Travis Parker, City of Lakewood Colorado Planning Director, writes about how the role of technology played in changing the public hearing process in Lakewood.
Throughout our country the business of local government is conducted in public hearings. Councils, boards and commissions sit behind a dais on a weeknight and listen to public comment before deliberating the issues facing a community.
This system of decision making is largely unchanged for the past two centuries, but is quickly becoming an anachronistic relic. In our modern world people work nights, raise children, go to class, or have a thousand other priorities that prevent regular participation in their government. However, the massive technology shifts that have fundamentally changed every aspect of our lives are strangely absent from local government decision making.
There are local governments taking steps toward change. One example is the City of Lakewood, Colorado. With over 150,000 residents in the busy Denver metro area, Lakewood has a population diverse in age and income. City leaders noticed public hearing attendance was not only low, but not representative of the population at large. Over eighty percent of attendees are 55 or older while only thirty percent of the City’s population is over 55.
In 2016, Lakewood began working with a web development company to create a new website that would allow remote, online participation in public hearings and remove the time constraints. The City didn’t want to remove or significantly change the existing in-person hearings, but augment them with additional ways to participate.
After a year of design and testing, Lakewoodspeaks.org went live in August of 2017.
The website replicates the hearing experience online with pre-recorded presentations, the opportunity to ask questions of applicants and City staff, and a public comment function. Each case scheduled for hearing is on the site for two weeks prior to the live hearing with all the same information available, such as staff reports and maps. When Commissioners use the site, their participation is tracked so that citizens can see how many decision makers have read their comment.
As other governments look to adopt the same technology, the most common concern is staff time. Does the system require additional staff resources? In Lakewood it doesn’t. Staff produce the same staff report and presentation as before and upload them to the website. The deadlines for case materials are earlier, but the workload is basically the same. The only additional duty for staff planners is reading and moderating comments that come in through the website.
There have also been questions about legal implications. Can the Council receive comment outside of the public hearing? Does the site comply with open meetings laws? In general, open meetings laws prescribe minimum standards of public engagement, such as weekly open meetings, but don’t prevent or discourage additional avenues of participation. The key is making sure all decision makers get the same information and that the information becomes part of the record for the case. The comments on Lakewoodspeaks.org do that, not separately from the public hearing, but as a part of the hearing. Hearings in Lakewood are now two weeks long!
Participation in public hearings online, as measured by presentation views, has averaged more than five times in-person participation. Online comments outnumber in-person comments and have represented a wider variety of viewpoints on issues.
More importantly, participation has been significantly more representative of the City’s actual demographics. Online comments are not disproportionally dominated by older residents. In fact, every segment of the adult population is represented by online comments within a few percentage points of its actual proportion. The biggest change is in 25-34 year old citizens. They make up 21.9% of the City’s population but only 3.1% of public hearing attendees. Online, they represent 21.2% of all comments.
Another positive indicator is participation by time of day. When given the opportunity to participate at any time or place, residents are generally choosing to comment in the late morning, late afternoon, or late evening. The site receives virtually no comments between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Our evening public hearings are held at literally the last time of day that people would choose to engage.
The most surprising takeaway from this technology is not the ease of implementation or the success in increasing engagement. Most surprising has been the unwillingness of more governments to embrace and adopt technology for public decision making. Even before Lakewood created and proved a solution for public hearings, there were online town halls and other software designed to gather citizen input and encourage involvement in the democratic process.
The lack of innovation seems more systemic. Despite occasional promises for more engagement and more opportunities for participation, local governments still cling to outdated systems. It will take strong local government leaders to advocate for and initiate change, but it will not be long before online public hearings and other technology become the norm for local government and the expectation of a busy electorate.