Scott Doyon is Director of Client Marketing Services for PlaceMakers, an urban planning firm. He published a post to his Better Cities blog last week titled Public process: Don’t botch your online engagement (also on their Placeshakers blog here):
New tools have made it easier than ever to set up a project website, fast and cheap, for just about any endeavor. So easy, in fact, that people often assume the task of populating it with content is equally so.
It’s not. Instead, what you end up with is city staffers with limited time and limited resources, and who already engage with the public regularly in person, suddenly presented with the task of doing so electronically as well. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, whenever they find themselves in possession of any piece of information even remotely related to the project, their response seems obvious: Put it on the web.
Raw information. Posted. Done.
That’s a problem.
The City of Northfield, MN where I live has a history such failed project web sites, some done by the city staff, some by consulting firms. Some recent examples:
- 4th St. construction
- Safety Center (two sites, here and here)
- Northfield Business Park
- Northfield Transportation Plan
Think of the parallel: You’re in a traditional public meeting and someone asks a question about why the city is doing something. Do you provide a concise rationale, spelling out its benefits and role in larger community goals, or do you hand them a binder with 300 pages of reports and memos and tell them to have at it?
What should local governments do instead with their project sites?
Provide however much content it takes to express, up front and at each step along the way, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how people can participate. No more. No less.
Exactly. Unfortunately, Doyon doesn’t provide examples so here’s one I’ve worked on for the past 9 months: the GrandView District project blogsite for the City of Edina, MN.
In that time, the project blog’s been updated 36 times with many dozens of photos and has nearly 300 comments attached. It includes all the files, Powerpoint presentations, archives of the webinar, and links to meeting videos.
Doyon also points out that local governments are unwitting victims of the “Blank Slate” dilemma:
Another common fumble is confusing the difference between collecting ideas and building consensus around community goals. A variety of new tools have made it easier than ever for cities to engage citizens in a discussion of ideas. “What would you like to see?,” they ask. “Provide your ideas and rate the ideas of others.”
That is, when presented with a blank slate, people naturally assume that anything is possible. But as you know, it’s not. Avoiding problems is all in how you ask the questions. For example, you’ll often find questions like this: “How can we improve Founder’s Park?” Sounds empowering, right? Unfortunately, it also sets a foundation for failed effort.
Instead, the question should be posed this way: “The city has budgeted $4 million towards renovations for Founder’s Park. Keeping in mind that further land acquisition isn’t an option at this site, what improvements, initiatives or recreational options would you like to see prioritized?”
That’s the exact approach the City of Edina took with another engagement project, the 2012 budget. Working with the Citizens League, the areas of the budget that citizen input was sought were very narrowly defined. Ultimately, the process proved to be very effective and will be repeated again this year.
For background, see all my blog posts about my work with the Edina Citizen Engagement project.