The Internet as a Participation Tool

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.

1. Objectives: provide information to as well as listen to citizens; empower citizens by providing opportunities to influence planning decisions.

This objective argues the Internet should be approached as a tool for communication among government and citizens. In addition to accepting inquiries by phone or in person, planning websites should support email correspondence. Furthermore, allowing the receipt of comments in a public forum can allow a collective process of clarification. The PlanNYC website allows visitors to post comments, and private vendor products like LimeHouse Software allows commenting on plan elements.(2) Some communities have launched blogs that accept public comments on a variety of public topics. Montgomery County, Maryland has started a blog dedicated to housing policy. The organization has created a forum that exists through email and a website, allowing high quality interaction between citizens and government officials.(3) In addition to making information available governments can create RSS feeds, email lists, and other approaches that “push” information to citizens who have subscribed. These efforts can cultivate both bi-directional communication between citizens and many-to-many communication among a broader community. Better information delivered promptly can also improve citizen’s ability to influence decisions by helping them contribute comments and attend events at appropriate times.

2. Timing: involve the public early and continuously.

Offline planning models are nearly unanimous in their belief that high quality participation takes place both at the beginning and ending of a planning process. The iterative, ongoing nature of many processes is well suited to the architecture of the Internet. Blogs are easily updated, and organized in chronological order. Once published, online information is instantaneously distributed or available. Finally, online systems make archives easily accessible. The City of Alexandira, Virginia collects all information presented on a given topic on one page in “Plans, Projects, and Initiatives” section of their Department of Planning and Zoning website.(4)

The right to know about the proper venue to have their views heard is an important prerequisite to allow public involvement at the appropriate project stage. Allowing citizens to impact decisions requires not only providing the details, but also regular communication over the long term and as projects evolve. Websites can accomplish this by allowing citizens to register for newsletters, or even to be notified regarding local issues (development within a certain radius of their home or office, for example). Furthermore, online information often lags far behind the offline program. Timely information empowers citizens to know how and decide whether they would like to get more involved.

3. Target: seek participation from a broad range of stakeholders.

There are several implications for Internet participation if planners commit to engaging a broad range of stakeholders. First, the digital inequality described previously may be shrinking but is very real. Like any technology, it is likely a small group of citizens will never possess the access and skills to utilize a planning website. One scholar points out “participation requires not only physical access to computers and connectivity, but also access to the requisite skills and knowledge, content and language, and community and social support to be able to use ICT for meaningful ends.”(5) Planners can bridge these gaps by explaining the use of technical tools through other mediums, or collaborating with educational institutions to connect citizens with information online.

The Internet is best used in conjunction with other outreach strategies to engage different types of individuals. Citizens have unequal levels of interest and understanding in public issues to motivate them to attend meetings, unequal access to meeting facilities, and unequal time to attend meetings. A study of participants in a planning process in Austin, Texas found them better educated, whiter, and wealthier than the public at large.(6) Although these inequalities are known, they are not reasons to abstain from online outreach any more than they are reasons to abolish public meetings. Instead of choosing whether to go online, officials should craft their strategies online and off to reach diverse populations. On the web, multiple languages, background material explaining the planning process, animations and videos, and other content may be needed.

Lastly, the best research available shows Internet technologies exist in a hierarchy of use. Of the 75% of American adults who use the web, 92% have sent an email, 91% use a search engine, 66% purchased a product, 48% watched a video, 39% sent an instant messages, 22% post comments to a website, and 12% write their own blog.(7) These discrepancies are due to varying levels of motivation, skills, and technology by Internet users. It suggests the simplest information – such as email newsletters and simple websites found easily by search engine searches – will reach the widest audience, with more sophisticated tools and information reaching fewer users. Simple factors such as font size and website design, described in the last section, can increase the number of website visitors, commenter’s, and time spent reading.

4. Techniques: use a number of techniques to give and receive information from citizens and, in particular, provide opportunities for dialog.

The unique characteristics of face-to-face communications in building consensus, communicating complex information, or creating new ideas means it cannot be totally replaced by online communications. However, the Internet is the idea “home base” for any multidimensional strategy for several reasons. It is increasingly the repository for disclosing government information. For this reason government officials often post meeting minutes, reports, and other documents of presumptive public interest. Second, its persistent character means it is ideal to store reference or archival information for review at any time and place with a connection. While participants in conventional processes can see diminishing participation as citizens drop out along the way, online event calendars and notices can allow citizens to participate in the meetings and events of interest to them without risking losing touch with the process. The Internet can supplement offline work by making additional information available, and archiving information presented at public meetings for future reference, as well as serving as a venue for ongoing conversation.

