Rural Capacity Building Focus Group
August 13-14, 2001, Annapolis MD
On August 13-14, 2001 the FHWA, in conjunction with FTA and OST, held a focus group on rural capacity building in Annapolis, Maryland. The meeting resulted in a broad and candid exchange of ideas on rural communities, transportation, and a proposed new U.S. DOT initiative. The insights developed will be extremely valuable to FHWA as it develops an initiative to build capacity for rural transportation planning and decision-making.
The group considered:
- What constitutes rural America
- Key rural issues
- How to shape a new initiative to assist rural areas to strengthen transportation and communities
Twelve representatives from State DOTs and rural governments and seven U.S. DOT observers met for the facilitated meeting (see Attachment 1 for participants).
The meeting took place over two days. The first day focused broadly on concerns of rural America. Participants exchanged broad ranging perspectives on issues, challenges, and hopes for the future. They also established themselves as a group rather than as representatives of different constituencies. The second day focused on the structure of the proposed U.S. DOT initiative and included a series of guided questions on goals, form, structure, and products for a new initiative for rural capacity building. The day concluded with participants functioning as a focus group to react to and help shape the initiative.
Observations from the first day
The groups offered insightful comments on rural America and its needs, including the following:
- Rural America is hard to define-there is no single definition, boundary, or demographic profile that captures the diversity and complexity of rural communities.
- Political Boundaries are artificial - it is more important to understand rural "communities" as shared attachments to things, places, and values.
- Concepts of "rural" and "community" differ depending on context - while Vermont has dense villages, Kansas has widely scattered homes on large acreage - while both are "rural," their transportation needs differ greatly.
- Characteristics of rural America- rural and urban America share many social and physical characteristics -- poor education, decaying infrastructure, and declining population.
- No rural planning traditions- rural communities lack the capacity for strong land use, community, and transportation planning.
- Lack of leadership- rural communities, and State and Federal governments must move beyond narrow agendas and entrenched bureaucracy, toward vision and open-minded approaches.
- Make it easy -rural officials and planners do not have the time or resources to tackle the myriad rules of Federal and State programs.
- Demonstrate that programs and policies will matter to rural communities- there must be resources on the table and opportunities to influence decisions.
- Rural communities are not using new information technology- because rural communities lag behind in the information revolution, they are missing benefits of technology, information exchange, and the new economy.
Focus Group Discussion
The following summarizes the results of the focus group to consider the proposed initiative.
- The group expressed strong support for the concept of the initiative and appreciated the opportunity to influence its formative stages.
- The initiative could meet important unmet needs of rural communities.
- This is an excellent opportunity to elevate rural concerns nation-wide as has been done successfully with urban concerns and safety.
- The group unanimously would endorse and support the initiative as specifics and a focus are added in its development.
- All would participate if asked.
Organization of the Steering Committee
- Include rural and State representatives along with Federal staff on the Steering Committee. Rural stakeholders must have a "sense of ownership."
- It is critical to develop strong and immediate links to rural communities.
- Rural areas representatives should be directly involved, in addition to involvement from the associations.
- It is crucial to include a "living and breathing perspective on rural reality" by involving rural representatives. Views on how do this included:
- formally as voting members;
- formally an advisory group;
- less formally, as "resources."
- Assure a substantial role for State DOTs on the Steering Committee.
Concerns to address
- It is important early on to add specifics and a sharp focus to the initiative.
- Do not create a self-perpetuating new "government program" or bureaucracy.
- Ensure that there are clearly defined outcomes.
- The initiative will be judged on products and their impact.
- Don't oversell - keep it simple and implement quickly.
- Identify target audiences, with attention to key local players - high profile representatives across broad areas.
- Work directly with local areas first, before creating products.
- Use local networks, e.g., through community colleges, to make contacts.
- Be "astute" -- prioritize activities in response to real needs.
- Make sure that local areas know what is expected and the benefits of participation.
- Don't create more State or Federal intervention. Keep it closely linked and responsive to local areas.
What will it take for the initiative to succeed?
- The initiative must have a strong vision.
- Make it easy to use.
- Don't worry about creating a "be all and end all." It's important to get started soon with something practical and useful.
- Market the initiative simply and effectively.
- Keep the structure and flow non-cumbersome.
- Bring training to rural areas; travel is difficult.
- Do not reinvent the wheel - leverage complementary activities by States and university centers, and others.
- Use existing resources and delivery mechanisms.
- Consider use of U.S. DOT Resource Centers.
- Involve State DOT planners as well as local officials.
- Concentrate on strengthening and extending State and local partnerships.
- Develop a different name - it should be less esoteric and bureaucratic sounding.
- Design program materials in layman's terms.
- Consider the needs of different rural groups - elected officials, planners, and engineers as well as residents.
- Include State DOTs throughout the initiative. DOTs are an essential resource; they must be included and support the effort.
- Become not just a source for information, but also a means to secure resources.
- The initiative could provide a needed rural focus by being comprehensive -- broaden to include Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Housing, Park Service, etc.
- It would be a major selling point to engage other agencies.
- The more partnerships built into the initiative the stronger the outcome.
- Help overcome frustrations of fragmented information, duplication and overlap of programs; create "one stop shopping."
- Multi-agency collaboration encourages new perspectives on solving problems.
- Focus on deliverables, not process.
- Build-in clear goals and measurable outcomes. This will enable progress to be monitored and activities to be adjusted and improved.
- The initiative must have concrete products and services from an early stage.
- Incorporate "success stories." We're eager to share these.
- Products should be more than asphalt - consider tools, marketing, education, information exchange, on-line resource centers, and leadership training.
- Could fill critical need as an information resource and recognized "place to go for information."
- Implementation of a new program will demand a lot of attention.
- It is critical to build-in opportunities for evaluation and feedback from constituencies.
- The initiative should allow flexibility to respond to different needs of different geographic areas; tailor solutions to different areas.
- Take a broad approach to perspective audiences - consider elected officials, transportation professionals, and other with interest but not primary focus on transportation.
- "Conceptually a great idea."
- "The strength is the focus on partnerships."
- "Earnest effort by Federal government to assist is a huge first step."
- "It's encouraging to see the Federal government stepping out of the box."
- "Very pleased to participate in focus group and initiative."
- "I applaud the Federal government for taking this on."
Participants in Rural Focus Group
Federal Highway Administration
Assistant Director of Public Works
City of Hays
Director, Division of Planning
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
Appalachian Regional Commission
Director of Policy and Planning
Vermont Agency of Transportation
Director, Office of Intermodal and Statewide Programs
Federal Highway Administration
U.S. DOT/Volpe National Transportation Systems Center
Public Works Director
City of Lindsay
Karen W. Miller
Mayor Pro Tem
City of Hickory
Director of Planning, Advocacy and Initiatives Washington DOT
Director, Office of Policy Planning
Team Leader, Statewide Transportation Planning
Federal Highway Administration
400 Seventh St. SW HEPS-10
Kent Van Landuyt
Jefferson City, MO
Chief of Statewide and Intermodal Planning
Federal Transit Administration
Office of the Secretary
Federal Highway Administration