Week 10 (November 4) - Using Technology

The Appendix to the Evans-Cowley and Conroy article provides a case example on "Using E-government in Mississippi After Hurricane Katrina." What observations or lessons do you draw from this case, perhaps particularly in light of the Servon and Nelson article?

Comments

It seems that Commission erred in assuming that most residents were living outside of the region and that people outside of the region would have a compelling interest in participating. Instead, most of the people who did participate used the online tools, ignored the 1-800 number, and only reached about 402 people in total. It would stand to reason that many of the folks in the area would not have access to the Internet either because of the storm or because they didn't own computers in the first place (many of the hardest hit areas were also quite poor). The lesson I would draw from this case would be, hold the town meetings and put up a website (don't just select one method). As indicated in the Servon and Nelson article and national surveys about Internet access, there remains a substantial number of people without Internet access by choice or by inability to pay for it. At the same time, the Web can allow more people to participate and participate in more in-depth ways.

I second Brad’s suggestion that multiple methods should have been used to engage citizen participation. The initial method suggested by the Governor’s Commission that a week-long forum, followed by a series of town hall meetings should have been the primary method. The online participatory process should have been a secondary method. Although most residents were displaced by the hurricane, this process should not have been abandoned entirely as the implemented method alienated residents not displaced. Those living there most likely did not have access to the internet due to either the hurricane knocking out electricity or general inaccessibility prior to the hurricane.

With regards to the Servon and Nelson article, IT increases the gap in planning process participation between the poor and affluent. Moving to a participatory process that relies on the internet and a minimally used 1-800 number is a poor decision on the Commission’s part. Evans and Conroy provide multiple barriers to increasing access to government websites, and many of these barriers were apparent in the case example. The infrastructure should have been in place and highly publicized prior to the hurricane. Had the residents been aware of a website and a 1-800 number, participation may have increased. In addition, more funds should have been allocated to this process in order to provide some mutual discourse and greater publication.

When dealing with a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, e-communications must be integrated into a larger communication plan -- one that cannot and should not be made up on the fly after the disaster has happened. As of today, there are still large gaps between those who have internet access and understand how it works and those who cannot utilize this technology. A disaster situation is not a time to try state-of-the-art communications strategies with citizens who need easy, accessible information when their biggest worries may be housing, food, employment, and other basic needs.

Indeed, the time to implement and train citizens on e-communication is when the government is not trying to react to an emergency. When an emergency happens, technologies should be employed that the public knows of, will turn to without much prompting, and is skilled at using so that communications resources can be used efficiently and effectively and any advertising can be used where it is most needed.

Often, a lower-tech method is may be the best method or reaching everyone, even if it is not the fastest. This is especially true for those people who are older, poorer, or just averse to technology. (In addition, one should remember that computers and high-speed internet access may not be available in a tent or an RV.) Providing lower-tech alternatives, such as the mentioned toll-free number for feedback, may not elicit the type of response numbers that a government may hope for, but the people who use these types of lower-tech communication methods may not be able to use any other. By providing this option, a government may be providing someone with their only option. Lower-tech methods, therefore, should not be discounted.

I agree with Servon/Nelson that the widespread adoption of networked communication and its attendant advantages to those who possess and know how to best use technology (the "haves") tend to exacerbate the spread of inequality. This disparity is greater than with previous technological leaps forward (radio, television) in that there is a significant learning curve to address, both in the use and adaptation of the technology for meaningful use. It seems that much attention is focused on the end user as the hurdle, but as the Evans-Cowley article pointed out, the planners are challenged moreso to properly utilize the tools available.

In Mississippi, they faced a massive uphill climb in terms of resources. But still, they were able use the circumstances and instinct to provide a modicum of technology-driven participation. The multi-pronged approach is clearly the way to go; there is a strata of relatively quick and dirty tools that can reach people, however they may be found. The proliferation of text messaging and the near-ubiquity of mobile phones (due to reach 100% penetration by 2013) strikes me as one other method that might be exploited.

The come-back to this is that mobile phones have costs and that individuals may on some level have to pay to participate. But this could simply be a temporary state cities could address by arranging with mobile providers to have a toll-free class of text numbers to further facilitate participation. The key is to have a class of devices that are easy to use and relatively pervasive; mobile phones appear to be the most promising candidate presently to generate meaningful (and equitable) public participation.

In reading both the Evans-Cowley and the Servon-Nelson articles, and has been mentioned above, a multi-pronged approach to citizen participation is necessary. As Servon-Nelson demonstrate in their article, the internet and other technologies are becoming more available for low-income and minority populations through the advent of Community Technology Centers. However, having access in a specific location one has to purposely visit versus always having access at one's home can, in my opinion, create large differences in comfortability, familiarity and ways people use the internet.

