods for involving stakeholders in decision-making about these complex issues. It is the result of an engaged scholarship project conducted in three Minnesota counties: Beltrami, Dakota, and Jackson. The research analyzed qualitative and quantitative data collected from 91 study participants through observations of policy dialogues, media content analysis, interviews, focus groups, and surveys of attitudes about these policy issues and public engagement methods. In-depth case studies of three counties described the local road policy issues, the public engagement approaches, and their effects. This research identified convergences and divergences in information and perspectives among stakeholders. Tools developed for addressing the communication gaps are available at http://tinyurl.com/local-roads. Some public engagement methods allowed study participants to change their perspectives on what road management options were achievable and acceptable. This occurred through active recruitment of diverse stakeholders, focus groups with individuals of similar backgrounds, and a facilitated policy roundtable among all the different stakeholders. An additional finding relates to evaluation measures for public participation, which scholars and practitioners acknowledge are poorly developed. This study documented a fresh perspective by identifying the likes and dislikes of participants in public participation processes about how they are organized.