Obama-Biden Transition Website Accepting Questions and Comments

Posted: December 10th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Barack Obama, eGovernment, ePlanning, Public Participation | 1 Comment »

Although overshadowed in the media, two recent initiatives by President-Elect Obama demonstrates his unprecedented commitment to Internet transparency and citizen engagement. The first concept, announced by transition head John Podesta last weekend, is called simply “Your Seat at the Table.” Obama-Biden Transition team will meet with hundreds of private organizations. Anyone they meet with must agree to allow any briefing materials be posted online, where citizens can review them and post their comments. Since launching last weekend, PDFs of briefing materials from over 100 organizations have been posted, and thousands of citizen comments posted in response.

Any presidential initiative that excites both Mother Jones Magazine and the Cato Institute must be unique indeed. Although the Cato bloggers griped that similar transparency is often not applied to budget matters, they should remember that as U.S. Senator, Barack Obama was a driving force behind USASpending.gov, whose sole mission is to let Americans “see where their money goes.”

The new initiative raises many questions — who will process the comments? How will they be recorded for history? How is the transition extending the dialogue to Americans who cannot — or prefer not to — engage with their government on a website? Are there any meetings where the briefs cannot, or will not be posted? These questions aside, the experiment fundamentally transforms the usual input process for government policy by allowing some conversation to occur between individuals. Some of the most exciting technology in this area are new social feedback tools like UserVoice or GetSatisfaction that attempt to create a technical framework for a collective discussion, without the prohibitively high technical barriers to entry (and problematic lack of user restrictions) of wikis.

This type of social feedback software is exactly the type of technology the fuels the other new tool, “Open For Questions” the campaign unveiled today, which “lets you ask the Transition team any questions you have about the issues that are important to you” and also “browse through questions other folks have and check off the ones you think are the most interesting.”

Fundamentally, both of these technologies of are applicable to policy-making at the local level, which unlike for the presidency suffers a lack of participants, and a need for better ways than public meetings to bring people together across time and space. If the Obama Administration can demonstrate their practicality at the national level, perhaps it will serve to debunk skepticism and resistance at over levels of government. What will remain is to extract the technical machinery behind Change.gov and make it available to local governments, overcome the political, cultural, and policy barriers to enhanced transparency and dialogue, and develop the expertise to deploy them in constructive ways.

> Change.Gov – Your Seat at the Table and Open for Questions

Public Involvement in U. of Maryland East Campus Planning

Posted: November 19th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: College Park, ePlanning, Maryland, Public Participation | Comments Off

Tonight at an event at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning I met Harry Mattison, the author of a blog about the Allston Brighton Community Blog. He’s also a member of the Allston Brighton Community Planning Initiative.

The map below sums up what’s happening in the neighborhood. Clockwise from the left, the red areas illustrate the neighborhood’s institutional land owners: Boston College, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, Harvard University, and at the bottom right Boston University. More than passive neighbors, most of these — especially Harvard through its Allston Initiative — have been expanding. The dots show existing and planned development projects. (For the initiated like myself, ABCPI’s old presentations provide an introduction.)

ABCPI_Presentation_Feb2006-1.pdf (18 pages)

All this development activity, much of it planned by none other than Harvard has resulted in a climate of antagonism and distrust in the community. Discussing these issues with Harry, I was reminded of the procedural elements to the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative in College Park, Maryland.

East Campus  M-Square ConnectivityWhen I first arrived on campus in College Park to begin my master’s program in the fall of 2006, the University of Maryland was initiating the process of selecting a private developer to redevelop over 100 acres of their land into a mixed-use project with restaurants, apartments, a hotel, stores, and offices. The site is located just up the road from downtown College Park, strategically between the university’s main campus, and the Metro Station and University research park. (Yellow and green on the map to the right)

The administration had planned a three public forums about the project, complete with large maps and a panel to discuss the projects. Despite the preparation, turnout was abysmal and University staff easily outnumbered attendees. We requested and were granted a meeting with the then-Vice President for Administrative Affairs John Porcari and two other administrators to discuss public outreach about the project. Although they listened politely, the administrators firmly insisted the process of selecting a private developer must remain closed. Once one was selected, however, they pledged a full and public process.

