Fostering citizen participation

Fostering citizen participation

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Ahmed Abukhater
Ahmed Abukhater
Community Development Industry Manager,
ESRI
Email: [email protected]


Planners constantly make decisions and have to think on their feet. Though the voices of elected leaders and officials ring loudly in their minds, planners must also be careful to listen closely to the voices of the citizens they serve. Planning for the people requires involving communities from the very onset of the planning process, which must be comprehensible, transparent, legitimate and interactive. When planners fail to engage communities and only follow the status quo, the outcomes are undesirable at best.

To engage citizens today, it is important to communicate in new ways and provide collaborative decision-making platforms. Exchanging information effectively in planning means expanding the communication footprint, moving beyond technical jargon and the resulting language boundaries. It also means holding conversations outside traditional in-person community meetings and forums to reach across the entire community.

Social media tools and the GeoWeb answer this call, and planners are already utilising these Web 2.0 technologies to create effective planning support system (PSS) platforms that cater to planning processes and workflow needs. The emerging Planning 2.0 environment fosters the bi-directional citizenry participation that is so critical today. Open, accountable, interactive government takes us to a higher level of democracy, where citizens are empowered in new, bold ways to help shape the decision-making process and define desired future conditions. For this to happen on a broad scale, a profound transformation in the way planners conduct their business is required.

How should planners leverage Planning 2.0 to connect with their communities? Dr. Zorica Nedovic-Budic, professor and chair of spatial planning and GIS at the School of Geography, Planning, and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin sees Planning 2.0 technology as readily available for use by planners. She also believes that new communication channels and tools ought to provide information that is relevant to the varied urban communities. This is meaningful information that sends clear messages about the community-its condition, issues, prospects and the forces and factors affecting its future. She also notes that capacity building is the key to widespread adoption. She also observes that there is an uneven landscape of technology usage even among planners and within government organisations, let alone in the broader environment. The high-quality and innovative ideas are not necessarily related to the ability to utilise the technological tools. Insights into both status quo and future solutions are embedded deep within the community. Designing the interfaces that would reach to this depth is the main task that planners face.

Her notion of interface includes meeting points, Internet access nodes (in private and public spaces), and opportunities and formats for expressing opinions and ideas. Web 2.0 is here to facilitate those interfaces, but only as part of the overall setting and process. The challenge for planners and their technical support staff is to carefully integrate the new tools in well thought-out exchanges with the public. It is an art of public debate that could be enhanced with Planning 2.0 along with other information and communication technologies.

Michael Gallis, an expert in developing integrated multi-system approaches to strategic planning, observes that effective planning processes should include a civic engagement and a communication strategy to ensure that the broadest involvement of stakeholders and the public is made possible. The most common form of civic engagement is the town hall meeting. This type of meeting is typically focussed on a single topic area, which can be either very broad or quite narrowly focussed (e.g., future community vision or project input). The strength is in its openness and inclusiveness, but its weakness is that it is still limited in both attendance and the ability of its participants to continue to provide input following the meeting.

Gallis notes that more sophisticated techniques are available to broaden public participation. These techniques are based on creating a hierarchy of engagement opportunities that extend from steering committees, advisory boards, topic-specific task forces and town hall meetings. The strength of these more sophisticated processes is that they offer additional structure and ongoing involvement, but their weakness is that the coordination of activities becomes a very expensive and time-consuming process that most planning agencies cannot afford. Communication strategies used in planning processes exhibit the same simple-to-complex range, from flyers sent out to announce meetings and public events to more sophisticated techniques involving print and broadcast media.

The concept of Planning 2.0 is especially relevant to the quest of democratic processes. To that end, social media and the GeoWeb can deliver data acquisition and dissemination capabilities and provide the needed societal infrastructure for human interaction wherein the government can obtain feedback from the public with a high level of transparency and accountability. This will take us to a whole new level of democracy, where citizens are empowered to help shape the decision-making process and define desired future conditions. For this to happen, a profound transformation in the way planners conduct their business is warranted.

The success of planners in combating chronic urban problems is largely determined by their ability to communicate their ideas and the extent to which they proactively seek public involvement and support to execute them. This is especially important because planners do not plan for themselves-they plan for people, and the people are flocking to new forms of communication. Now it’s up to planners to embrace them.