The Harford County (MD) Department of Planning and Zoning must update the county’s Master Plan and Land Use Element Plan every 6 years, as mandated by the State of Maryland. An important part of the process is to solicit community input and feedback. Harford County built an online community to empower the citizens and allow everyone the opportunity to weigh in.
Harford County is conveniently located along the I-95 corridor between Baltimore and Philadelphia. The county was founded in 1773 and is approximately 475 square miles in size with a population of approximately 243,000 people. Harford County’s growing community enjoys a highly educated, diverse population and progressive business environment that attracts a vast array of companies and industry sectors. Harford County is also the proud home of one of the nation’s premier military installations, the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Everyone is dealing with the struggles of the lagging economy and Harford County Government is not immune to this. The county has endured budget cuts and furloughs, and as a result, we are trying to achieve more with less. The Director of Planning and Zoning, Pete Gutwald, a forward-thinking and adaptable leader, approached the IT Department about using the Spigit technology the county was already using to generate ideas from their employees and constituents to better the County and the services offered. Gutwald felt that this technology could empower the citizens and County Employees working on this labor intensive project.
There are three phases to this online community for the 2012 Master Plan and Land Use Element Plan. Each phase has progressively built off of the one that preceded it.
Phase 1 launched February 17, 2011 and was open until March 13, 2011 for input.
This phase educated the citizens about the process and what the plans entail. The task at hand was to have the citizens identify what they felt were the most important issues facing the County today as well as in the future within the following four discussion areas:
- Land Use
- Economic Prosperity
- Public Facilities, Safety and Service
- Sustainability of Natural Systems
Within these four discussion areas Planning and Zoning posed three questions for the citizens to reflect upon:
- What do you think is the major issue facing the County today?
- What will be the major issue facing the County in the next 10 to 20 years?
- What do you think should be the major issue addressed in this update of the Land Use Element Plan?
Phase 2 launched April 7, 2011 and was open until May 5, 2011 for input.
Based on the ideas discussed at the Kickoff Meeting and posted during the online comment period for Phase One, the Department of Planning and Zoning generated themes based on top ideas within each of the discussion areas. During Phase Two, the challenge was for the citizens to post their strategies for implementing the themes and incorporating them into the 2012 Master Plan and Land Use Element Plan.
This phase continued the education process and Community Areas was added as a topic for comment. Citizens were able to find community areas by address and make comments specific to the community in which that property was located.
Phase 3 will launch sometime in the Fall of 2011.
During this final phase, the draft plan will be posted in the online community and citizens will have an opportunity to provide input and feedback on the draft plan before it goes before our County Council for approval and adoption.
Challenge: Educating citizens about this new opportunity.
Solution: A kickoff meeting was held before each phase for the citizens to receive information about the process and how to participate.
Challenge: Driving them to the site.
Solution: Planning and Zoning leveraged the Harford County Official Website to take people to the online community through a direct link.
Challenge: Introducing new technology to constituents familiar with the traditional in-person town hall style of meeting.
Solution: This just took time for the citizens to understand the different approach and opportunity.
The power within the online community lies within the registered users on the site. This online community allows for great sharing of information and education. The community not only allows for citizen-to-government communication, but also for citizen-to-citizen communication. The transparency and openness that this online community has fostered is unprecedented in the government realm. The citizens and the government together are able to ultimately take a satisfactory idea and make it extraordinary for everyone involved due to the collaboration of ideas within the online community.
The Spigit technology has algorithms embedded in the technology that allows the ideas to have a quality rating that is dependent on the participation level on the ideas posted (comments, votes, buzz generated). This takes the guessing out of what ideas are most important to the citizens. Administrators were also able to run a report that put all of the information gathered from the online community into a spreadsheet that was easy to sort and provide the documentation and archiving needed for this plan. Documentation is a key benefit of this online community. Citizens posted their comments and ideas online which took the guess-work out of documentation; it was in writing and straight from the citizen.
There were no metrics in place for the town hall meetings, therefore it was hard to measure success in this online community. However, Harford County was able to say that this has been a very successful experience due to the feedback we have received from the citizens and organizations within the community.
A key lesson learned during this innovation process was to ‘keep it simple.’ In the first phase citizens were directed to answer specific questions. In later phases questions that were posed could be answered in a blank text box. When the community is directed too much, innovation and ideas seemed to be suppressed. Ideas need to flow naturally from the citizens without too much “hand-holding” by government.
If another agency wanted to duplicate this effort, they would be well-advised to not think inside the box. Push the limits and do not be afraid to try something new!
This innovative effort by Planning and Zoning has inspired other departments within Harford County Government to produce online communities for the citizens to weigh in on their state mandated plans as well.