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!

Pilot Test Results

Last Friday we were fortunate to give a presentation at the 2017 APA Colorado State Conference in Telluride, Colorado. In our session, The Next Evolution of Public Hearings, we shared the details of our efforts to help modernize public hearings for local government. This included a discussion of how technology has been reshaping our world and how public hearings are antiquated today, a look at the features of our web application and the process the planning staff at Lakewood has been going through, and lastly the results from our pilot test.

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The presentation was to a crowd of around 150 folks, including those from planning departments from around the state of Colorado. The overall feedback was terrific, including a lengthy Q&A session. Below are some of the highlights from the pilot test results followed by some of the more interesting Q&A.

Pilot Test Results

We looked at some metrics that compared the public participation online at lakewoodspeaks.org versus in-person participation.

The first three cases that were heard in Lakewood were not controversial and only 2 – 6 people showed up in-person. But we noticed 5x to 10x people watching the online presentation and 3x that number visiting and learning about the case as you can see in the chart below.

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We also validated the importance of content being accessible on all devices as almost half of the site visits were on mobile and tablet devices.

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We also shared how the public was notified about the cases, which was some changes to the physical mailers that were sent out. The changes included the addition of a QR code as well as adding the URL to the notices as you can see in the below.

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Q&A

Some of the more interesting questions from the audience included:

What has been Planning Commissioner response?

In Lakewood, the Commissioners love the new system. They appreciate the additional opportunity for public input and find the website intuitive and useful. Most of them are looking forward to eliminating their weekly paper staff reports and going completely paperless!

How do you plan to control comment spam?

This is a balancing act between encouraging maximum public participation through an open forum and full comment moderation. Our beta system has basic comment moderation by City staff for compliance with the comment policy. So far in the testing, comment spam has been non-existent. We will continue to monitor through future cases and make changes if and when necessary.

What was the process like with legal?

The City’s attorneys were involved throughout the development of the system in Lakewood.  While there is certainly a hesitancy on the part of attorneys to do anything new or untested, we’ve found that they recognize the need for and benefits of this structural change and have been willing to work through the procedural issues to minimize legal concerns.

Getting the chance to speak directly with a large number of our potential future customers is a thrilling part of conferences like this. We walked away with a number of interested parties who we will be following up with in the months to come.

Looking forward

One of the things we also talked about is what’s on our 2018+ roadmap. These are really exciting and will take some heavy lifting in the coming year:

  • No paper packet
  • Video comments
  • Live questions at hearing
  • Integrating with existing staff procedure and software

Now… back to the grindstone. We have a number of features that we’re in the midst of finishing up and QAing. Plus–a new look!

2017 APA Colorado State Conference

In just 10 days we’ll be speaking at the 2017 APA Colorado State Conference in beautiful Telluride, Colorado. Our session is called: The Next Evolution of Public Hearings and we’ll be sharing all the details of our pilot test alongside staff of the Planning Department from the City of Lakewood!

And what an amazing couple of months it has been! We launched in early August with two cases and had another one later in the month. We’re digging into detailed analytics now and promise to share more but the sneak peak overview is that it has been a terrific success! LakewoodSpeaks.org was able to reach far more citizens than the in-person public hearing and we’re all honestly a wee bit relieved 🙂

So–yay! Exhale. Now back to work.

(If you happen to be in Telluride let us know, we’d love to connect! We’ll be staying at The Peaks Resort and Spa in the mountain village, which is just steps away from the venue where we’ll be presenting.)

Beta Launch!!!

Sorry we’ve been so quiet for so so long… we’ve been back in the toolshed working away and today we’re proud to announce we’re live with the City of Lakewood at https://lakewoodspeaks.org/!

You can check out the first two cases here:

High View Water District Major Variance (Planning Commission Case: VM-17-002)

SCM Major Variances (Planning Commission Case: VM-17-009 & VM-17-010)

We’ve been working with the City of Lakewood for over a year now and while we’re just launching publicly, we’ve already tackled a number of major milestones and risks.

Online Presentations

One of the biggest challenges we faced with bringing public hearings online is how can we replicate the presentations given to the city by staff or applicants? At the in-person public hearing, the audience listens to a detailed live presentation. While the obvious solution is simple–just have staff or applicants record themselves and upload a video file–whether that was realistic or not was a big question.

