Making the value of online engagement concrete: the monthly cost of project delay sets a healthy minimum.

Online engagement (OE) practitioners are often challenged to demonstrate the concrete value of their work, since the most significant impacts, e.g. citizens’ deeper understanding of the issues or a more robust consensus on what needs to be done, seem intangible.

But some impacts on the overall project are measurable. That lets us set a minimum value for the OE effort.

For instance, OE can cut the time required for high quality public dialogue and deliberation. Web, text, and social media engagement tools can reach a more diverse audience, more deeply and more quickly, reducing the time required for good engagement and therefore, the overall time for the underlying project (e.g. a freeway reconstruction).

In construction projects, time is, generally, quite a lot of money.

For instance, Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) reviews of six typical roadway projects show that one month of delay increased overall project construction costs at least 0.29% up to 1.29%, almost $33,000 for a “small” $11.4 million project and $1,101,000 for a large, $85.2 million project. (And, nationwide, there are thousands of projects costing $10 million or more, with a significant fraction worth more than $50 million each.)

Delays increase not just construction costs, but other costs as well, costs that are “soft”, i.e. harder to measure, but often just as significant. TTI estimated soft cost increases per month of delay at 0.20% to 0.55% of total project cost. So the strategic value of speeding up the project through efficient online engagement is even larger.

Recommendation: If you’re considering online engagement to support a large project, ask these questions.

1. What’s the cost of the overall project to be supported by OE?

2. How much will construction and other hard costs increase per month of delay? 0.29% is a conservative starting point.

3. If you can reduce public engagement periods by a month or more, with engagement quality held constant, how much will the overall project time be reduced?

4. How can you reduce the elapsed time consumed by that engagement process, while maintaining quality?

Lesson: The strategic value of public engagement lies in its impact on the overall project.

If you’re interested in estimating the strategic value of OE for a particular project, this note illustrates why your team needs a solid understanding of the full context, beyond facilitation and public engagement concerns in isolation.

At minimum, your team needs to understand how the dimensions of OE affect the costs and benefits of the larger project. What happens if the online engagement can speed things up? Reach a more diverse audience and a larger one? Get higher quality feedback? Make community participation and their specific feedback more visible? Use your staff time more efficiently?

Getting a concrete sense of the big picture is real work, but it will pay off in your ability to demonstrate the strategic impact of online engagement.

More about the TTI data

These data and estimates were taken from TTI studies.

In 2011, TTI estimated the impact of delays on three transportation projects, a small one at $11.4 million total cost, a medium one, at $49.6 million, and a large one, at $82.2 million (PDF). In 2015, TTI studied three additional projects, with total costs of $10.6 million, $28.5 million, and $85.2 million respectively (PDF). The chart and the tables below summarize their findings.

delay costs 1807311 1139

Table 1: Cost increase per month of delay (% of project cost)
Study year/project size Cost increase per month of delay as % of project cost
Construction Other Total
1 2011:Small – Rural four‐lane roadway 0.29% 0.55% 0.84%
2 2011:Medium – urban freeway 0.39% 0.21% 0.60%
3 2011:Large – Large metro interstate highway improvement 0.35% 0.20% 0.54%
4 2015:Small – Rural reconstruction of four-lane roadway 0.52% 0.30% 0.82%
5 2015:Medium – Rural reconstruction of four-lane roadway 1.25% 0.21% 1.46%
6 2015:Large – Large metro freeway reconstruction 1.29% 0.22% 1.51%
SOURCE: Texas Transportation Institute, 2011, 2015
Table 2: Cost increases per month and in total ($)
Project Project cost Cost increase per month of delay Delay (months) Total delay cost
Construction Other
1 $11,400,000 $32,957 $63,021 33.5 $3,215,263
2 $49,600,000 $191,956 $105,337 58.8 $17,480,828
3 $82,200,000 $283,624 $163,184 11.1 $4,959,569
4 $10,600,000 $55,260 $31,437 6.1 $528,852
5 $28,500,000 $356,160 $60,601 2.1 $875,198
6 $85,200,000 $1,101,473 $189,235 3.1 $4,001,195
Source: Texas Transportation Institute, 2011, 2015

How many $10 million or larger transportation projects are there? Nationwide, thousands. For instance, as of July 20, 2018, the Texas Department of Transportation was tracking 14,743 current and past transportation projects in the state. Of those, 1,256 projects cost $10 to $50 million each, and 431 cost more than $50 million each.