What is a teleconference?
Teleconferencing uses communications network technology to connect participants’ voices. In many cases, speaker telephones are used for conference calls among the participants. A two-way radio system can also be used. In some remote areas, satellite enhancement of connections is desirable.
Radio can also be a component of teleconferencing, especially in areas where there may be impediments to other methods of public involvement. For example, to address the need to involve the largest number of citizens possible when updating the STIP, the Alaska DOT often uses radio call-ins. This method helps gather input from areas in which no public meeting is held and from people in remote areas of the state that may not even have electricity.
Video conferencing can transmit pictures as well as voices through video cameras and computer modems. Video conferencing technology is developing rapidly, capitalizing on the increasingly powerful capabilities of computers and telecommunications networks. Video conferencing centers and equipment are available for rent in many locations.
Why is it useful?
Teleconferencing reaches large or sparsely populated areas. It offers opportunities for people in outlying regions to participate. People participate either from home or from a local teleconferencing center. In Alaska, where winter weather and long distances between municipalities serve as roadblocks to public meetings, the State legislature has developed the Legislative Telecommunication Network (LTN). As an audio teleconference system, LTN can receive legislative testimony from residents or hold meetings with constituents during “electronic office hours.” Although its main center is in the capitol building, it has 28 full-time conference centers and 26 voluntary conference centers in homes or offices of people who store and operate equipment for other local people. The system averages three teleconferences per day when the legislature is in session.
Teleconferencing provides broader access to public meetings, as well as widening the reach of public involvement. It gives additional opportunities for participants to relate to agency staff and to each other while discussing issues and concerns from physically separate locations. It enables people in many different locations to receive information first-hand and simultaneously. (See Public Meetings/Hearings)
A wider group of participants means a broader range of ideas and points of view. Audio interaction makes dialogue more lively, personal, and interesting. Teleconferencing provides an immediate response to concerns or issues. It enables people with disabilities, parents with child care conflicts, the elderly, and others to participate without having to travel. In response to requests from residents in remote rural areas, the Oregon DOT held two-way video teleconferences for its statewide Transportation Improvement Plan update. Two special meetings were broadcast by a private non-profit organization that operates ED-NET, a two-way teleconferencing system. ED-NET provided a teleconference among staff members in one of the DOT’s five regional offices and participants at central transmission facilities in a hospital and a community college in eastern Oregon.
Teleconferencing can save an agency resources. Without leaving their home office, staff members can have effective meetings that reach several people who might not otherwise be able to come together. Teleconferencing often enables senior officials to interact with local residents when such an opportunity would not exist otherwise, due to distance and schedule concerns. A teleconference may reach more people in one session than in several sessions held in the field over several weeks. It can be difficult to schedule more than two or three public meetings in the field within one week, due to staff commitments and other considerations. Teleconferencing can connect several remote locations saving several days or weeks of agency resources.
Teleconferencing should not take away from the value of face-to-face contact. While teleconferencing allows for multiple meetings in a short timeframe and can provide access when distances or other conditions limit the ability to travel, they should not be used as a substitute for in-person public contact.
Does it have special uses?
Teleconferencing is useful when an issue is State or region-wide. The World Bank uses moderated electronic conferences to identify best public involvement practices from front-line staff. The discussion focuses around fleshing out and sharing ideas so that practitioners in different locations can learn from the experiences of others around the world.
Teleconferencing helps increase the number of participants. People may be reluctant to travel to a meeting because of weather conditions, poor highway or transit access, neighborhood safety concerns, or other problems. Teleconferencing offers equal opportunity for people to participate, thus allowing more points of view to emerge, revealing areas of disagreement, and enabling people to exchange views and ask questions freely.
Teleconferencing is used for training. It opens up training hours and availability of courses for people unable to take specialized classes because of time constraints and travel costs. The National Transit Institute held a nationally broadcast session answering questions about requirements for Federal major investment studies (MIS). Over 1,700 people met at 89 teleconferencing sites to participate in the meeting. Feedback from participants was overwhelmingly in favor of the usefulness and practicality of the session.
