Community Involvement in the City of Longmont: It All Started with RVs
The City of Longmont, established as the Chicago Colony in 1871 and renamed after settlers viewed Longs Peak in the distance, is located about 30 miles north of Denver, Colorado’s capital city. The community hosts just shy of 100,000 residents. There is a strong Japanese and Mexican-American heritage in the community, which began as a farming community and transitioned in the 1970s to a technology hub with IBM choosing the area as its new home. The city organization employs close to a 1,000 people throughout its public safety, public works, community services and utilities departments, as well as parks and golf courses, library, and historic estates throughout the city.
Community involvement, in Longmont, is defined as “any process that involves the public to achieve an objective.” The concept — and eventually the framework — got its start in 2001 with a Recreational Vehicle (RV) ordinance. Community members noted that the number and placement of recreational vehicles was growing, and some were beginning to consider their presence in neighborhoods a nuisance; the city drafted a policy to control it and expected it to be adopted with no issues. Instead, people poured out to oppose the ordinance. In response, City Council asked staff to create a standardized, strategic community involvement approach for the city to assure that all voices are heard, and that process is clear for decision making. As part of that work, the team took the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) and modified it to meet the needs of both the community and organization.
This kick-started the continuous learning, cross-organizational approach now embodied in community input efforts for the City of Longmont but part of the secret to their success is that they keep evolving.
The Community Involvement Model is Really Good
The City of Longmont is very clear that public input is not needed on all decisions, as staff are technically competent and are empowered to make decisions as required for their roles, but the city is very transparent with the process when public input is needed. The city even shares all of its training materials and techniques with the community on its Community Involvement webpage. This page is a one-stop-shop to various types of involvement from news and media updates all the way through volunteerism and roles on boards and commissions.
The organization modified the IAP2 Spectrum to meet the needs of the community; combining the “involve” and “collaborate” designations and modifying “empower” to “partner” — which is more of a co-creation model than a complete turnover to the public. A planning worksheet, found at the end of the Engaging Community Guide, called Community Involvement Project Summary Sheet, is utilized to determine the level of community involvement for a decision; it focuses on the interests and values of the community. Project managers complete the worksheet, and then meet with a member of the Community Involvement Steering Committee to move things forward in the planning process, and ultimately the implementation. In addition to the steering committee, Longmont has more than 50 trained facilitators on staff spread out across all city departments so almost every engagement is truly a team effort.
The hard work and inclusive nature of Longmont’s strategy both internally and externally has merited two All-America City Awards, in both 2006 and 2018. As a result of the community cohesion formed from this effort, community policing strategies and the neighborhood outreach model, the city and community have been well-poised to pull together in times of crisis — managing mental health tragedies, gang related issues and homelessness. In many ways, the involvement model has created a higher level of resilience than is found in other locations.
“I am really impressed with Longmont’s approach to engagement planning. You can see this even in the initial worksheet that project managers complete–they begin at the very first stage to consider the interests of various populations. This focus is a primary tenant of non violent communication and allows the community to begin to identify shared interests even when members disagree on direction or process.” – Amanda Nagl, Engagement Practice Lead, Bang the Table
When You Never Stop Improving, Good becomes Great
Even with this foundation in place for involving residents in decision making, the City Manager and his staff realized that they were missing busy and stressed folks that just didn’t have the bandwidth to follow city activities. So, the organization decided to take their practice online, increasing access and participation, by partnering with Bang the Table to create their community involvement platform; Engage Longmont.
The city utilizes the Who’s Listening widget, found on EngagementHQ, the software provided by Bang the Table, to show the staff members and contractors who are listening to the community, personalizing the space and providing a direct contact for further discussion, as needed. The City wanted to take the same commitments and process designations they did in person and transfer them to an online platform – making them easily accessible and distinguishable on each project. To accomplish this, they created icons that stand for each type of community involvement process. They highlight the icons on each project page to demonstrate clearly how much input is needed from the community on a specific project.
Staff provide annual training to City Council on the promises to the public that support each category of the engagement spectrum and reference these promises in communications about projects and objectives. As a result, they can be very clear that if Council has already made the decision, that is okay, but there is no longer a community input process. At that point, the city’s role is to inform. Only engagement projects go onto the Engage Longmont platform for community input. If there is no engagement, the information (decision) is communicated through other channels, including the city’s robust website and social media platforms.
Great Work in the Online Space
The Main Street Corridor Plan, one of the site’s first projects, is a consult level project. It is a planning project that allows the community to give input on bike paths and design aspects along the corridor. The project leads are identified by names and pictures. Tools were chosen relevant to the question being posed, as well as consideration to the input that would be received and reporting:
- A quick poll attracts attention and gets people active on the site
- The Ideas Tool allows people to vote on one another’s ideas and choose the preferred bike path.
- The Stories Tool was utilized to collect community sentiment about the aspects of the corridor that are highly valued by residents to ensure they would be maintained, if possible, throughout the plan.
Button Rock Preserve, another early project, is part Longmont’s Parks, Open Space and Trails division. Staff used the Forum Tool to help the community understand “why” policy may be changed, and how, and then the city hosted conversations where various reactions could be shared and heard by others. The most active discussion was about whether dogs would be allowed in the area. The conversation really highlights the debate often heard with resources—preservation vs. recreation and how to manage both interests.
Building STEAM; Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics is a progressive, long-term, master planning effort. The area is a large percentage of the downtown area of the city and the staff have prioritized collective input in the process. The online input opportunity started with a big picture blank slate and will be utilized at various points of the decision-making process. While the current level of engagement is “consult;” it is possible that the level will differ as the project moves forward.
Staff quickly realized that not every comment online would be positive; much like every comment at an in-person event is not positive. It is important to keep in mind that the criticisms are sometimes the most helpful feedback as they keep you moving toward continuous improvement.
Social media is still critical; it is used as a tool to inform residents, market the site and push online input into a platform where it can be fully measured and reported.
Surgical precision and consistency are the keys to success in not only launching and maintaining an online community engagement platform but also for operating a strategic and comprehensive input strategy for your community. Engage Longmont is part of an integrated and strategic approach that includes all aspects: Online discussions, road shows, multiple events. The strategies also do not exist in silos; staff often now utilize iPads to ask the same questions and use the same online tools during in-person events. On the back end, if you have asked the same questions in person as online, you can then load that input into the system to create one complete report, using EngagementHQ.
One of the best things about this is the nature of a platform—participants come for one project of interest and see that there are others, once there, and give input on multiple topics during a single session. Even if they don’t choose to give input, participants become informed about topics that otherwise might remain outside their radar. Once in a project, the design and feel are similar enough that community members feel comfortable; coupled with consistency in wording and tool usage, participation does not require as much training up front.
“The value of the platform is the number of tools and how you can combine them to create unique projects.” Sandi Seader, Assistant City Manager, City of Longmont, Colorado
Information, documents and the framework for decision making processes can all be found at longmontcolorado.gov/i-want-to/community-involvement.