That fall Porcari left the University to become the state Secretary of Transportation, but the next spring we had a meeting with one of the administrators from the original group and an expanded group including student leaders and administrators. At this meeting, we presented our recommendations for what a positive public engagement plan would look like. We argued it should be consensus-based, proactive, candid, and transparent, and provided specific recommendations and a brief summary of how other universities had handled input for facilities planning. The document is no masterwork, but because of it we brought far more substantive input than any other participant.

Shortly after that meeting, former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan was appointed to the position that would oversee the project planning, Vice President for Administrative Affairs. The veteran of a complex public-private project revitalizing Silver Spring, Maryland, Duncan was no stranger to the politics of urban development. I emailed him to congratulate him on his appointment, and asked for a position on any steering committee created.

During the summer, I received this letter from the University president:

July 20, 2007
Mr. Robert Goodspeed
AGNR-Plant Science & Landscape Architecture
2139 Plant Sciences Building
College Park, MD 20742-4452

Dear Rob:

With the recent Board of Regents approval of the team of Foulger-Pratt/Argo Investment as the developer with whom the University can negotiate a development plan for the East Campus site, I am seeking the input of a Community Review Steering Committee. The Committee will work toward achieving a consensus plan for the development of the University’s east campus site and toward promoting the revitalization of the Route 1 corridor. Planning for this project must provide for current institutional needs, future campus goals and the enhancement of the surrounding community.

The Committee will work in open session, considering issues that have been brought to it by the campus community, area neighborhoods and local businesses. Comment from the public will be solicited at public events and through members of the committee. We look forward to lively dialogue and a collegial exploration of ideas between our Committee members and the development team. Committee members will be charged to work with the Foulger-Pratt/Argo team on the development of the plan. They will be in a position to gain a high level of understanding of the project in order to provide input and to build broad support for it.

You have been recommended for membership on this Committee, and I ask for your participation. I hope that you will consider this opportunity to represent the community in this transformational planning process. I value greatly the input of our diverse community for the east campus development. I am excited by the long-term vision of a vibrant, mixed-use center that will serve the University and the College Park communities. I have attached the schedule of the meetings planned as you consider this invitation. Being optimistic, I would like to thank you in advance for agreeing to serve. Please contact [EXCERPTED] to confirm your availability and interest in helping to make the east campus a truly great contribution to our community.

Yours sincerely,

C. D. Mote, Jr.

The following schedule was enclosed.

East Campus Community Review Steering Committee
Tentative Meeting Schedule

Chair of Committee: Mr. Douglas M. Duncan
Vice President for Administrative Affairs
University of Maryland

The following is a tentative schedule for meetings and topics for discussion. All the meetings will be held from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. in the Visitor Center Auditorium located in Turner Hall.

* August 13–Introduction; background on RFP process, developer presentation; committee goals/charge

* August 27–Market dynamics and proposed uses: retail, residential, office, and hotel

* September 12–Economic impact of development and public finance options

* September 24–Transportation planning: Route 1/Paint Branch connections/traffic calming, public transit, and pedestrian/bicycle connections

* October 8–Land use options and concepts: placemaking, street-facing retail, views, plazas, connections, and residential over retail.

* October 22—Concluding meeting

Although the precise timing and topics varied somewhat from this schedule (the meetings didn’t wrap up until January 2008, for example) it generally suggests the approach taken. After every meeting and at other times during the process I wrote detailed blog posts on Rethink College Park, sharing all the technical documentation and information discussed at the meetings. In general, these meetings were very well attended and despite tense moments were generally respectful. During the entire time period, me and the other Rethink College Park contributors wrote a staggering 366 posts about East Campus. The university posted a variety of information to their website about the project.

Chaired personally by Doug Duncan, the meetings were very good at sharing information and providing a venue for community engagement. However, they weren’t perfect. Here’s a few of my concerns:

  • The composition of the committee was half university, half community, with a few others (including 3 students) thrown in. If the university is a developer, why should they have such a large representation?
  • The format of the meeting was designed for one-way communication, not discussion. The group sat in a “U” facing a presenter. The only structured discussion was during Q&A.
  • No designs in more detail than massing and site plans were presented. This was the biggest failure of the process: nobody saw the public plans until after the group stopped meeting.

Last summer, I made one last trip to College Park to see the unveiling of the final plans, which were submitted to the county for approval last summer also. In addition to what’s described here, the project involved dozens of other components I haven’t mentioned, ranging from talking with members of the closed-door campus architectural committee to visiting with administrators to discuss how to make the project website more user-friendly. Needless to say, the true impact of any of this on the project is impossible to say and the final chapter of this project is far from over. Nevertheless, I hope the information here about the public process may prove a useful record.

