Improving discoverability of online public hearings

As use of the platform continues, we’ve seen some growing pains of our initial design. Instead of the site needing to present just a few cases, there’s now dozens and dozens to handle. Instead of one body, there are now two with the flexibility to support an unlimited number.  This has resulted in a number of challenges:

  • How do we make it easier for people to find current cases on site?

  • How do we make it easier for people to find past cases and reduce the noise when they first arrive at the site?

  • How do we better organize the list of cases that are upcoming and recently ended to make it easier to find what one is looking for?

  • How do we condense all of the information on the page to make it easier to scan and find content that is relevant to them?

  • How do we do all of this on mobile-sized screens all the way to cinema-sized screens?

To address these challenges, we’ve updated the presentation of cases on the homepage, including adding a filter by body, introducing a new visual hierarchy for grouping cases by public hearing, and adding better handling of archived cases. 

We also made some slight refinements on case detail pages, including optimizing the presentation of video on different viewports, for example on a desktop computer versus a mobile device or a tablet device. We’ve also improved the presentation of supplementary materials (typically PDFs) on case detail pages.

You can see these new design changes up on lakewoodspeaks.org. Or ask us for a demo.

Coming up next!

We’re now working on increasing the efficiency of publishing public hearing information, trying to automate what currently is an overly manual and very time consuming process. Stay tuned for an exciting update!

How to keep citizens notified about the city council and planning commission public hearings – automatically

When a citizen asks to be kept up-to-date about a case, what do you do?  

For many the answer is to get their contact information, put them on a list, and when there’s an update to share, manually reach out to each citizen.

It’s an important task, but is time intensive for cities, susceptible to human error and can be missed when staff is burdened with a heavy workload of other administrative tasks.

Citizens don’t just want to be kept up-to-date about specific cases. There’s a broad range of when citizens want information:

  • When a project is proposed near to where I work and live

  • What initiatives are happening generally in my city

  • When are there proposals about a  specific topic important to me

All these different use cases can be handled by software, automating the process of keeping citizens up-to-date, increasing the consistency, and eliminating the burden for the city staff.

Today we launched the first of several tools planned for keeping citizens updated.

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How it works:

  • On each case page, citizens can subscribe for updates by submitting an email address.

  • After the public hearing is completed and a decision is made, staff updates the status of the case and the system automatically sends an email to the citizens that have subscribed.

  • Staff can see a list of all the subscribers for a given case within the admin tool.

Now we’re exploring how to best address other cases like those we outlined above.

We’re excited to see how automating the process of keeping citizens up-to-date helps citizens and staff!

Online public hearing real-time performance analytics

One of the most exciting aspects of deploying online public hearing software is that it expands the demographics of who participates in the public hearings. In the past week, we completed a study that looked at: 1. when people are participating and 2. the age of participants. You can read the write up here.

Since then, we’ve been working on creating way to visualize this data in real time. We’ve now created a Dashboard that shows the number of compelling pieces of information.

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The information currently includes:

  • The counts of users, sessions, pageviews, and bounce rate

  • When the site is visited (the time of day that people interact with the content)

  • Engagement broken out by age & gender

  • How the site is being accessed, whether by desktop, tablet or mobile device

  • The most popular case pages by visits

Rather than delivering this kind of information on a monthly basis, it’s all available in real-time via the web accessible by desktop or mobile device.

National Planning Achievement Award for a Best Practice

On April 3, 2019, the American Planning Association Announced the 2019 National Planning Award Recipients. Lakewood, Colorado won a National Planning Achievement Award for a Best Practice!

Achievement award recipients were collectively recognized at the National Planning Conference this past Monday, April 15th, in San Francisco. Travis Parker, who went to receive the award for the City of Lakewood, sent us this snapshot from the event:

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From the APA:

The web-based platform, LakewoodSpeaks.org, enables citizens to participate in Lakewood Planning Commission hearings two weeks before the live meeting. Citizens can review presentations and documents, ask questions of staff and project applicants, and comment on proposed actions, all on their own time and at their own pace with the same level of experience and impact as attending the live meetings. Public participation in planning meetings has increased significantly since LakewoodSpeaks.org launched in August 2017.

