“Public input” is one of those deceptive phrases that seems to have a fairly straightforward meaning: information provided by citizens. In practice, “public input” – not its definition, per se, but what it entails and how well we apply it – is a pretty fuzzy concept, but one that’s incredibly important to nail down, especially for folks in the business of planning our communities.
That’s why MPC hosted a roundtable on Oct. 9 called “Plugging in to Placemaking: Technology’s Role in Community Engagement.” With the help of an excellent panel of experts in planning, communications and public engagement – Ben Fried, editor in chief of Streetsblog; Ted Nguyen, a PR pro with a passion for social media, who manages Orange County Transportation Authority’s online presence; Frank Hebbert, director of OpenPlans’ Civic Works project; and Tom Coleman, who is leading the relatively new and rapidly growing mobile apps division at Parsons Brinckerhoff, the event’s generous sponsor – we shed some light on how social media, the web, and mobile apps are both helping and challenging planners and communities to get more and better public input.
If you missed the event, you can watch it on MPC’s YouTube channel (which, incidentally, 14 people did during the event, as we livestreamed the roundtable for those who couldn’t attend in person.) We've also got some pictures on Flickr of our hip, good-looking panel. And Ted Nguyen's presentation on the power of social media is available online, too. Finally, we live-tweeted the event using the hashtag #plugintoplanning.
Each of the panelists highlighted concrete examples of how tools like Twitter, blogs, YouTube, Google Earth, Google+, Facebook, text messaging, Instagram, Pinterest, Vimeo, mobile apps, and more are bringing new voices and new information to the people making decisions about what our communities look and feel like. As Frank Hebbert put it, these tools are empowering normal people – people who haven’t necessarily been to planning school, people who don’t know what GIS stands for much less how to use it, people who just care about their communities and want to make them better – to be part of the planning process. What’s more, planners are starting to mine these platforms for data – comments, sentiments, location-specific information, numbers – that they can use to inform the planning process.
Exciting stuff! But when we got to the Q&A, it became clear that the audience – a fun mix of folks including municipal planners, government agency staff, planning consultants, and communications consultants and professionals – are still grappling with how it all affects their workaday lives, and the million dollar question: Can this stuff make plans better, investments smarter, and communities stronger?
I walked away – and, according to the audience survey, so did many others – feeling that the answer is an emphatic “yes,” with a couple of caveats:
Technology, like any tool, is only what we make of it. Blogs, social media, and mobile apps – not unlike good old-fashioned news articles, community meetings and phone calls – are just vehicles. If the content those vehicles deliver is not presented in a way that informs, compels action or invites a two-way conversation, they don’t add much value, particularly when it comes to improving public input. Ted Nguyen pointed out that people want to interact with other people, not with a corporate brand. Practically speaking, that means when a government agency is on Twitter, people will be more likely to follow and respond to an agency’s posts if the agency adopts a human voice, avoids jargon, and responds promptly to questions and comments. It means that instead of slapping a tome of a report on a web site and tweeting out the link, an extra step is needed to highlight the key takeaways – perhaps creating an easy-to-understand graphic or a two-minute video message from the agency’s director. It means using images to our advantage, capturing telling stories on camera and video, and most of all thinking not just in terms of what “we” want to tell “you,” but what “you” – the public – can tell us.
Technology can significantly augment, but not replace the need for in-person engagement. I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of meetings. I get antsy, I want to go do something, and sometimes I’m simply annoyed by being told or asked to sit in one place for a designated period of time. It’s a personality flaw, and I own it. But in my eight years at MPC, I’ve attended some truly inspiring community meetings, where people from all walks of life take an hour or two out of their busy weeks to think through a community challenge and work toward an agreed upon solution. I’ve witnessed quite a few transformative moments, when someone realized that what they thought was true was actually false, or what they hoped would happen one way would have to happen some other way. I’ve seen neighbors work out issues over plates of cheap cookies and bad coffee. And I’ve heard people express many variations of, “I came out tonight because I hope what I said here today might actually make a difference in what happens in my neighborhood.”
Here’s the thing: Occasionally I’ve witnessed some of those same transformations and sentiments play out on the web, in forums or on Facebook threads, but for whatever reason – despite that what’s on the web is permanent and catalogued and searchable forever – those moments seem to be more fleeting. The challenge for planners is to use these new tools to create and curate more of those moments, and to meld them with the input provided at public meetings to get the most value and meaning from both types of exchanges. Frank Hebbert suggested planners collect input from online social networks prior to public meetings, and then share those comments with the people who attend to augment the conversation. Likewise, Ben Fried suggested finding a compelling way to communicate the experience of the public meeting online – a photo of hands raised in support of a community investment, for instance – so people can follow along on the web.
After all, whether people are providing their input online or in person – or any of the other myriad ways we have to communicate these days – the fact that they are providing input is an expression of their desire to make their community a better place. I believe those of us in the field of community planning have a responsibility to harness those people and their ideas, wherever we find them.