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In the planning process, social media talk is often cheap

People who testify at long public hearings or write letters aren't the only ones with opinions about important planning issues. A lot of conversation happens online, on Twitter and blogs, but commissions that make decisions often don't see or consider this kind of public opinion. How can the old, formal processes mesh with new ways of communicating?

Last summer, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning analyzed the District's height limits in a report requested by Congress. Residents joined in a spirited conversation, not only about the shape and form of the nation's capital, but also about the future of our city.

District residents, local stakeholders, and citizens across the nation voiced strong opinions on both sides of the issue. I was responsible for designing NCPC's process for engaging with residents and stakeholders, and reviewing their feedback. I found a big divide between those who participated online versus in person.

Those who attended public meetings, submitted letters, or delivered testimony generally opposed changes to the federal law. Meanwhile, those who spoke up on social media like Twitter and blogs such as this one were more open to exploring opportunities for strategic changes.

However, at the end of the day, only comments we received through the NCPC website or in person at hearings could shape our work as planners and be passed along to members of the Commission to inform their decisions. The people who spoke up online, other than through the project's website, weren't part of the formal process and didn't get the same weight.

Feedback on building height is just one example of how new methods of communication are revolutionizing how people engage with plans and projects. How can planners better respond to and incorporate all the public's opinions? What we can do to make it easier for you to get your opinions in the places where it will count?

Discuss this online or in person on April 9

Image from NCPC.
We will discuss this issue further at a panel on April 9, "Talk vs. Action: Making Your Opinion Count" at NCPC's offices, 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500. I will moderate a discussion about how new forms of communication and public engagement are trans­forming the public process and decision-making.

Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert is on the panel, as are Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards of Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood.

We will talk about questions like:

  • How can public agencies and other organizations reach out to bridge the communication gap?
  • Should online commenters be encouraged to use traditional, tested approaches?
  • Should organizations formally consider feedback presented through informal channels?
  • Are there new or better ways to foster conversations amongst these different audiences?
I want this program to reflect you. Send in your thoughts, opinions, and questions by posting them to the comment section below. I will keep an eye on this post and incorporate what you have to say into the program. Also, you can tweet your thoughts to me @NCPCgov, using hashtag #SpeakerSeries.

And, I hope that you will show up to the program. The NCPC Speaker Series is free and open to the public - just let us know you are coming with an RSVP.

We have also created a short promo video:

William Herbig, AICP is a resident of Dupont Circle. He works as an urban planner at the National Capital Planning Commission, and is also a board member of the American Planning Association National Capital Area Chapter. Before arriving in DC, he served as Director of Urban Design at Atlanta’s Midtown Alliance. When he's not at NCPC you might find him leading bike tours of the National Mall. 


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This is very generational. I think older generations, especially baby boomers are comfortable with conflict, while younger generations aren't. My own, X-ers, generally avoid it (being brought up by boomers) and try to do everything on our own. Unfortunately, transportation and infrastructure usually can't be done by the individual.

I also love my parent's generation response to younger generations needs and wants: First, complain about all the bikes and how they are such a nuisance. Next, say that nobody bikes so why do we need bike lanes? Last, just grow up and exactly like they do

...sigh, who needs to sit in on a meeting like that?

by dc denizen on Mar 26, 2014 3:46 pm • linkreport

If you can participate on twitter, or in the comments here, you can submit comments on a website. It's not that hard. It is a shame that more people can't take 10 minutes out to collect their thoughts and zip off an email.

That said, it is the duty of NCPC and other groups that request comment to have a clear and easy process to do so. If I go to the NCPC website and go to "public comment opportunities" I see this:

Now, it seems to me that you can submit a comment electronically by clicking "Jeff Hinkle" and then filling out the information. But a mailto: link with a specific subject would be better. And including his email address in addition to address and phone number would be even better.

by MLD on Mar 26, 2014 4:02 pm • linkreport

This TED Talk seems worth presenting again:

by Adam L on Mar 26, 2014 4:10 pm • linkreport

Adam, thanks for sharing the link to Meslin's TED Talk. He makes some great points.

by William Herbig on Mar 26, 2014 5:03 pm • linkreport

This has been a longstanding issue that is generational. There was a blog post about the Silver Spring library a few years ago that mentioned this same problem. Ultimately, our government bodies: Coucil, Zoning Commission, ANC's, whatever, will need to adjust rules to accept newer forms of communication as official comment for the record.

by Andrew on Mar 26, 2014 6:28 pm • linkreport

Having worked the same job on a similar project at the Armed Forces Retirement Home during their planning process nine years ago, I can relate to a lot of these observations. I suspect that verified, authenticated identities for social media commenters in the neighborhood might expand the pool of opinions that qualify as community input in the planning process. Perhaps the rules on acceptable forms of input could use some recalibrating, and that would help. There are ways... I look forward to attending April 9!

