Public Involvement in Planning: Simple Steps for Bridging the Online/Offline Divide

Chris Haller with Urban Interactive Studio

Chris Haller with Urban Interactive Studio

This post was guest written by Chris Haller of Urban Interactive Studio.

“It’s obvious we live in a fast-paced web world, but can technology ever truly replace face to face interactions? Staying connected and engaging with your stakeholders online is a wonderful new prospect, but community meetings remain at the heart of public involvement in planning.

Both online and offline interactions have incredible value and today the real challenge is in bridging the online/offline divide. Not only bridging the divide, but recognizing the positive aspects of both, and using those to create an inclusive engagement strategy. Inclusive as in having a little something for everyone: the ability to reach a broad demographic and the power of valuable feedback across channels.

When embarking on this strategy, it’s important to integrate your online/offline communication channels from the start. While offline engagement is typically headquartered in City Hall or meeting places around town, online interactions need a home base as well. Department websites are a good start doing public involvement in planning activities. But they tend to inadvertently bury content especially when the goal is to communicate complex projects like a new Comprehensive Plan. A dedicated project website can provide a strategic home base that presents relevant information in a clean and user-friendly fashion.

After online and offline channels are established, it’s important that they feed off of and promote each other. For example, in the case of an upcoming public workshop, posters of development scenarios might be on display at City Hall and mailers are sent out to the community notifying them of the meeting. Those mailers also needed to refer people to your website where an interactive map of the proposals could display scenarios online for citizens to review prior to the meeting.

To keep those involved who might not be able to attend the workshop or meeting, the event could be streamed live using free tools like Ustream.tv or Qik. The final meeting outcomes and meeting minutes should be posted online following the meeting for anyone to read, providing an instant feedback loop and building trust in all stakeholders that their voices have been heard in the public involvement process.

UStream: Video Tool for Public Involvement in Planning

Synchronizing these online and offline activities can easily multiply participation levels as it allows citizens to assess the status of a project and choose their level of participation. Additionally, online platforms can provide valuable tools such as calendars and project timelines that easily track the progress of a project. Watching a project advance, seeing where it started and how ideas and input have helped shape its development, provide a level of buy-in that’s hard to find otherwise.

When discussing online/offline engagement, the digital divide is always a variable in the process of public involvement in planning. To alleviate any backlash in adopting new technology, it’s helpful to provide great online and offline service. Kiosks could be used at town hall meetings or at a library to integrate online engagement during events and provide technical assistance to new users.

It’s important to also factor in the reverse digital divide effect. Once social media comes into play, seeing a friend check in at city hall for a meeting or tweet about the event may entice others to attend and participate. Social media is a great way to further integrate your online/offline efforts. To many participants, social media is a comfortable and familiar platform to share ideas and updates with their friends. Integrating your online engagement efforts with social media will boost your network outreach.”

A big thank you to Chris for his post about public involvement in planning. Chris’ latest project is EngagingPlans. The goal of Engaging Plans is to help planners easily build place-based, interactive project websites. You should head over to EngagingPlans and tell him what you think.

Leave Chris a comment here and tell him your thoughts about bridging the online/offline divide in public involvement for planning. Also, let us know about your ideas for innovative public involvement technology or processes.

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