What if staff and applicants weren’t familiar with recording technology? What if they were good at delivering in-person presentations but would stumble trying to do a recording? We recognized that it is a different skill set and could be a deal breaker.

Fortunately, the staff at Lakewood found that using Microsoft Powerpoint made it a breeze: you can record audio over each slide individually. This reduces the challenge in recording a single take for an entire presentation (where if you make a mistake, you have to start all over or fix it in post-production).

Simple mic and computer setup used by staff in Lakewood.

Applicants also rose to the challenge creating phenomenal recorded video presentations and one of our biggest hurdles has been surpassed.

Timeline & Process

Another very major hurdle that we’ve managed to overcome is the changes required to the city’s procedures, both logistical and legal. In order to give citizens time to review and comment on cases before the hearing, all the information must be online weeks ahead of when it previously needed to be completed.

To do so, Lakewood Planning Commission changed their schedule and began requiring staff and applicants complete materials three weeks prior to the public hearing date. The legal department had to work to amend their policy to allow online comments to be part of the public record. It took some time to implement but now it’s working like a well oiled machine.

Pilot Test

So… here we go! Physical mailers have been sent out to citizens in the relevant areas inviting them to visit lakewoodspeaks.org (along with a handy QR code to make it easier to get to the site).

We’re just sitting around refreshing our analytics dashboards for the next couple of weeks to see if a Truly Public Hearing works!

If you live in Lakewood, we’d love for you to visit the site and let us know what you think.

Fingers crossed……..

The Next Evolution Of Public Hearings

My wife forwards me a text message. Our friends are rallying to head downtown to give feedback on the proposed fracking at a nearby lake. I’d like to go, but I have commitments at work and can’t make the meeting. If it wasn’t my job blocking my aspirations for civic participation, it would be my dad duties. Or me wanting to spend time with friends. Or whatever. Why can’t I just tap the text message, read up, and add my voice to the conversation from my phone–in that instant?

Public hearings are suffering from extremely low participation. We have become a nation of time poverty–who can blame people for not wanting take personal time away to sit through hours of a meeting where only a few minutes are relevant to them?

Public hearings are failing to serve their fundamental purpose of being “public”.

A Changing World

In the last century we have seen unprecedented change facilitated by technology.

Take mail, for example. Throughout history, the only way to communicate over distance was by sending physical mail. In fact, the establishment of post offices is one of the only government services explicitly created by the US constitution and virtually every national government in the world is involved in mail delivery. Mail delivery continued to rise throughout history. In the US, the system peaked around 2001, when 104 Million 1st Class letters were sent.

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What replaced it? Email of course. In 2001, 12 Billion emails were sent, eclipsing the past levels of communication. By 2016, only 61 Million 1st Class letters were sent but 260 Billion emails.

Presentations are a bit more tangible example. It used to be you could only give a presentation to those in the same room as you. Think chalkboards, overhead projectors, printed slides sitting on easels. Until thirty years ago, the height of presentation technology was an overhead projector and a sound system. Now we have like-magic video conference technology. GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, Google Hangouts, Skype are just a few examples and you can give a presentation to an audience around the world–many you can use for free!

Journalism is perhaps one of the most compelling cases. The physical printing press revolutionized the ability to distribute information and for over 500 years, paper was the medium of news and information. Newspapers, magazines, books, fliers. The wide adoption of Internet changed everything. Suddenly, not only could anyone read the news, now anyone could write or distribute the news. Sites like Craigslist offering inexpensive classifieds eliminated advertising revenues adding to the demise of the long held industry. Nowadays, news can be amalgamated and spread using inexpensive platforms to reach a global audience.

Every industry in the world has been reformed by technology. Robots conduct surgery and drive cars. We shop at entirely different “stores” than previous generations. Men who used to dictate to secretaries now tap tap tap into their palm. The list is endless..

Yet public hearings haven’t changed in over a century.

We still make public decisions on a weeknight in a wood paneled room at the civic building. It is at a set time and place. I can’t make the meeting–nor can millions of others.

Innovating Public Hearings

We believe it is time for public hearings to evolve to meet the demands of the future.

We believe public hearings should be available to every citizen, any time, any place.

We believe it should be easy to participate in public hearings, whether in-person, or via a mobile or desktop device.

We believe public hearings should be presented in every language and not be cost or lifestyle-prohibitive, whether that means leaving a job, family, or friends.

We expect Truly Public Hearings.