Public Engagement: The Future In 2 Data Points

Travis Parker is the Planning Director for the City of Lakewood, Colorado. Today he's sharing a guest article about the impact of a new website that is helping his community reach more people for public comment on important local issues. Read his first article which describes this web platform here.

Remember when we knew what people were doing on their phones? (Calling someone.) Remember when you could place a safe bet on who was adopting the latest tech? (Younger folks.) Well, those days are over.

Using new technology for public engagement does not result in narrow representation, instead the opposite is true. The below two data points reveal this along with a glimpse into the future.

First, some background. In August of 2017, the Planning Commission at the City of Lakewood, Colorado, launched a project that digitizes public hearings, the workhorse of public engagement. Since then, the Planning Commission  holds their public hearings online as well as in-person, allowing citizens to watch presentations, ask questions, and comment on cases via a website for two weeks prior to the public hearing in chambers. 

The approach by the City of Lakewood is markedly different than similar efforts by other cities. For example, the City of Boulder, Colorado, tested a new idea for remote participation: a caller was patched into chambers to provide their public comments via the in-house audio system during the public hearing. (Listen to the call from 6:46pm via a video recording of the meeting here). The City of Lafayette, also in Colorado, will begin testing allowing its City Council members to attend public hearings remotely.

These laudable attempts to increase participation from a wider audience and reduce the strain on City Councils are focused on synchronous remote participation. The City of Lakewood is focused on removing both the place and time constraints.

Outside of government, in our personal and professional lives, asynchronous remote participation is the name of the game. If it works well in those realms, how can it improve our ability to interact with local government? How can it enable better representation of the people? 

To get to the answer, we looked at three recent cases in March and April for the Lakewood Planning Commission and two data points: age of participants and time of day of participation.

1. Age

For in-person Planning Commission public hearings in Lakewood, attendees skew older based on our unofficial staff counts, and we estimate around 80% of attendees are residents 55 and older. On our online platform however, residents 55 and older make up only 30% of participants, which almost exactly matches the actual population distribution in Lakewood for that age group.

Rather than creating a bias toward younger residents, online hearings are helping to remove the existing bias of in-person hearings toward older citizens.

Here's the participation in-person versus online compared to population of Lakewood by age range:

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The bottom line? In-person participation is not representative. Online participation is

2. Time of Day

The City of Lakewood’s Planning Commission meetings begin at 7 p.m. on Monday nights and last for hours. Any participation in-person would necessarily fall in the evening. Online, the range of participation is distributed throughout the day and, in fact, when given a choice of when to participate, early evening is the last choice of Lakewood residents. In our samples, there was not a single comment submitted between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m; these public hearings are scheduled for the absolute last time of day that people want to participate.

Here are the website comments, tracked by time of day:

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The evidence is clear: Removing the constraint of time makes participation more representative.

The Main Takeaway

Participation in Lakewood Planning Commission public hearings is more than five times higher online than in person (based on views of the presentations). The additional participants online take advantage of the ability to choose the day and time that works for them, commenting throughout the day and over the course of two weeks.

The additional participants are demographically representative of the community as a whole in a way that is nearly impossible for in-person meetings. Focusing on using technology to increase representation appears to have significant promise when it is used to enable asynchronous and remote participation.  

The hard lesson for all communities appears to be that we are not doing a good job of allowing public participation in our decision making process. Weekly in-person hearings have extremely limited engagement potential. Communities that are serious about improving transparency and citizen engagement need to embrace technology. The same technological tools that we use in our business and personal lives can be used to ensure representative participation in government decision making.

Fortunately, the answers are not difficult or complicated. Lakewood’s solution has proven that technology can work within the existing hearing framework and without requiring additional staff. As early adopters of online hearings continue to add more options for participation, there will be an ever more obvious divide between those governments that prioritize citizen input and those that do not.

Learn more about City of Lakewood Planning Commission public hearings.