In their own words: updating a thoroughfare plan AND creating online-relevant documents from UIS

The CEO of Urban Interactive Studio, which makes EngagingPlans and BrightPages, comes from both a tech and an urban planning background, and I’ve found that online engagement platforms with that kind of dual foundation “get” the needs — and blind spots — of their local government clients in a way that people from a different background might not understand.  Chris Haller understood from a long time back that one of the things that makes good public engagement — online or in person — so hard is that the professionals are coming to the issue from a world of facts and figures and data that the general public doesn’t always have.  And even though planners try to share those “Existing Conditions” reports, most of the time those reports are massive piles of small print text.  If they’re posted online at all, it’s as a huge PDF file that you can’t search for the issues that you want to know about.  And, guys, I’m sorry — I’m a planner, and don’t read those things if I don’t have to, myself.  When we assume that our residents have that kind of spare time or interest in every little bit equally, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

Chris has been working on this issue in conjunction with the very flexible EngagingPlans platform for quite a while, and this is one of the first explanations I’ve seen of how BrightPages is unpacking and reformulating the Existing Conditions Report experience.  Check out the BrightPages page for some examples of this strategy in action.

Full disclosure: Chris is the publisher of EngagingCities, for which I am the Managing Editor.  Just in case that’s news to you.

Here’s Chris:


College Avenue – the most traveled thoroughfare in the city of Fort Collins, Colorado – is being transformed from an aging avenue to a world-class street. “Midtown in Motion” is a transportation study, the second phase of a broad plan by the city to increase mobility, safety, and beauty along this corridor. The majority of the street design is over 50 years old, it’s time for an update.

The concept of staying up-to-date is also true for the documents used to communicate such plans to the public. After all, if great design and modern technology will be key drivers in making College Avenue accessible and user-friendly, the materials used to convey and discuss these changes should be defined by the same elements – especially when public feedback is desired. Too often, momentous project plans are presented as a list of static PDF links and text-heavy web copy, which fail to convey the excitement and vitality of the plan. Public input is usually collected separately, and getting feedback can be difficult, as most citizens aren’t up to wading through long documents that require time to download and decipher.

There’s a better way. Like College Avenue itself, the online documents for the transportation study will be in keeping with the times. That’s because the City of Fort Collins is using BrightPages to present the plan content in a fun, engaging way – ensuring maximum citizen comprehension and participation. Instead of being overwhelmed with pages of information upon entering the project website, users will see bright infographics and simple headings that make it easy to navigate to areas that interest them. Whether walking, biking, or driving is their preferred mobility focus, they can jump to parts of the plan that contain those elements. Or they can explore how the plan will affect certain districts and intersections, making use of zoomable maps and colorful renderings that make the information easy to digest.

Most importantly, feedback happens right alongside the information on the project website – definitely an update from the old methods of creating forums or surveys separately, hoping people will follow the links and offer their opinions. “Midtown in Motion” is more than a transportation study – it’s a conversation between planners and public, offering feedback opportunities on every page. Questions like “Does this improve College Avenue?” and “Do you like this part of the plan?” give citizens a chance to comment immediately on specific aspects of the study, with no need to exit the website or do anything other than join the conversation. Oh yes, and it’s all optimized for mobile, too.

Just like the streets, town centers, and systems they aim to improve, plan documents need to be brought into the 21st century. They need to be made accessible, fun, and beautiful. Plan documents come to life with BrightPages – which helps beloved public spaces like College Avenue come back to life, too.


In their words: How to Budget Allocate (and do other good stuff)

A lot of the Online Public Engagement Emporium platforms provide some form of budget simulation tool, ranging from the very simple to the very complex.  And while there’s a lot of very welcome attention being paid to how to better inform people about budget impacts of their ideas, it’s hard sometimes for the professional who is hip-deep in budget minutiae to figure out a strategy that will build real public engagement – and get political support.

Along those lines, I thought this post from Matt Crozier of Bang the Table laid our some important priorities — and broader principles that apply to not just budget simulations, but all kinds of public engagement.  Smart folks.

Here’s Matt:



Bang the Table logoWe’ve been helping organisations with online participatory budgeting using our Budget Allocator tool for about 5 years now. Ever since Waverley Council, in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, approached us to build something that would help demonstrate to their community the difficult budgetary choices they were facing.



In that time I’ve seen Budget Allocator used as a genuine resource allocation tool, as an educational tool and even as a workplace exercise to help Councillors decide on budgetary priorities.  Here are a number of tips and answers to questions we are often asked about online participatory budgeting, I thought they might be of use to others.

1.  Leave the detailed accounts in the ledger – use something simpler for your community process

This is not an invitation to fudge the numbers or to be dishonest with the community but you need to think about what outcomes you are after.

Firstly, it’s most likely that you want the community to be able to participate and not to be put off by mountains of detail.  Secondly, you are probably interested in the choices of the community between one expenditure and another, these choices can be made without the exact cost being presented and without the nuances of discounting, depreciation and tax treatments being applied.  An approximate cost is quite adequate.