In the Mississippi case study it was admirable that they tried implementation of e-government tools as a method to reach out to people outside the gulf region. While neither the 1-800 number nor the online forums actually received much feedback from states outside the gulf area, they now have a rough plan they can build on in case of another disaster. I agree with other posters that they should have included town hall meetings and forums as part of their citizen participation efforts, at least within the gulf state areas. I also understand that there was no money for advertising the availability of the online tools, but a press release may have gotten word out somehow. The participation in this case also raises questions about those who did participate in the process. If most of the people worst affected by the hurricane did not have internet access before the storm how would their access increase afterwords? If it didn't then most of the comments received were most likely not from those most affected. This is a concern in any participation process.

Lastly, I want to agree with Jeremy Jones that cell phones could be the next big public information tool. Already the Obama campaign had text message alerts one could sign up for, and the University has emergency messages people can sign up for. Granted people have to decide to participate by signing up, but it is an upcoming way to engage those who wish to be involved.

I agree that one of the mistakes the commission made involved its decision to implement a “test? online participation process during a time of disaster, and also during a time in which many residents did not have access to technology because of the impacts of the hurricane. In addition, the commission was limited to a time-frame of 3 months and was working with little administrative support and resources. I agree that it may have been more effective to hold a town hall meeting, as Brad and Tom suggested in order involve citizens without internet or telephone access, and supplement the town hall meetings with technology-based participation methods. As described in the Servon and Nelson article, disadvantaged populations who are not familiar with or who do not have access to technology become further isolated when processes are limited to involvement via technology. Given that there were several barriers for non-disadvantaged populations to participate in the process, one can imagine the lack of access disadvantaged populations faced with regard to this process. Given the varying levels of accessibility to technology, the commission should have used several methods for involving as many citizens as possible.

The final lesson that I draw from this case is that discussion forums should be used only when the coordinating party intends to engage in discourse with contributors. The Commission’s objective was to collect information, and even though they stated that they would not respond to entries, there was potential for citizen misunderstanding about the Commission’s intent. When an issue is raised in a discussion forum, a lack of institutional response can have unnecessary negative impacts on public trust that may take a long time to overcome.

There does seem to be a bit of limited knowledge on behalf of the recovery effort in terms of administering this type of public involvement. As the readings state, it is more than just making the technology available. It's about making a concerted effort to get the information out there that this type of forum is available. Also, it takes a well trained staff in IT to make sure the technology works properly. Planners may have good intentions in making technology available, but lack the expertise in implementing such technology. Unfortunately, as evident in the reading, not too many planning departments have a dedicated IT staff member. This may be an issue of cost and/or lack of staffing.

There is also an experience factor on behalf of the user. There appears to be a technological gap in experience in using certain technology. A portion of our population may struggle with even turning on a computer. It was nice to see some examples of centers not only having computers, but having staff to assist users in learning how to use technology.

Finally, I would end with the idea that no one form of participation is the cure all. Every person has a preferred method of communication and participation. I would argue that we could use many forms of participation harmoniously, using a variety of technologies and methods. Although overall participation may have been low in use during Katrina efforts, this may have been the best way for those 400 people to communicate.

I would also pose the question of the use of technologies and blogs as it relates to the open meeting law where applicable. If a blog is used to gather comments regarding an application that is going to Planning Commission or City Council and four out of seven board members participate in the discussion, does that represent a quaram?

In reading over the Appendix to the Evans-Cowley and Conroy article, I was rather surprised to see that the Commissions would even consider implementing such a process, given the devastation of the area. This effort seems to turn Maslow’s pyramid on its head. How could area residents even begin to think of larger issues of rebuilding the Mississippi Gulf Coast when people were struggling with the basics of clean water, food and shelter? Clearly, given these the extent of what these people were experiencing, the Commission’s expectation that they would receive input was incredibly insensitive.

As well, the Commissions was insensitive to what resources these Gulf Coast residents had available. As other posters have acknowledged, why would you choose a high-tech avenue when there is no grid? And letting newspapers know so they could publish the input channels seemed like a bad choice too. In many areas, there were no newspapers anymore. As well, for those newspapers that were able to continue operations, there were no distribution channels. In times of disaster, low tech is the only remaining option, specifically radio. Cars have radios. However, gas and battery power is limited, so this media is limited too.

Generally, I find the Commissions efforts ill timed and rather insensitive. However, what I greatly appreciate about this research is that the authors placed academic planning practices in the context of a large-scale disaster, something that I had yet to see in the literature. We often see disaster situations exasperating the effects of the socio-economic and class differences brought up in the Servon and Nelson article. What would be interesting to me is a before and after look at the effects of location changes and participation behaviors of the those originally considered disenfranchised in the Gulf Coast region.