Webinar

Interested in learning more about the platform powering LakewoodSpeaks.org?

Check out the webinar  “The Next Evolution of Public Hearings” hosted by the American Planning Association on Friday, March 22, 2019, which drew an attendance of nearly 600 participants! In this one and a half hour long webinar we share the case study of People Speak's online public hearing software and its impact on the City of Lakewood, Colorado.

You can view the webinar here.

How to increase citizen participation with public hearings citizen engagement software

Once you have an online software in place that allows citizens to participate remotely and asynchronously in your public hearings, the next step is spreading awareness to citizens so they know about the new option.

Here are four communication tools used by the City of Lakewood:

1. Printed newsletter

Looking@Lakewood is a printed newsletter that is mailed to all residential and business addresses in Lakewood, typically six times a year. The newsletter providers Lakewood residents with information about their city government and when the City Council was ready to spread the news about the new online public hearing option, they included an article in this newsletter.

The article, Online participation to start for City Council meetings at LakewoodSpeaks.org, can be read on page 8 in the January 2019 issue (download PDF).

The article included the purpose of LakewoodSpeaks.org, how it works, the past success the Planning Commission found, and how to get started.  

2. Postcards

Postcards were printed to raise awareness of LakewoodSpeaks.org. The postcards were placed at public counters around the city and used as handouts at public meetings. City Council members were given stacks to hand out to constituents.

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3. Live announcements

In advance to the City Council going live, the mayor started a couple of meetings announcing that LakewoodSpeaks.org would be available for public comment from home, or wherever. Once the City Council actions were live on the site, at each meeting the mayor acknowledged the comments and at multiple points in the meeting stated that the site was available for public participation.

4. Mailers

A number of changes were made to the standard mailed notification that is sent to citizens for whom the actions on the upcoming public hearing are relevant. A notification explaining how LakewoodSpeaks.org works along with the URL and a QR code were added to the mailings to make it easy for citizens to get to the online public hearing site.

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Tools for citizen participation and engagement

Talking with clients and others in government we’ve discovered a lot of confusion about the distinction between the different types of citizen engagement tools. With an ever increasing demand for transparency and new forms of citizen outreach, cities are looking at many ways to engage and inform their residents and there are many tools that can help. If you are in the process of seeking a technology solution, it’s valuable to understand the differences in what these tools can do.

1. Virtual town hall & survey platforms

Probably the best known are the online town hall civic engagement ones. Bang the Table, Citizen Lab, Idea Scale, MetroQuest and many others fill a crowded market for collecting quality input from citizens on large projects. These tools are great for engaging people for a new comprehensive plan or a large infrastructure project. They are staff intensive and useful for big projects but impractical for the everyday workload.

2. Data tracking & information sharing

Tools like CivicPlus and MySidewalk offer governments the opportunity for an online 311 service. These tools allow the public to ask general questions and report issues. This is a very useful service for governments to provide, but is not meant to allow for review and comment on current projects or Council actions.

3. Process and permitting tools

There is a huge market for moving the permitting application process online. Dozens of companies like OpenCounter, Citizenserve, and MyGovernmentOnline automate the business of the permit counter, putting both application and process information online. This is a growing business as more and more governments realize the need for automated permit services, but as with the other tools this is separate and distinct from citizen engagement and online hearings.

4. Public hearings

People Speak started because none of the existing tools allowed cities to conduct the business of public hearings online. Public hearings are traditionally and continue to be in-person events; very few governments have begun to use technology to change participation in public hearings. People Speak is solely focused on helping public hearings evolve to meet the demands of the future generations (read our manifesto here).

Webinar 3/22/19: The Next Evolution of Public Hearings - Hosted by American Planning Association

Missed us at the APA Colorado State Conference or want an update on how things have been going? Join us at an upcoming webinar, “The Next Evolution of Public Hearings” hosted by the American Planning Association. The webinar will feature a case study about the City of Lakewood, Colorado, and how they’ve innovated their public hearings by adding an online component.

