Public meetings full of angry and misinformed residents? A community that doesn’t understand their purpose and role in the development review process? Inefficient input analysis and reporting process? Voices missing from the conversation?
All of these are common challenges faced throughout the development review process and all of these challenges can be addressed by improving your public engagement tools and techniques.
Development Review is required by many jurisdictions to ensure that proposed developments meet public safety and welfare standards and provides for community needs and infrastructure. This review is key to ensuring that the community remains a place people want to call home. The review process for each community is as diverse as the size and complexity of projects that may be subject to a review; however, the requirement that the public be notified of a project that is under review is common among most jurisdictions. According to the American Planning Association “The development review process should be predictable, efficient, and open, and it should add value to the community.”
Public engagement, or conducting activities to elicit input from the public, as part of the development review process, typically consists of a posted and/or mailed notice that invites the public to provide comments. The notice may provide a brief project description and include a link to additional information on the community’s website. The notice also includes a method to submit comments, typically via email or post, regarding the development application.
The image above demonstrates the current standard in public engagement as part of the development review process. This method of engagement is not working because:
It is not transparent and does not build trust. Public comments (as part of a development review process) are typically received by a project planner who summarizes them and includes them with the project information that is forwarded to the decision-makers. Occasionally, the input received by the public will impact the review process, but the vast majority of comments, which tend to be in opposition to the proposed development, are read and archived. In many cases no response to the feedback is provided from the project planner and individuals who took the time to provide comments are left wondering if their comments were even received. Likely, the project was approved and the individuals who provided feedback are left wondering, “what’s the point?” fueling their distrust in government.
It wastes valuable resources. The collection, recordation, review, and analysis of public comments received as part of a development review process can be a time-consuming task for the project planner and any available administrative support. Additionally, individuals who want to know about a proposed development are requested to either visit the development review office or, when it’s available, learn about the project on the city’s website. If, after learning about the project the individual wants to provide comment, they must open another computer application or find a pen, paper, envelope, and stamp to post comments. All of which takes time, a resource that most of us have in limited supply.
Reporting on the input received is entirely subjective. Currently, the standard practice is for public comments to be provided in a written narrative. Analysis of the comments by the project planner typically result in a statement to the effect of “X number of comments were received. X number were generally supportive and X number were in opposition to the project.” Specifics are rarely provided. Reading all of the individual comments is the only method available to a decision-maker (or other interested individual) that wants a deeper understanding of the input.
It is only representative of a small cohort of the community. Individuals who are moved to provide public comment were moved to respond because they were either a) very opposed or b) very supportive. Rarely have I received comments regarding development applications that were apathetic or even slightly opposed or slightly supportive. The multi-step effort it takes to provide input and/or the belief that “it doesn’t matter” are some of the reasons that individuals who have ideas or opinions on development review projects don’t add their voice to the conversation.
Improving Public Engagement Tools and Techniques
If development review is about people and the communities they call home then it is up to local government leaders to modernize the development review process. Technology tools that modernize and streamline permit processing or provide project visualizations have become mainstream in development review processes across the country. In 2019, 47% of communities now offer online permitting according to the City Planning Technology 2019 Benchmarking Study from Planetizen; however, the use of technology to address the failures in the standard public engagement portion of development review has not become mainstream. In fact, the Planetizen Benchmarking Study does not include the use of online public engagement tools in its benchmarking study, but notes that “Citizens and businesses are increasingly accustomed to self-serve systems that allow complete transactions online.” This speaks to the need for a online-one-stop-shop that not only provides project information, but also provides the tools that facilitate the giving, receiving, and analysis of public input.
Utilizing an online public engagement platform, such as Bang the Table’s EngagementHQ software, is an opportunity for local government to address the failures identified above by:
- Building trust with the public. Online public engagement can build trust with your community by fostering a long-term relationship that is built on the four pillars of trust (Expertise, Good Will, Reliability, and Authenticity). The series of conversations that occur as part of meaningful public engagement in the development review (or any planning and implementation) process are all supported through the use of online public engagement tools.
- Saving resources. Using digital tools and an online-one-stop-shop streamlines the collection, recordation, review, and analysis of public comments received as part of a development review process. Project stakeholders, including the public, development community, decision-makers, community-leaders, and referral agencies can all utilize the project information shared on a dedicated development review application site. Staff time is also used efficiently as project information can be stored and shared via online document libraries and comments are collected and stored in a single location.
- Providing quantitative and qualitative analysis and reporting. Whether through comment tagging or through automated sentiment analysis, qualitative input can be reported using quantitative measures when using a platform that provides these services. Additionally, an online platform makes it easy to report back to project commenters and interested individuals by providing answers to questions about the project or providing project status updates on the project site or via emailed newsletters.
- Being inclusive. A transparent easy place to learn about and provide comments on development review projects is the first step in having an inclusive development review process. Prior to the development and proliferation of internet usage local government leaders were limited to providing a copy of the development application at City Hall and maybe the library for residents to review. Providing comment was limited to submitting written comments or attending a public meeting and speaking in front of an audience (something that is feared by over 75% of the population). Now, more than 9 out of 10 adult Americans use the internet (Pew Research Center), which makes online tools an accessible and inclusive platform to provide information and receive input (or even to collaborate).
The Town of Victoria Park, Australia has already begun using online public engagement as part of its development review process. They are using a standard form and allowing document uploads to collect comments. They are also providing a document library and project information on the same page in order to ensure learning about the project and providing input is as simple as possible – a true online-one-stop-shop. Golden, Colorado is another leader in using the internet to provide information and to collect public comment on development review projects.
These communities, and others like them, who are exploring the use of digital tools to improve their development review public engagement processes, are the early explorers. As a planner who believes that development review is an important role in ensuring communities are representative of their residents’ needs and priorities, I believe we should continue to explore the use of online engagement tools. I challenge you to consider how online public engagement could improve your development review process. Here are a few of my ideas:
- Ideation tools or place-based input tools could be used early in the design process to facilitate collaboration between a developer and neighborhood residents; or
- Discussion forums or story tools could be used to daylight the voices or stakeholders who may be impacted (or benefit from) proposed developments; or
- Online channels that streamline the referral out and collection and publication of feedback from partner agencies could be defined within the engagement platform; or
- Project and process transparency could be increased through the use of online question and answer tools.
How would you use online public engagement tools to address the challenges in your development review process?
I’d love to hear your ideas! Please share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch the webinar with Bang the Table’s Michelle Stephens for opportunities to streamline the development review process through comprehensive and transparent stakeholder engagement. Development review public engagement challenges, as well as examples from communities who are using online tools to connect with their stakeholders are explored.
Content originally shared by ELGL.org