What’s the most popular form of public participation? It’s a public hearing — a formal process of obtaining feedback from all interested parties and stakeholders, including the general public, about a certain development project or a city plan.
For example, in the United States, more than 97% of local governments hold public hearings, according to Participedia. And what happens with the feedback residents submit during a hearing? Whether a governmental organization addresses the feedback and adjusts the planning project depends on the country’s legislation and the processes in place: is feedback obtained in an easy-to-analyze form? How much time and workforce is needed for processing the feedback?
In Finland, for instance, planners have to document the hearing process and comment on the most common concerns and wishes. This setup leads to enormous resources being spent on complying with bureaucratic requirements instead of interpreting and utilizing the received feedback.
Challenges of the Public Hearing Process
All in all, while being a required form of community engagement, there are still several foundation problems with the public hearing process:
Low participation and lack of diversity
In many national planning systems, residents and stakeholders have to submit their comments by mail, email, or phone. This process is far from being effortless for citizens, and not everyone has enough free time to offer their feedback, be it positive or negative. However, those who do are often from the same socio-demographic strata, notoriously known for blocking important development projects — the phenomenon known as NIMBYism.
Planners analyzing feedback have to go through pages and pages of unstructured comments that they have received through various channels — email, post, or phone. They have to group it in clusters and often transform these vague comments into a precise point on a plan.
Organizing public hearings is a resource- and time-consuming task. You need to set up the communications channels, ensure enough media coverage, and secure enough staff to support these processes. Some legislations require a stamped copy of each comment to be archived in a town hall — a bureaucratic twist that adds to planners’ huge workload.
Low public understanding and project buy-in
What is clear enough for planners and city officials is often incomprehensible for residents who have no experience with planning documentation. What is exactly going to change? How is it going to affect my life and business activities in the area? Not being able to find clear answers from drafts and reports put on display, residents can misinterpret the suggested changes.
Automate and Improve the Public Hearing Process
The great news is that most of these pitfalls can be solved by digitizing and automating the public hearing process. Maptionnaire Community Engagement Platform offers such a solution for automating public hearings. It simplifies, automates, and standardizes the process while also keeping it flexible to fit various legal requirements.
Digitized public hearings are simple to participate in. Anyone can fill in the form whenever and wherever it’s convenient for them from the same webpage where they’ve just reviewed the plan. No need to take out a pen and paper or write an email. It leads to increased diversity of respondents, especially when the feedback survey is accessible and available in several languages.
Structured and spatial feedback
Since respondents have to fill in an online form and often mark on a map or a plan the areas they have concerns about, the feedback comes in a structured form. It’s already available for interpretation and contains GIS data so valued by planners.
Smooth and automated process
With an automized public hearing process, a PDF copy of each answer can be sent directly to the respondent and the city hall. It’s possible to set up the fields in the form to follow the legislation standards. Moreover, planners are saving time and money on answering phone calls and processing open-form feedback. All they need to do is to set up the digital automation and ensure outreach — the platform takes care of the rest.
Increased project buy-in
What’s more, Maptionnaire offers a highly visual and spatial way of presenting planning documents. It makes it easier for residents to understand the upcoming changes and more entertaining to share a suggestion during a public hearing process.
The City of Espoo was one of the first to embrace the Automized Public Hearing which saved them a lot of time and resources. And in general, digitizing community engagement made the interaction between Espoo’s planners and citizens more transparent and efficient.
Automized Public Hearing in Espoo
Espoo, a Finnish city in the Capital region, has a long history of using Maptionnaire for streamlining its community engagement in various planning processes — from single-street participatory budgeting projects to numerous master plans.
Since Finnish legislation obliges planners to solicit opinions from residents and document the public hearing process related to city-wide drafts and proposals, Maptionnaire’s solution for the Automized Public Hearing has been a goldmine.
The problems planners at Espoo faced before implementing Maptinonaire:
- Feedback is unstructured as residents submit it mainly by email or post
- Long time between data collection and analysis
- Collecting and sorting the feedback takes a lot of resources
- Although feedback contains relevant information, it is hard to locate it precisely based on a written description and use this data in the planning process
Why Maptionnaire for Automized Public Hearing?
The City of Espoo chose Maptionnaire because of its unique emphasis on spatial data. Respondents can mark their feedback on a digital map which planners receive in GIS format. In the recent public hearing process, the city received half of the comments as geospatial data.
Moreover, automating the process removed the pain of manually sending each feedback to the registry — this is handled seamlessly by Maptionnaire Platform. Espoo saved a lot of time and remained compliant with legal requirements.
If you’re curious, here is a demo of the Automized Public Hearing process — check how easy and interactive it is for a respondent to answer.
Maptinnaire’s Automized Public Hearing makes the process easier and saves many days of work to use for the actual planning.
Laura Malm-Grönroos, City of Espoo
How Planners at Espoo use Maptionnaire
In Espoo, a public hearing process is set up for both detailed plans and master plans. Here are a few insights into their community engagement and public hearing processes:
- Planners prepare a questionnaire to be used for the public hearing process (they really love the option of using the actual plan as a questionnaire background and including additional information as clickable layers).
- Planners choose a report template, tailor it visually, and set up the reporting — a PDF copy of the answer is to be sent directly to the respondent and to the city registry.
- The public hearing process starts, and although it’s possible to submit feedback via traditional channels, most citizens choose a digital survey over phone calls.
- Since each digital report of an individual response contains all the data required by the registry, there is no need for planners or registry workers to additionally modify, print out, or stamp it.
- Data acquired with Maptinnaire is ready for analysis, which saves Espoo’s planners hours and hours of work.
- No matter where the feedback came from, it’s collated thematically.
- Planners take this public input into action by modifying and advancing the plan. Maptionnaire’s data is already in GIS format which is fed seamlessly into planning systems.
- Planners publish official feedback addressing each theme that surfaced during the public hearing. They answer individual inquiries if the respondent wished for that.
What’s the type of feedback they receive through an automated public hearing process? It mainly concerns conflicting interests, environmental concerns, parking, as well as detached and high-rise housing.
While detailed plans might not receive much feedback, master plans often incite a lot of comments. To give some numbers, the Southern Espoo Master Plan generated ca. 3300 official comments during the public hearing stage. The hearing for Northern & Central Espoo plan generated 900 comments — the number is less because of the lower population size.
We received an honorable mention in the City of Espoo’s innovation competition for the development and use of Automized Public Hearing process in planning.
Laura Malm-Grönroos, City of Espoo
Results: More Engagement Opportunities — Less Planning Conflicts
Actually, the planners noticed that the more they use Maptionnaire throughout the whole planning process, the less negative feedback they receive.
Through Maptionnaire, residents get more information about planning projects and, starting from the early stage, can regularly contribute to the city’s urban development. And since their concerns and fears are already addressed during the drafting stage, Espoo’s residents might not have that much feedback to give later on.
This is the benefit of transparency and two-way communication that Espoo achieves by using Maptionnaire’s platform for its engagement processes.
Your Takeaway: Benefits of Automized Public Hearing Processes
- Save time on manually digitizing and analyzing feedback
- Save resources on answering phone calls and sorting through post by bringing the public hearing online
- Receive structured and systematized feedback
- Get the feedback as GIS-based data
- Simplify the process by automatically sending a response copy to the registry and the respondent
- Get more people to participate in public hearings
- Increase awareness and buy-in of the project
Maptionnaire is essential for optimizing public hearing processes. The platform can help you digitize and streamline other community engagement activities in the city — as is the case with Espoo.