So when you go to your Accounts Department for the cost of your different budget priorities and they tell you that it isn’t that simple don’t stress.  Ask for a rounded up all inclusive approximation of the cost and then ensure that your participatory budgeting website carries a disclaimer along the lines of “Costs used in this exercise are broadly indicative and are for comparative purposes only”. Now you are being honest and you are also making it easy for more people to get involved.

2.  Only ask about the elements you are considering for change

We had an organisation use our Budget Allocator some years ago, I won’t name them, and they populated the Budget Allocator with just about every item from their budget.  It was ridiculously long and a lengthy exercise for the community to go through. You could select every budget item but one or two without going over budget.  As a result the completion rate was low and the result not especially useful.

The truth was that the real choice facing the community was between about half a dozen large expenditure items.  Had the process focused just on those items, the community would have been much better informed about their choices. And the results would have been much better for everyone.

Again, set the picture for the community: “This exercise includes only the areas where significant expenditure changes are under consideration for this year’s budget.  For a comprehensive budget summary go to…..”

Similarly you might want to see how the community view spending on certain areas but know that your organisation will only entertain changes to those budgets of a certain amount.  That’s ok, offer the status quo along with realistic levels of budgetary change.  There is no need to offer to allow budget to be slashed unrealistically.

This is an honest approach and also avoids wasting the community’s time thinking about things which are in reality already determined.

3.  Provide consequences that are real community and personal outcomes

It may sound obvious but giving the consequence of reducing the libraries budget by 20% as “20% reduction in library budget” is not especially meaningful for the community – and yes I have seen this too many times to allow it to be funny.  Saying instead that “this will result in libraries closing for weekends” or “this may result in the closure of the Pickwick branch library and the mobile library service” is much more real.

If you are asking people to participate in setting a budget and you want this information to be meaningful, those people have to understand the consequences of their choices.

In Budget Allocator we provide an information box adjacent to each choice that can be populated with text and photos depicting the consequences of a choice. Photos are especially useful if you are discussing asset condition.

If your organisation could potentially choose to exceed the budget then also provide a personal outcome for the participant’s cumulative budget choices – “you have exceeded the budget and this will result in a rate increase of $2 per week”.

Shellharbour City Council in Australia did this really well in their Budget Allocator. To see the consequences of each choice click on the ‘i’ symbol next to each item in their Budget Allocator.

4.  Link your participatory budgeting exercise to a discussion space

Online participatory budgeting is a great way to educate your community about the tough choices being faced by your organisation and also to learn about community preferences.

When people go through these processes they often want to talk about the ideas that they have or about their passions about certain aspects.  Running a parallel discussion forum provides for a deeper and more nuanced analysis of community views and can provide great insights into the results you are getting.  This can also build your online community for future discussions.

5. Use Online Participatory Budgeting as part of your face to face engagement process

A simple budget allocation tool can be both fun to complete and thought provoking.  Use it as part of your face to face engagement process.  Perhaps have people complete a simple budget exercise on a tablet in the local shopping mall and use that as a conversation starter.  Or have participants use the tool at the start and end of a face to face engagement event in order to measure the extent to which the information presented to them has changed their views.

Below is a flyer from from Shellharbour Council inviting their community to face to face sessions to go over the budget together using the Budget Allocator tool.

Shellharbour City Council flyer for face to face participatory budgeting sessions

– See more at:

In Their Words: How to Write About Your Planning Project

I loved this recent post from — in part because I enjoy how Frank writes, and in part because I think it contains essential and important advice — no matter what kind of public engagement you are doing.  We so often talk to the public in our abstract lingo, not in concrete terms that mean something real to real people.  We don’t give them a clear understanding of why this is worth spending their time and how what they do will end up making a meaningful difference.  And if you can’t articulate that, then you need to re-examine the structure  – and the purpose of your project.  If it will just make people more cynical, it might now be worth the effort.


We’re seeing some great project websites being created on To help you create better pages, we’re sharing tips and tricks here on our blog. Drop us a line anytime with questions, or head over to our community pages to share ideas and projects with other OpenPlans users. 2134509401_fd8277a5a2_b

In Part 1, I talked about shaping your project description – how to explain the purpose of the project in a way that encourages involvement, not snoozing. Today, here are some ideas about discussing community involvement when creating your OpenPlans page. Someone seeing your OpenPlans project for the first time is thinking, “Why get involved?”. Either that’s a direct thought, or bundled up with other reactions and emotions about the project. People are rational, especially when it comes to deciding how to spend their evenings. So offer concrete, meaningful evidence that community involvement matters.  Like this:

  • explain why community involvement matters – concretely, not in the abstract sense of warm fuzzy feelings. For this project, community input matters because…?
  • show how the project team will review and use what you hear.
  • demonstrate that you will close the loop – if someone gets involved, how will they know about followups and next steps?
  • give yourself a shout out for using great engagement tools like OpenPlans and Shareabouts. Everyone wants to get involved via modern, fun activities that don’t feel like the same boring old planning.

