Public Participation = No Carmegeddon

It had the all makings of a total disaster. Imagine: Closing a major Los Angeles freeway for a full weekend.

No wonder the media dubbed it “Carmageddon.”

Credit: HARRIS PUBLICATIONS, INC

Traffic on Interstate 405
(Credit: HARRIS PUBLICATIONS, INC)

But the work on the Interstate 405 in July of 2011 was critical for a widening project. So the word had to get out: Stay away! If the public did not heed that warning, a traffic jam of epic proportions was expected.

This month, the Collaborative Services’ blog is looking at a topic near and dear to our heart: public participation. It’s critical for the success of any project. Public involvement, after all, can help create all-important public support. It gives people a stake in the outcome. It gives them ownership.

As noted by the International Association for Public Participation, “Good public participation results in better decisions.” Good public participation enables people to have meaningful input — input that can actually make a difference. Public participation can take any number of forms, from active support to active opposition to everything in between. It can involve speaking at a public hearing, writing a letter to the newspaper, starting a Facebook campaign or standing on a street corner holding a sign. And sometimes – as in the case of LA’s Carmageddon – the best form of public participation involves simply tuning in and following instructions.

Carmageddon could have been a nightmare, obviously. The 405, after all, is one of the busiest freeways in the nation. The impacted 10-mile stretch carries a half-million passengers every weekend. But the California Department of Transportation, along with Los Angeles city and county officials and the city’s police department, staged a huge public outreach campaign.

Credit: ArcaMax Publishing

Credit: ArcaMax Publishing

Public participation was paramount. People simply had to avoid the area. The outreach campaign involved traditional media, of course, such as newspapers, radio and TV. But it also used social media in a rather unique fashion.  The Los Angeles Police Department asked celebrities to use their Twitter accounts and tweet warnings about the closure, for instance.

One example: – Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk) “LAPD askd me 2tweet: 405fwy btwn 10 & 101 will b closed July16-17. In xchange I would like a free pass on that stoplight tickt IT WAS YELLOW.”

According to this LA Times story,  more than 30 celebrities pitched in. Combined, they had more than 100 million followers. Not bad outreach, right?

Credit: ShortStack.com

Credit: ShortStack.com

The story of the upcoming closure had so many LA cultural features – it’s hard to imagine a freeway closure in Raleigh, North Carolina, attracting as much attention – that it went viral as well. Even late-night comedians couldn’t help but chime in:

“You won’t be able to go anywhere on the 405, as opposed to when it’s open and you can’t go anywhere on the 405,” Jay Leno quipped on “The Tonight Show.”

And the result? People avoided the area. The work was completed – early. Officials were delighted with the results.

Credit: KABC-TV Los Angeles, CA

Credit: KABC-TV Los Angeles, CA

They also got the same result this past year, when Carmageddon II took place, causing another closure of the 405.

Without public participation, who knows what might have happened during such impactful closures. It’s why we believe so mightily in the process. Indeed, public participation is a hallmark of our firm’s services.

This month we will look at other public-participation success stories and see how and why they were successful.

What kind of outreach was done? What methods were used? We will talk with a number of experts who will explain the ins and outs of this critical process.

Mike Stetz and Alex Roth,  Senior Writers
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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