New Lakewood Website Encourages Citizen Voices For Planning Board

Via Patch.com

"Lakewood Planning Director Travis Parker believes the city's new online participation tool is boosting participation and transparency.

LAKEWOOD, CO – As more Lakewood residents are becoming concerned with development in the city, Lakewood's Planning Director, Travis Parker, and the staff of the planning department have introduced a new way for residents to participate in public meetings. The city's new public portal Lakewoodspeaks.org has been running for eight months, and Parker writes that it has been a success so far."

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Online comments in public hearing surpasses in-person

We like to talk about unprecedented change facilitated by technology, such as:

“E-mail is not a threat,” said USPS spokesperson Susan Brennan in a 2001 Wired article. “(Postal mail) is universal. The Internet is not.” In the US at that time, the postal mail system peaked, when 104 Million 1st Class letters were sent. Shortly thereafter E-mail became the dominant form of communication while postal number have fallen sharply and steadily since then.

Last night witnessed a watershed moment in public hearings: planning commissioners received more comments via Lakewoodspeaks.org than in-person. The planning commission case, a zoning ordinance amendment, received nearly double the comments on the website as compared to in the courtroom. Online views of the presentations continue to far outstrip in-person attendance as well.

Here’s the stats:

In-person attendance
60

Online video views (4/8 – 4/18)
107

Online visits (unique pageviews 4/8 – 4/18)
246

In-person comments
10

Online comments
17

Our new look!

Back in August when we launched our beta on lakewoodspeaks.org, under the hood the software was a brand new web application–all shiny and new. But the aesthetic of the site, everything that the public sees, was still the design from our summer prototype. It was functional, but a bit antiquated. We’re excited to share that we’ve completed and launched a new look!

The new look follows modern design patterns and presents a professional interface focused on usability and functionality, including:

  • Minimal design that is bold and simple, making the site easy to navigate and find the content that is relevant to them.
  • Responsively designed to present equally well on mobile phones, tablets, and desktop computer.
  • Clean and bold typography with plenty of spacing, effective visual hierarchy, limited font colors, etc.
  • A brand new large “hero image” and headline for the homepage where citizens will start their journey when they are coming from the city’s direct mail campaigns.
  • Big buttons that stand out and are easy to find.
  • Simplified iconography to improve first time visits.

We’re excited to see how the new look helps increase the ability for citizens to participate in public hearings!

Decision-Maker Toolset Launched!

We’re proud to announce the introduction a new set of decision-maker features that help modern public hearings. These features eliminate staff inefficiency, reduce dependency and cost associated with the use of paper, and improve government transparency for constituents.

Background:

Currently, the public hearings are generally facilitated as follows:

  1. A “Staff Report” is assembled by staff that contains a copy of all the materials relating to the cases that will be heard at a given public hearing. Each case includes application materials, maps, comment letters and so on. Staff Reports can easily be dozens of pages. One is delivered to each decision-maker (i.e. a City Council Member or Planning Commissioner) for each public hearing.
  2. The decision-maker reads through the Staff Report in advance of the public hearing.
  3. At the public hearing, the staff and applicants make their presentation and then citizens are able to standup and make a comment that is heard and acknowledged by the decision-makers who are present.

The toolset we’ve released offers this same workflow, online.

All the materials relating to cases are uploaded to the website and an agenda and “staff report” are now created automatically. Staff email decision-makers a special URL that takes them to an agenda for the upcoming public hearing that lists the cases that they need to review. Decision-makers can review each case in advance of the public hearing.

When decision-makers review citizens comments on a case online, we track and acknowledge it online such that the citizen can view and see their feedback was reviewed.

When we shared the concept of this decision-maker toolset and asked the Lakewood Planning Commissioners for feedback, nearly all of them said they preferred to go paperless. Besides the obvious sustainability benefits of being paperless (huge report delivered to a dozen folks every two weeks is a LOT of paper), the online staff report is also much faster to assemble: it is automatic.

While we’ve rolled this out now it will not be tested with live cases until Jan 2018. We’re excited to see how it is adopted!

If you’re interested in learning more about how to bring truly public hearings to your part of the country, please contact us.

We hope everyone has a wonderful and rejuvenating holiday.

Email Routing System Explained

The best technology is often barely noticed. For example, the ease in which you can get an Uber ride to the airport–it feels like magic. But under the hood there is a terrific amount of engineering to make that seamless process work.

When we set out to change the public hearing process, we knew that whatever we built had to be easier than the current system. It had to integrate into the existing daily routines of our users: citizens, staff, applicants, and decision-makers. In today’s world, that means email.

We’ve created an email routing system that seamlessly integrates with our customers’ lives and daily routines, while keeping personal email addresses hidden and anonymous (think Craiglist; a nice privacy feature).

The first thing it does is helps citizens reach the appropriate staff or applicant for each case. The citizen submits their question on the website, and then the system delivers it. When the staff responds, the citizen receives the email. When the applicant responds, both the citizen and staff receives the email. The citizen can simply reply to the email they receive or they can submit a new question. The system handles all of it. This allows staff to track all correspondence and ensure cases run smoothly with a free flow of information.

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In the last month we’ve been working on something similar for decision-makers, in this case Planning Commissioners. The way it is going to work for Planning Commissioners is a little different. Once they’ve logged in, Planning Commissioners can ask a question, which is routed just to the staff.

When staff receives the question, they work to provide the answer, in some cases by getting information from the applicant. Instead of replying to the email, they post the answer on the website.

These Staff Responses are only visible to authenticated Planning Commissioners. This system allows all correspondence made visible to all Planning Commissioners. So everyone is getting the same information, making a level playing field. It also reduces duplication. For example, if a question is asked more than once by multiple Planning Commissioners, instead of taking the time to reply a second time, the staff can simply point the Planning Commissioner to the website.

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We’re taking a break this holiday weekend to spend time with our families, but will return next week to continue efforts in getting this add-on launched next month, along with some other exciting features unique to decision-makers.

Happy holidays!