Would love to have you join us!

Details follow.

The Next Evolution of Public Hearings

When: March 22 2019, 1 p.m. - 2:30 p.m. EDT

Host: American Planning Association

Description:

The process and format of public hearings hasn’t changed much in the past century. As technology continues to improve and lives get ever busier, a shift toward more online input in public hearings is inevitable. Learn what Lakewood has done to evolve its meetings to allow for online participation and how their experiences might help your community.

What You’ll Learn:

  1. The challenges to including online options for public hearing input

  2. How to avoid the pitfalls made by others in this new shift

  3. Steps your community can take to start the proces

Tentative Agenda:

  1. Introduction: Mr. Parker will present and discuss problems with current public hearing format including participation gaps, information flow problems, and logistical limitations.

  2. The Lakewood Solution

    • Mr. Parker and Mr. Sperling will describe the online platform created by Lakewood and People Speak to include online participation in public hearings.

    • They will review factors that were considered in design of the site.

    • They will present the site and its functionality.

  3. The Lakewood Experience

    • Mr. Rice will describe the rollout and results to date in Lakewood including examples from cases and overall impacts on the process.

  4. Q & A

Speakers:

  • Travis Parker, AICP, Planning Director, Lakewood, CO

  • Paul Rice, AICP, Development Assistance Manager, Lakewood, CO

  • Jason Sperling, MBA, Co-founder, People Speak

Registration and more (via the American Planning Association)

City of Lakewood, Colorado - City Council launches!

In August of 2017, we proudly announced the beta launch of our public hearing software platform with the Planning Commission at the City of Lakewood, Colorado. The success of the software has been exciting (check out these pilot test results we presented at the APA Colorado State Conference in Telluride, Colorado) and today we’re thrilled to share that City of Lakewood City Council has started to use the platform!

As part of their launch strategy, the City of Lakewood City Council created this educational video:

Adding the City Council’s public hearings to LakewoodSpeaks.org was made possible in part by the addition of a number of features that increased the flexibility of the People Speak platform (such as advanced settings, support for multi-body functionality, among many others) that we added in the fall.  

Interested?

Join us at an upcoming webinar hosted by the American Planning Association (learn more and register here) where we’ll be sharing a case study of everything we’ve learned and done with the City of Lakewood.

Our biggest update yet!

Over the last few months we’ve been quiet and heads-down building new features driven by customer feedback. You talked, we listened!

We recently rolled out our biggest product update yet, including some very useful new tools:

Automating Staff Communication

Managing decision-makers takes a lot of communication: letting them know when to review comments, sending them the public hearing agenda, reminding them of any unread comments the day of the hearing, etc. Now that whole process is automated, eliminating staff work while increasing the utility of the communication by including stats and deep links to specific places on the site.

Increasing Workflow Flexibility

When should the comment period close? When should reminder notices to be sent? Who should receive comment moderation notices? Those and more can now be easily managed by staff admins.

Exposing Engagement Metrics

To make it easier to track down which decision-makers have unread comments, we now display this in the admin for staff to get a quick snapshot of the status.

Advanced Page Editor

This release introduces the first module of our advanced page editor, which allows staff to add as many PDF files to a page as they need. Drag and drop controls make it fast to change the order and make the page support the necessary content and flow for each case.

Messages Dashboard

What happens if one of your staff is out sick or on a holiday and citizens have submitted questions that have yet to be responded to? We’ve added a new section in the admin for each case where any staff can see the messages sent through the site, whether to staff or applicants from citizens. Messages are grouped by email threads of related messages comprised of replies of the original email.

Multi-body!

By far the most expansive update is support for multiple bodies. For example, sites can now support cases from both a Planning Commission and City Council on the site. Filters allow citizens to select the cases relevant to them. Under the hood, staff for each body are able to login and manage cases just for their body but all via the same admin site. Agendas are also separated by body, so decision-makers only see the cases for the public hearing to which they are a part.

We’re excited to see the impact of these new features in the coming months!