5. Information: provide more information in a clearly understood form, free of distortion and technical jargon.

This principle has a number of specific implications: content presentation, web design for ease of use, using web standards to maximize access, and providing data in open formats. Planning websites too often are organized according to organizational structures, instead of according to the type of information sought by visitors. In order to reverse the structure of the website, planners can construct a taxonomy organized by issues and themes of interest to citizens. Visitor tracking services can allow planners to see which articles are most important, and expand and improve the sections receiving the most visitors, or evaluate what barriers exist for infrequently used resources. Planning websites should be organized with the public in mind, organizing data according to intuitive categories and explaining the process. The American Planning Association’s neighborhood planning guide urges planners to de-mystify planning jargon in order to encourage local participation. Critics of participation argue the existing system of public hearings assume more technical expertise than most people possess. Others argue the hearings are dominated by technocratic discourse. Planning websites should contain not just digital copies of zoning codes or lengthy technical reports, but should seek to explain the meaning of policies and data, and seek to respond to public interest in topics from hit data and visitor surveys. Such efforts won’t benefit simply the visitors to the site, but also community leaders, nonprofit organizations, advocates, and even members of the media, who have come to increasingly rely on the Internet for background information. This approach requires additional skills, as some of these functions fall in the area of knowledge management or journalism. (FL-plain speaking)

From a technical point of view, presenting clear information online involves web design, web standards, and open data formats. A standard text on web standards describes how web standards make it possible to have “forward compatibility”: “designed and built the right way, any page published on the web can work across multiple browsers, platforms-and will continue to work as new browsers and devices are invented.”(8) The author of a standard text on the topic argues websites developed not conforming to web standards have real costs in terms of bandwidth and server expenses.(9) Standardized formats exist for website’s structure (HTML, XHTML, XML) presentation (CSS), and behavior (DOM, ECMA Script). Open standards, formats owned by no company, have formed the basis of blogging and a variety of applications. Websites developed under web standards have valid markup, meaning the pages are coded according to industry standards and can be viewed on a wide range of browsers. The federal government also requires its websites meet the Section 508 requirements. Intended to make the Internet easy to use for people with disabilities, it includes standard approaches to handle graphics and text for those using special software. One advocate argues “compliance with accessibility guidelines and web standards not only makes your site more available to millions who are living with disabilities, but also helps you reach millions more … and attract still more via search engines.”(10)

Government websites that provide data according to open formats like XML empower citizens to monitor, download, and analyze the data themselves. In Washington, D.C., a neighborhood activist has utilized the District of Columbia’s data feeds to provide automatically updating lists of crimes, complaints, and permits in the neighborhood.(11) Indeed, one study of the use of technology in low-income communities suggested that “public policies must ensure that the computer functions as a repository of information for interactive use by grass-roots planners,” pointing out that “even if universal coverage is achieved, the programs and computers used by upper-and lower-income residents may differ … governments must be willing to support the minimum threshold data needs of low-income communities …” (12)

1) Maria Manta Conroy and Jennifer Evans-Cowley, “Informing and Interacting: The Use of E-Government for Citizen Participation in Planning,” Journal of E-Government, Vol. 1(3) (2004).
2) For example see New York City PlaNYC Initiative,
3) See
4) City of Alexandria, Virginia, Planning & Zoning Website, (accessed 5 April 2008).
5) Mark Warschauer, Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2003), 216.
6) Timothy Beatley, David J. Brower, William H. Lucy, “Representation in Comprehensive Planning: An Analysis of the Austinplan Process,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 60, (1994).
7) Pew Internet & American Life Project, Total Online Activities Report, 15 February 2008, (accessed 5 April 2008).
8) Jeffrey Zeldman, Designing with Web Standards, second edition, (Berkeley, California: New Riders, 2007), 15.
9) Ibid., 30.
10) Ibid., 340.
11 ) Jacqueline Dupree, JDLand: Near Southeast Development,, (accessed 5 April 2008).
12) Bish Sanyal and Donald A. Schon, “Information Technology and Urban Poverty: The Role of Public Policy,” in High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology, Donald A. Schon, et al. eds, (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1990).

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I’d say one of the biggest things that could be done is to help education the public on the planning process. As someone who actively follows the process here in Milwaukee it is evident from watching various meetings that the general public at large understand very little about the process. This lack of education often leads to the “oh it’s a done deal” type backlash and controversy. Where in reality of the public understood the process better the would be better equipped to enter into a true debate.

  2. Dave – Agreed – and understanding the process internally as well. It is clear to me that the processes in most localities are complex and difficult to understand within the confines of the locality government. The challenge seems to be one of continual evolution while paying attention to the details daily. Difficult and complicated at the same time.

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