Teleconferencing is used for networking among transportation professionals on public involvement and other topics. North Carolina State University sponsored a national teleconference on technologies for transportation describing applications of three and four-dimensional computer graphics technologies. They have been found helpful in facilitating public involvement and environmental analysis.
Who participates? And how?
Anyone can participate. Teleconferencing broadens participation with its wide geographical coverage. People living in remote areas can join in conversations. Participation becomes available even for the mobility-restricted, those without easy access to transportation, and the elderly. Those with limited English proficiency may not participate without assistance.
Participants gather at two or more locations and communicate via phone or video. The event requires planning, so that participants are present at the appointed time at their divergent locations.
Participants should know what to expect during the session. A well-publicized agenda is required. It is helpful to brief participants so they understand the basic process and maximize the use of time for their participation. For example, basic concerns like speaking clearly or waiting to speak in turn are both elements of a successful teleconference-based meeting.
How do agencies use teleconferencing?
Teleconferencing elicits comments and opinions from the public. These comments and opinions become part of a record of public involvement. Agencies should plan to record and provide access to public comments, as well as to respond to comments and community input and to address specific concerns.
Teleconferencing offers immediate feedback from agency staff to the community. This feedback is a special benefit for participants in both time savings and satisfaction with agency actions. To assure immediacy, agencies must have staff available to respond to questions at the teleconference.
An agency can tailor its efforts to respond to a range of needs or circumstances, with broad input from diverse geographical and often underserved populations. The Montana DOT will use a teleconferencing network in the State as it updates its statewide plan.
Agencies use teleconferencing with individuals or with multiple groups. The range of participants varies from simple meetings between two or three people to meetings involving several people at many locations. Simple meetings can be somewhat informal, with participants free to discuss points and ask questions within a limited time.
Who leads a teleconference?
A trained facilitator, moderator, or group leader runs the meeting. A moderator needs to orchestrate the orderly flow of conversation by identifying the sequence of speakers. A staff person can be trained to open and lead the teleconference. (See Facilitation)
Community people can lead the conversation. The moderator need not be an agency staff person. If the teleconference is taking place at the request of community people, it is appropriate that a community resident lead the session. Agency staff members should feel free to ask questions of community people to obtain a complete understanding of their point of view.
Each individual meeting site must have a person in charge to prevent the conversation from becoming chaotic. A teleconferencing facility coordinator can train agency staff or community people to lead the process. Appointment of an individual to guide conversation from a specific site should be informally carried out. Community groups may want to have a role in this appointment.
What are the costs?
Teleconferencing costs vary, depending on the application. The costs of installing a two-way telephone network are modest. For complex installations, including television, radio, or satellite connections, costs are significantly higher. Hiring outside help to coordinate equipment purchases or design an event adds to the expense.
For modest teleconferencing efforts, equipment and facilities are the principal costs. Higher costs are associated with higher performance levels of equipment, more transmission facilities, or more locations. Agencies may be able to rent a facility or set one up in-house. The San Diego Association of Governments is building its own central teleconferencing facility to provide increased opportunities for the agency to use this technique.
It is possible to share teleconferencing costs among organizations. Many States have teleconferencing capabilities in State colleges. States may have non-profit organizations with teleconferencing capabilities. Outside resources include cable television stations or donated use of private company facilities. Agency staff time devoted to the event may be a significant expense.
How is teleconferencing organized?
One person should be in charge of setting up a teleconference. That individual makes preparatory calls to each participant, establishes a specific time for the teleconference, and makes the calls to assemble the group. The same person should be in charge of setting an agenda based on issues brought up by individual participants.
Equipment for a telephone conference is minimal. Speakerphones allow several people to use one phone to listen to and speak with others, but they are not required. Individuals can be contacted on their extensions and participate fully in the conversations. While the basic equipment does not require an audio-visual specialist to operate, a technician may be required to set up equipment and establish telecommunications or satellite connections, particularly in more sophisticated applications.
