Public involvement in government decision-making is notoriously spotty and unrepresentative of communities affected by decisions. A suburban city in Colorado is trying something different, with measurable success, which could become the new norm for what might better be called public engagement. CFM already uses a similar technique for research projects.
Lakewood, which is the suburb due west of Denver, is engaging its constituents online through Lakewoodspeaks.org. The online portal is used to augment participation in public hearings and other forms of citizen outreach. Initial results are encouraging.
“Participation in public hearings online, as measured by presentation views, has averaged more than five times in-person participation,” says Travis Parker, Lakewood’s planning director. "Online comments outnumber in-person comments and have represented a wider variety of viewpoints on issues. Participation has been significantly more representative of the City’s actual demographics.”
Parker says one reason for broader, more representative participation is the ability to fit public hearings into constituent schedules.
“When given the opportunity to participate at any time or place, residents are generally choosing to comment in the late morning, late afternoon or late evening,” Parker explains. ”The site receives virtually no comments between 6 and 8 pm. Our evening public hearings are held at the [worst] time of day that people would choose to engage.”
According to Parker, only marginally more staff time is required to use the Lakewoodspeaks website. “The workload is basically the same. The only additional duty for staff planners is reading and moderating comments that come in through the website.” Reading and moderating more comments is viewed as a positive thing because of the increased engagement it reflects.
Some skeptics raised questions about the legality of relying on a mix of in-person and online comments. Parker says that concern is overcome by making online comments that are curated over an extended time part of the public record on which decisions are made. “Hearings in Lakewood are now two weeks long,” he said.
Parker hopes other municipalities will embrace the same online strategy to boost engagement and induce a broader perspective in comments from people unable or unwilling to attend hearings in person, but able and willing to do so while riding a bus or sitting at their own kitchen table.
CFM has employed a similar technology to gauge public opinion. One CFM online survey helped a community college rate potential sites for a new campus. To satisfy doubters, we conducted a parallel survey using standard polling practices. The results were nearly identical.
Because online research gives respondents more freedom of when to participate, it enables a wider group of people to engage on their schedule. Engaging online doesn’t require anyone to travel to a specific location and permits an exchange of views with other participants. Anything visual such as presentations, maps or photographs can be seen as easily – or easier – online than in person.
Perhaps the most important benefit of online research is the ability to follow up with commenters to probe more deeply into their concerns, whether through one-on-one interviews or online focus groups.
Empowering people to engage online can transform public hearings and public opinion polling, making them richer in engagement and reliability as a basis for good decision-making.
This blog was based on a post by Kent Wyatt on behalf of ELGL (Engaging Local Government Leaders).