by Read Scott Martin on Mar 27, 2014 7:53 am • linkreport

My experience in Columbia Heights is more in line with "dc denizen" comment with a twist. Some who use online forums don't want to go through the work and pain that comes with moving from the simplicity of theoretical policy compared to the trade-offs and consequences of implementation. Boomers and others groups as well seek to avoid conflict it's not a generational thing, online is just a tool which suits the purpose of avoidance and younger people tend to have better mastery this tool. Some so called smart growth policies are seriously flawed at the implementation level or are pure nonsense and online for some is a way to avoid this fact. Influencing policy without getting your hands dirty, we should not make this easier. Bikes and bike lanes are good in theory, but seriously flawed as stand-a-lone policy.

by W Jordan on Mar 27, 2014 8:20 am • linkreport

I agree with MLD that an email (vs. a tweet) isn't too much to ask of people. IIRC, NCPC's online form for commenting on the Height Act was very simple to use -- maybe even the same as the form I'm using now to post this comment.

In the end, it comes down to why you're collecting comments. Is it a plebiscite? In which case, why demand comments? Just have a ballot. But then you need to determine who the legitimate electorate is and how you protect against fraud. And you face the question of whether you've chosen a medium that's biased in the opposite direction of what we have now.

Conversely, if you want to crowdsource the brain-storming process, then the quality and thoughtfulness of the comments matter. In which case, Twitter's probably not the way to go.

That said, I think Twitter townhalls can be useful in terms of getting information *out* and for answering questions. My ability to participate goes way up when I don't have to factor in travel time and then sit around for an hour or two in some government building to get an answer to a simple question. If I can stay at my desk and multitask while hearing the pitch, then submit my question or comment and get a response in real time, that's great.

by BTDT on Mar 27, 2014 9:39 am • linkreport

What does " Bikes and bike lanes are good in theory, but seriously flawed as stand-a-lone policy. " mean? Bike lanes aren't a policy any more than roads or sidewalks are a policy. They are part of a transportation network.

by BTA on Mar 27, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

The RSVP button isn't working. Please fix so I can attend. Thanks!

by Shelley on Mar 27, 2014 10:37 am • linkreport

Yeah I commented on the height act, and i don't remember it being difficult. That said I only knew about it because of GGW or DCist etc. The problem is outreach to the masses who aren't seeking out those venues to comment which is why stuff like social media happens. So a discussion of how to bridge that gap is welcome.

by BTA on Mar 27, 2014 10:37 am • linkreport

NCPC and others could probably also learn from companies that do advocacy outreach about:

How much information you really need from people - asking for full addresses vs. zip code, etc.

How to integrate back with social media so that when people submit a comment they are prompted to tweet/facebook about it.

by MLD on Mar 27, 2014 10:49 am • linkreport

Shelley: I've fixed it. You can RSVP at this link.

by David Alpert on Mar 27, 2014 10:53 am • linkreport

I'd rather see government agencies foster meaningful civic conversations rather that veer toward the corporate (or advocacy outreach) model. The goal shouldn't be to maximize your "likes." It's to get people talking across various divides and to help inform government decisionmaking (by learning from and about the experiences of various residents).

by BTDT on Mar 27, 2014 11:30 am • linkreport

Yes, bike lanes should be treated as a part of an integrated multi-modal network not just of transportation, but life. This means that there are times that building bike lanes should be delayed or not placed along some roads because they are to narrow. So in the so-called smart growth movement use "Bike Lanes" like some conservatives used "family values" a tool for political advantage not truly about a better quality of life for a broad number of people. This in my view is why the emphasis is often more on increasing the bike infrastructure for some rather than expanding the number of riders and broad based biking options. So for these people the theory of bike lanes are enough vs. broad based option of biking.

by W Jordan on Mar 27, 2014 12:13 pm • linkreport

Re: Commenting

Agree that it takes only a little more effort to go to the NCPC website and register a comment than to comment on GGW. That said, if I'm only going to do one of these things, I'm going to choose commenting on GGW. When I comment on GGW I get feedback from other smart people on my thoughts and I learn something. Maybe I'll influence the thinking of someone else too.

When I submit a comment on one of these websites, I have no idea if anyone is thoughtfully reading them, whether it will have any kind of impact and I certainly don't get any feedback.

In the end, it comes down to why you're collecting comments. Is it a plebiscite? In which case, why demand comments? Just have a ballot.

Ideally, they're collecting comments so people can bring up angles they might not have thought of -- crowdsourcing the idea/design. However, they may just have some intern counting the number of comments in favor or opposed and reporting that number to someone. That's how it works when you send a letter to your congress member.

by Falls Church on Mar 27, 2014 2:42 pm • linkreport

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