When talking about getting involved, don’t just fall back on providing a list of meetings – the when and where matter, but initially you want to explain how public input will inform and guide what happens. Use the timeline feature to go into detail later. Of course, all this only works if your project puts community involvement at the center – and if it doesn’t, we should talk about fixing that, because there’s only so much a nice website can do.

In their words: Creating Viral Engagement

From MetroQuest — a nice piece of advising on how to help your initiative reach beyond the usual suspects by making people want to share it — that’s called “going viral.”


At MetroQuest, we know how important it is to generate robust participation for your planning projects. We know you’d like to go beyond what we fondly refer to as those “same ten people” who show up for everything. You’d like a much larger and broader representation of the community’s views. So what works best? Over the past 16 years we’ve focused on engaging the public in planning projects using digital tools, and we’ve seen lots of strategies. We’re also very proud of the fact that MetroQuest was at the center of many of the most successful and award-winning community engagement projects in the planning world.

While every project is different, here are a few strategies that we’ve seen pay off well:

  1. Remember that your primary goal in a networked world is to create something that peoplewant to share with friends, family and colleagues. That means making sure that the experience is fun, easy, fast, compelling and relevant.
  2. Make sure that MetroQuest is easy to share, preferably with one click. Link it to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks and let your participants spread the word for you.
  3. Evaluate your community: Who are the thought leaders? What community groups exist? How do they communicate?
  4. Think carefully about the “voice” of your communication to the world. What personality do you want to present to the world? How can you make it more personal and engaging?
  5. Make sure that your site is live before public events so you can demo it and send those participants home with the site address and a request to help spread the word.
  6. Leverage partnerships. If, together, we’ve done a good job creating a fun and meaningful experience, community groups and agency partners will be glad to help spread the word.
  7. “Chance to win” contests work! For the price of one iPad you can boost participation dramatically.
  8. Give your site enough time to spread throughout the community. It can take a little while for a critical mass to build up, and when it does, wow!

Our goal is the help all of our clients achieve the best participation possible and we’ve seen many gems. We’re always learning too. What best practices can you add?

In their words: Making pricing clear

To help you get a little better sense of what some of the tools in the Online Public Engagement Emporium are like, I’ll start sharing with you when I find a particularly good blog post or release notes that’s specific to one of these platforms, or relevant to the question of commercial online public engagement tools in general.

I go through a ton of content every week for EngagingCities, but we limit the amount of commercially-promotional materials there for the sake of journalistic integrity and to make sure our readers get something that’s generally useful, not just if they’re using that  specific platform.

(We do have a sponsored content program there that is pretty sweet and allows sponsors to tell more about a specific company or product, but we identify those up front.  You can learn more about providing sponsored content for EngagingCities here.  Shameless promotional plug hereby terminated.)

In the process, though, I end up reading a lot of these companies’ blogs, and they give you a little more insight into not only their technical odds and ends, but their approach, their personality, their character, etc.  As I have been prepping this site, it struck me that sharing a few of these might help you get to know these companies as well, in addition to learning more about how to do effective online public engagement.

This first one comes from Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans.  It’s actually posted on a separate blog from the official OpenPlans/Shareabouts blog, but I thought it was an important insight into one of the first issues you will hit: figuring out how much these things cost.  Sounds like a good place to start.

You can follow Frank’s blog, OpenSourcePlanning, here.


Price transparency is good for civic tech

A few weeks ago at OpenPlans we put our prices for Shareabouts onto our website. Before then, if you wanted to pay OpenPlans to set up a map, we had to talk about it – our prices weren’t secret, and I’ve happy described them on conference panels, but getting the details wasn’t as easy as going to our website and looking.

Price transparency like this is a really good thing for people buying technology for government. We’re chipping away at the appallingly expensive status quo.

I know that the fine people at Civic Insight have done something similar, and they even have a fancy pricing calculator.

Shared prices reduces friction for people seeking high-quality tools.

Every phone call or email followup to find out about the cost of tools is a small barrier to doing a better job of community involvement – small barriers that add up enough to stop a busy person. And even for a simple query, that research time that could be better spent on other tasks.

Transparent pricing helps other people advocate for good tools.

We all benefit from a well-informed community inside and outside city government, with realistic expectations of the costs of tools. These tools are also much cheaper than many people expect, but they aren’t free. And what you pay for is extremely good value. Having this info available helps everyone understand the options.

Why keep prices secret? Concern that these might not be the “right” prices perhaps? Sure: we might not be charging enough, or more than some cities want to pay for particular features. As we keep working on adding new features, we will re-evaluate. Perhaps concern about being undercut by others? Or wanting to keep pricing flexible/opaque in case a mythical deep-pocketed client shows up? Neither of these seems like good arguments to me (and they weren’t ones used by anyone at OpenPlans, I should add – we were slow to do this mostly because we’re small and busy).

The prices we’re sharing don’t cover everything, for example special feature development we are often asked to do. Soon, we will add prices for OpenPlans, our planning communication tool. We have more work ahead to give greater openness to the costs of hiring us, but we’re trying.