> U. of Maryland East Campus Redevelopment Initiative (Official site)
> Rethink College Park: East Campus Posts
Rethink College Park: “Engaging the Community in the East Campus Redevelopment”
> See also, “NIMBYism, Urban Development, and the Public Involvement Solution,”

Report Finds Public Participation Improves Policy

Posted: August 23rd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: eGovernment, ePlanning, Government, Public Participation, Urban Development | 1 Comment »

A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences has concluded public participation processes can improve the quality of policies and help them become implemented. The 270-page report is the product of a research panel of a dozen experts. The report’s primary recommendation urges “Public participation should be fully incorporated into environmental assessment and decision-making processes, and it should be recognized by government agencies and other organizers of the processes as a requisite of effective action, not merely a formal procedural requirement.”

While I have not read the full study yet, I am not surprised by the findings. After all, in the words of panel head Thomas Dietz, since “a lot of science has to be applied to a very local context, local knowledge is essential.” Although a dearth of good research on the topic exists in the field of urban planning, I found several studies drawing similar conclusions. One interesting examination of 60 planning processes in Florida and Washington concluded that “with greater stakeholder involvement, comprehensive plans are stronger, and proposals made in plans are more likely to be implemented.” The study author went on to write (with two others) a subsequent article analyzing how states should mandate participation. I adopted that group’s general framework, derived as it was from the previous study of effectiveness, for my final paper describing how the Internet could be used as a participation tool.

I think the lesson from the National Academies panel must be driven home to the urban development community. Since we are so intimate with participation, we lose perspective on its broader importance and role. Given the legal requirements for transparency and professional approaches to participation, the key is to look beyond an obsession with the intellectually vague “NIMBYism” and design processes that foster consensus and prevent Morriss Fiorina’s “Extreme Voices” from having a monopoly. In particular, I think it means designing processes that are less time-intensive and allow involvement on a wider scale of commitment levels.

> [Read it Online] National Academies: Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making
> NYTimes: “Report Says Public Outreach, Done Right, Aids Policymaking
> Previous posts: NIMBYism, Urban Development, and the Public Involvement Solution, Public Participation in Urban Planning Series

The Internet as a Participation Tool

Posted: June 26th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: eGovernment, ePlanning, Government, Technology, Urbanism and Planning | 3 Comments »

This post is Part 4 of my public participation in urban planning series, adapted from my urban planning final paper, Citizen Participation and the Internet in Urban Planning

While the Internet makes possible new types of interactions between citizens and government, the purpose and structure of these interactions are not new. The section creates a road map for the use of the Internet as a civic participation tool by describing the technical implications of participation history and theory.

Despite scholarly interest of the web’s potential to improve e-democracy, most have viewed it as simply digitizing existing processes. Instead of corresponding with government officials through mail, citizens can use email. Instead of requesting pamphlets or reports they can download digital copies online. A 2004 study of the websites of 582 U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 or more in the 2000 Census found 35% provided an email address for citizens to contact the office, 74% offered the zoning ordinance and 55% had plans, and 37% had minutes of planning meetings.(1)

Most planning agencies have placed large amounts of information online, viewing it as something analogous to newspaper notices or the creation of an official record for public review in person. This means planning board agendas, meeting minutes, and a wide range of planning documents are posted online, often in PDF format. Furthermore, many have adopted web GIS systems allowing visitors to view GIS data and create their own maps.

The discussion above demonstrates a gap between the current theory regarding public participation and the state of government planning websites. While we have a historical basis for widespread outreach and education about planning processes, information is scarce and often missing. This section seeks to apply the historical and theoretical lessons to suggest a path for use of the Internet for participation. As a framework, it adopts the five choice areas advocated by Brody, Godschalk, and Burby for participation in general.
Read the rest of this entry »

Software for E-Government

Posted: June 16th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: eGovernment, ePlanning, Technology | 4 Comments »

A topic I have begun to explore is the best e-government software to support public participation in urban planning. I’ve previously written about LimeHouse‘s tool, which amounts to a web-based document management system that supports the equivalent of blog comments on document sections.

Adobe has been advertising their LiveCycle suite of tools heavily on the D.C. Metro and buses. It features interactive, online forms that interface with existing government databases and processes. Not a bad thing, but this is the type of one-to-one e-government I described in my blog post about urban planning and e-government. Online forms are necessary, but have limited applicability for planning exercises.