Video conferencing needs are more complex. Basic equipment can involve:
Amain computer control system;
One or more dedicated telephone lines or a satellite hook-up;
A television or computer monitor for each participant or group of participants; and
A video camera for each participant or group of participants.
More sophisticated facilities and equipment are required if a number of locations are interconnected.
An individual or group rents a private or public videoconference room in many cities. Private companies often have in-house videoconference rooms and systems. The Arizona DOT is considering establishing a mobile teleconferencing facility that can travel throughout the State. Many public facilities, particularly State institutions such as community colleges, have set up teleconference facilities.
Teleconferencing can kick off a project or planning effort and continue throughout the process. Teleconferences are targeted to a particular topic or address many areas, depending on the need for public input and participation.
Adequate preparation is critical to success and optimum effectiveness of a teleconference. The funding source for the teleconference must be identified and a moderator designated. The time and length of the teleconference must be established and an agenda prepared to organize the meeting’s content and times for speakers to present their views. Participants should be invited and attendance confirmed. This is a critical step, since there is little flexibility in canceling or postponing the event—there just are no second chances. Also, less than full participation means that important voices are not heard.
It is important to provide materials in advance. These include plans of alternatives, reports, evaluation matrices, cross-sections, or other visuals. (See Information Materials) For videoconferences, these materials may be on-screen but are usually difficult to read unless a participant has a printed document for reference. A moderator must be prepared to address all concerns covered by the written materials. Preparation smooths the way for all to participate in the teleconference. Without adequate preparation, teleconferences may need to be repeated, especially if all questions are not addressed thoroughly.
The technical set-up is crucial. Teleconferencing equipment and its several locations are key to the event’s success. Equipment must be chosen for maximum effect and efficiency in conducting a meeting between a central location and outlying stations.
Equipment must be distributed well. Because equipment is needed at each site, housing facilities for equipment must be identified. If multiple parties will be attending a teleconference or videoconference from one location. seating may need to be arranged to maximize participation. A test-run of the equipment and the set-up for participants is important. The moderator may want to arrive early and practice using the equipment. Organizations can also subscribe to teleconferencing services. These services have the ability to host numerous lines and allow participants to join in from any telephone with a correct dial-in number and passcode.
The moderator sets ground rules for orderly presentation of ideas. The moderator introduces participants in each location and reviews the objectives and time allotted for the meeting. Participants are urged to follow the moderator’s guidance for etiquette in speaking. They should follow basic rules: speak clearly, avoid jargon, and make no extraneous sounds, such as coughing, drumming fingers, or side conversations.
The meeting must follow the agenda. It is the moderator’s responsibility to keep the teleconference focused. In doing so, she or he must be organized, fair, objective, and open. The conference must be inclusive, providing an opportunity for all to register their views. The moderator must keep track of time to assure that the agenda is covered and time constraints are observed. It may be appropriate to have a staff person on hand to record action items, priorities, and the results of the teleconference.
How is it used with other techniques?
Teleconferencing is part of a comprehensive public involvement strategy. It can complement public information materials, smaller group meetings, open houses, and drop-in centers. (See Information Materials; Small Groups; Open Houses/Open Forums Hearings; Drop-in Centers; Public Opinion Surveys)
Teleconferencing participants can serve as a community advisory committee or task force meeting. It can cover simple items quickly, avoiding the need for a face-to-face meeting. For major issues, it is a way to prepare participants for an upcoming face-to-face discussion by outlining agendas, listing potential attendees, or describing preparatory work that is needed. (See Civic Advisory Committees; Collaborative Task Forces)
Teleconferencing is a method for taking surveys of neighborhood organizations. It helps demonstrate the array of views within an organization and helps local organizations meet and determine positions prior to a survey of their views. (See Public Opinion Surveys)
Teleconferencing is used in both planning and project development. It is useful during visioning processes, workshops, public information meetings, and roundtables. (See Visioning; Conference/Workshops/Retreats)
What are the drawbacks?
