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Improving Citizen Outreach and Engagement

January 9, 2013  by  Byron Katsuyama
Category:  Public Participation

Improving Citizen Outreach and Engagement

I have had the pleasure over the last eight years of serving as a member of the city of Kirkland Planning Commission. At our annual retreat a couple weeks ago, we were discussing ways to improve citizen outreach and engagement as we begin preparations for a major 10-year update to the city’s comprehensive plan as required by the State Growth Management Act. The update will be a primary focus for the staff, planning commission, city council, and, we hope, many citizens of Kirkland over the next two years.

We spent part of our time brainstorming about better ways to engage with citizens through the city’s website and other electronic means. Like a lot of cities, the city of Kirkland does a pretty good job of posting information about the planning commission’s regular meetings on the city’s website, including the commission’s meeting packets, minutes, and even audio recordings of our meetings. The city also maintains email lists that allow citizens to sign up to receive regular updates about various special projects. These are all good ways to keep citizens informed and hopefully engaged. But, we were wondering if there wasn’t still more that we could do, particularly in connection with the upcoming comprehensive plan update, to get more citizens involved in the process.

One of the ideas that we came up with was to develop an infographic for the comprehensive plan webpage that would present an overview of the entire process in a timeline or flowchart type diagram, and give a quick picture of the key milestones already reached and those that would be coming up next. The diagram we envisioned would also be interactive, incorporating links to various supporting resources such as completed plan drafts, maps, recordings of relevant meetings, staff reports, and other related information associated with each of the individual milestones. I like this idea. Most citizens probably won't be following the process as closely as city insiders and will appreciate having a guide that quickly shows them where the city is in the overall process. This could be further enhanced by linking to “executive summary” type documents that offer lighter reading options for people who want to get up to speed without having to wade through the full-text of completed plan elements or other similar lengthy planning documents. The longer, full-text versions should be available too, but only if people want to take the extra time to read them.

I haven’t actually seen anything like this before, so I set out on a web quest to see if I could find some examples from other cities or counties that have already developed a timeline/flowchart for this purpose. While I was at it, I kept an eye out for any other interesting examples of how cities and counties are using the web and other electronic channels to engage with citizens as part of their comprehensive plan update process.

Timeline/Flowchart Examples

I found several cities that offer timelines and process diagrams, but none, so far, that do exactly what we had envisioned during our brainstorming session. Bellevue’s Downtown Transportation Plan Update page includes a “plan update timeline” that provides a good visual overview of their process with meetings and milestones, but the diagram itself does not provide any document links. They do provide links to documents from past events just below the timeline. Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “PLANitULSA” Implementation Timeline page uses an interactive PDF document to illustrate the estimated timeline for implementing the various facets of their comprehensive plan. The links are limited, however, to descriptions of the various components of the timeline. Here are a few other examples:
These are fairly standard, but may give you some ideas. If you know of other examples that come closer to an interactive timeline/flowchart diagram concept, add a comment at the end of this post and include a link so we can build on these examples.

Facebook’s Timeline Feature

My web search turned up several hits on Facebook pages that cities are using to provide information about their comprehensive plan process. It turns out that Facebook’s new “Timeline” feature offers an effective way to present a comprehensive plan update process over time. Of course, it is also possible to take advantage of all the other bells and whistles that Facebook offers to add interest to your page, including document links, images, comments, polls, and other useful tools. Citizens that “like” your page will automatically receive any updates that you post. Take a look at these examples:
Good Comprehensive Plan Webpages

I ran into a few comprehensive plan pages that I thought were well-organized and/or included some other interesting features. Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan page includes several features that are aimed at engaging citizens. Public participation tools include use of email, Facebook, Twitter, listservs and a Seattle Channel “Comp Plan 101” video. The city of Shoreline’s Comprehensive Plan Major Update page is also well-organized and contains a lot of good information to help citizens keep current with the city’s progress through the update process, including an introductory video and a table with the meeting dates, staff reports, and minutes of all comprehensive plan major update discussions. The city of St. Charles, Illinois Comprehensive Plan site is worth a tour. They offer a variety of ways for citizens to stay informed and participate. An interactive community mapper feature allows citizens to point and click on a map of the community and identify what they believe are important assets and concerns. On Portland, Oregon's Comprehensive Plan page, I like their use of a “Most Popular” and “Most Recent” presentation of documents as another way to direct citizens to the material they may be most interested in.

Local governments are beginning to focus more attention on efforts to develop and deploy new, and hopefully more effective, ways to use the web and other electronic communication tools for improving on methods for reaching out to and engaging with citizens. These are just a few examples of how local governments are making special efforts in this area. If you have good examples from your own community, or know of some that other local governments are using, please add a comment below and share them.

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About Byron Katsuyama

Byron began work at the Center as a Research Assistant in July 1978. He holds a B.A. degree in Political Science from the University of Washington and an M.P.A. from the University of Washington's Evan’s School of Public Policy and Governance. After completing his M.P.A., Byron joined MRSC's consulting staff as a Public Policy and Management Consultant concentrating on municipal administration and policy analysis. Byron is responsible for research in such areas as emerging local government issues, best practices, strategic planning, performance measurement, and local government management. In addition to his consulting duties, Byron also maintains the "Focus" section of MRSC's website and is editor of our "In Focus" and "Ask MRSC" e-newsletters. He also coordinates our HR, Planning, Finance, Government Performance, and Council/Commission Advisors. In his own community of Kirkland, Byron also served for eight years as a member of the city's planning commission. Byron is a member of the Washington City/County Management Association (WCMA) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

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