Today I noticed a recent announcement from Microsoft regarding their

Citizen Service Platform (CSP), which will make it easier for governments to interact with citizens, streamline processes and, as a result, save time and taxpayer dollars. Together with its partners, Microsoft’s CSP offerings will help governments of all sizes more responsively deliver services to citizens via the Internet.”

While the list of features is promising, I’d like to see exactly how smoothly the entire package comes together. They claim to have some GIS support, something potentially useful to planners.

Finally, in my new copy of The Next American City (you should be subscribing if you’re not) I saw an ad for a “Survey of Open Source Software Use by Municipal Government,” that seeks to “discover if small to medium cities (population less than 500,000) can conduct business and provide services using only open source software as an alternative to commercial software. The results of this research may provide insight that can help cities reduce the annual cost of information technology and software through the use of open source software.”

Do you have experience with any of these or other e-government software packages? What are the best software tools available to local planners?

Public Participation Theory

Posted: June 16th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: ePlanning, Government, Public Participation | 4 Comments »

This post is Part 3 of my public participation in urban planning series, adapted from my urban planning final paper, Citizen Participation and the Internet in Urban Planning.

The urban planning profession has developed increasingly sophisticated techniques and theories regarding how and why to involve citizens in planning processes, especially since the 1960s. Critics pilloried the effectiveness of citizen participation during the War on Poverty, suggesting a new theoretical approach to participation itself was needed. Despite theoretical disagreement about the proper definition of and practice of participation, professional literature reflects a consensus a variety of additional techniques can enhance the process and result in more effective and democratic plans. These debates suggest ways planners can craft strategies that take into account social divisions and inequality, and effectively incorporate Internet technology into existing processes.

The experience of limited participation during urban renewal and the debate surrounding “maximum feasible participation” in the 1950s and 1960s sparked an intense professional interest in the topic of public participation in planning. The political and social turmoil in American cities and the contested nature of urban politics raised serious questions about how participation should be structured, and how power should be distributed more broadly in the city.

A ‘Ladder’ of Participation
In this climate, Sherry R. Arnstein, a former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official, published one of the most influential articles on the topic of public participation. Titled “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” her article described an eight-rung metaphorical ladder of participation.(1) The rungs are organized into three levels: nonparticipation (manipulation and therapy), tokenism (informing, consultation, placation), and citizen power (partnership, delegated power, citizen control). Interlaced with her description are anecdotal stories describing both flawed participation and successful examples where power was delegated to community representatives.
Read the rest of this entry »

Government as Data Source

Posted: June 3rd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: eGovernment, ePlanning, Government | 2 Comments »

A provocative new article in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology titled “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” (PDF) makes the proposal that the federal government should abandon their attempt to create public websites, and focus almost entirely on providing data in standard formats for use by private websites. The article points out greater access to data is supported by all three leading presidential candidates, perhaps most strongly by Barack Obama who says on his website he’ll seek to make “government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities.” (Via TechPresident and Read Write Web)

This argument can be extended to the local government level. At Rethink College Park, the single most important ingredient to our success was government information. However, local government planners generally view their jobs as analyzing proposals for the benefit of elected officials, and providing data to the public is relegated to a secondary role. The City of College Park’s website rarely presented timely development information (almost never the valuable renderings, plans, and maps presented to the city council that we were interested in) and the Prince George’s County Planning Board website deletes their online data after six months. Let me repeat: in a world where Amazon.com is charging $.15 per gigabyte per month for data storage, Prince George’s County (population 828,770) does not archive planning board documents older than six months.

DC government has been a leader in this area, offering dozens of data feeds through their CapStat program, and the neighborhood website JDLand has probably been the most successful at scraping them for neighborhood-specific data. However, as Jon Udell pointed out two years ago, the hoped-for flowering of DC mashups has been slow to materialize, the only notable ones being JDLand and CrimeinDC. While I agree with the article authors’ emphasis on data availability and found data access to be an obstacle to advocating for smart growth and improved citizen participation, I’m not willing to write off government work on the web. One of the things I’ll describe in upcoming posts is extensive history of government planners going to the public to both conduct education and solicit input, two things the web is ideally suited to do. Despite their slow pace of change, I think there’s plenty of space for governments that want to try more innovative websites. After all, as one commenter points out, citizens still turn to government websites first to find the data they need.

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