Teleconferences are somewhat formal events that need prior planning for maximum usefulness. Although they require pre-planning and careful timing, teleconferences are conducted informally to encourage participation and the exchange of ideas.
A large number of people is difficult to manage in a single teleconference, with individuals attempting to interact and present their points of view. One-on-one dialogue with a few people is usually preferable. Widely divergent topics are also difficult to handle with a large number of people participating in a teleconference.
Costs can be high. Costs are incurred in equipment, varying sites for connections, transmission, and moderator training. Substantial agency staff time to coordinate and lead is likely.
Teleconferences take time to organize. Establishing technical links, identifying sites and constituencies, and coordinating meetings can be time-consuming. Materials need to be prepared and disseminated. However, teleconferencing saves time by being more efficient than in-person meetings, and the savings may offset staff efforts and other costs.
Staffing needs can be significant. Personnel such as technicians and agency staff to set up and coordinate meetings are required. Training to conduct a conference is necessary. However, staff time and resources may be significantly less than if personnel have to travel to several meetings at distant locations.
Agencies need to consider the difficulties in accommodating people with hearing impairments or with limited English proficiency with real time translation. Teleconferencing should supplement, not replace, direct contact with community members.
Community people are alienated if a meeting is poorly implemented or if anticipated goals are not met. People need to be assured that the project and planning staff is mindful of their concerns. Technical and management difficulties, such as poor coordination between speakers or people being misunderstood or not heard, result in bad feelings.
Teleconferencing reduces opportunities for face-to-face contact between participants and proponents of plans or projects. It cannot replace a desirable contact at individual meetings between stakeholders and agency staff in local sites. Effective public involvement includes meetings in the community to obtain a feel for the local population and issues. (See Public Meetings/Hearings; Non-traditional Meeting Places and Events) A teleconference supplements rather than replaces direct contact with local residents and neighborhoods. Video conferencing, by contrast, enhances opportunities for face-to-face exchange.
The goals of a teleconference must be clear and manageable to avoid a potential perception of wasted time or frivolous expenditures.
Is teleconferencing flexible?
Teleconferencing lacks flexibility of location and timing. A teleconference among several people must have a well-established location, time, and schedule, publicized prior to the event. An agenda must be set well in advance of the meeting, with specific times set aside to cover all topics, so that people at different sites can follow the format of the meeting. The New York State DOT held a teleconference/public hearing for the draft State Transportation Plan. The well-defined agenda scheduled registration and a start time that coincided with a one-hour live telecast from the State capital, which included a roundtable discussion with the DOT Commissioner.
Videoconferencing can be flexible if it is a talk arranged between two locations. With few people, it may be as simple to arrange as a telephone call. With additional participants, it becomes less flexible.
Teleconferencing offers opportunities for participants who can’t travel to become involved. Enabling people to stay home or drive to a regional site offers flexibility in childcare, transportation, and other factors that affect meeting attendance.
When is it used most effectively?
Teleconferencing is effective when participants have difficulty attending a meeting. This occurs when people are widely dispersed geographically and cannot readily meet with agency staff. Teleconferencing also serves people with disabilities, the elderly, and others who may have difficulties with mobility.
Teleconferencing is effective when it focuses on specific action items that deserve comment. Teleconferences aid in prioritizing issues and discussing immediate action items. Detailed, wide-ranging discussions may be more properly handled with written materials and in-person interaction.
Teleconferencing helps give all participants an equal footing in planning and project development. Teleconferences overcome geographic dispersal and weather problems to aid contact with agency staff.
For further information:
Alaska Department of Transportation, Division of Statewide Planning
Alaska Legislative Telecommunications Network
Iowa Department of Transportation
Metropolitan Council, Minnesota
Montana Department of Transportation
New York State Department of Transportation
North Carolina State University Institute for Transportation Research and Education
Oregon Department of Transportation
Savannah/Chatham County Metropolitan Planning Organization