I would have to agree with the prior postings that other methods should have been used. In light of the Servon and Nelson article, we noticed that there are gaps in using e-government tools, even in today’s era where 1 out 5 people are able to easily access the Internet. The Commission should have put more money in advertising. The article stated that the Commission lacked the administrative capacity to create and manage a process such as this. Taking this into account, the Commission should have hired an outside consulting team to work on this effort. After listening to the speaker in class last week, we understand that many participation planning processes are about marketing. The e-government tool lacked a successful marketing scheme. The article also mentioned the time constraints that limited a successful participation plan. Such a plan should have been in place before the Commission started off on its planning process. I would go even further and state that the federal government or an agency should mandate that there are procedures in place for state’s to contact those that have been displaced and effectively utilize methods provided to include them in a planning process in the recovery and rebuilding of their city.

The Commission should have also provided mutual discourse-a way in which citizens could be more engaged in the process. Those who participated should have been given further directions to follow-up with the process and/or assist the Commission in carrying out the recovery and rebuilding of Mississippi. While the e-government tool was effective, it is a tool that allows the government to make assumptions about people and leaves a disproportional group of citizens out of the process all together. By leaving this group out of the process, you create a generation of apathetic citizens. Recommendations for the Commission include increasing the budget for advertisement and hire a consultant to market the participation process. In addition, the Commission should provide a way for mutual discourse to take affect and implement procedures and processes for future participation planning in like situations.

The concluding point of the Evans-Cowley and Conroy article was the most important. Areas that have histories of natural disasters should have some participation plan on the books that is designed to deal with a temporarily displaced population, at the very least as some kind of action plan. Also, from an administrative standpoint the success of this participation strategy seems questionable. Even though ICT has the capability of reaching a wide audience, given what we know about access to these technologies from the Servon and Nelson article the Commission is still charged with the task of reaching the displaced population and making them aware of these participation tools. There would have to be some coordination between the sending and receiving communities, and given the post-Katrina state of affairs other governments may be in a similar situation. I would also be curious to see how effective the Commission's "monlogue" participation methods were, and how they went about making their publicity information accessible to those who had left their homes.

I second Shawn's comments that conventional ways of thinking about participation in planning do not seem entirely applicable here. The stakeholders in this situation have had dramatic hardships imposed upon them; lower level strategies focused on basic needs should have been resolved prior to this Commission's exercises. While I applaud their efforts to be innovative with their use of technology, there seems to be a missing step at the grassroots level.

I was thinking exactly along the lines of Shawn in terms of the use of radio in this situation. The situation described in Mississippi doesn't seem to be one of peace and leisure, but a fast-moving, ambiguous time where citizens are unsure of the state of their homes, jobs, loved ones and futures. Radio is accessible, relatively inexpensive and would allow the proliferation of information and updates, and would be an easy way to solicit information from around the region. In this case, trying to market any stream of communication would be difficult if not established pre-disaster. As they stated near the end of the article, these protocols need to be in place along with other plans and programs. It would be interesting to learn how Iowa handled its flooding this past summer and if the Agricultural sector was able to handle it any more efficiently.

I imagine this process was problematic from the beginning in terms of soliciting comments and suggestions from an even representation of the public, as many of the displaced residents were spread out across the country. Many of these residents were low-income as well, perhaps elderly or disabled, and we can assume were facing even more issues than those of more funds and resources. Finding a way to engage their comments and suggestions would be crucial for integrating a plan for rebuilding the gulf and enabling these low-income displaced persons to return home.

I agree with Tom that town hall meetings should have been the first priority rather than online participatory processes. The fact that there was substantial lesser number of people who responded via internet and 1-800 number combined, suggests that most of the people may not have an access to internet or are incapable of using it. It is apparent that the process was a reaction to after disaster rather than a planning process. The information was not disseminated beforehand, as a result, there were no significant amount of public participation in the entire process. There was also a big communication gap between the administrative and technology team which led to ineffective engagement in ‘mutual discourse‘. They should have used other medium of processes to involve the public. The failure of online participation was mainly due to time constraint and inability to find the people who had scattered post Hurricane Katrina. The result would have been otherwise if public were made aware of the government websites and 1-800 number.

The lessons that can be drawn from the article would be, the disaster management plan should be done beforehand rather than at the eleventh hour. The Commission was incapable of informing the public and to make it more ineffective, the public comments were not even considered and left with the technology team to handle.

Moreover, many low-income may not have an access to IT or may not be capable to use it as suggested by Servon and Nelson. There is also a gap between “information rich? and the “information poor?, it can be argued that the minorities groups may be under represented in the planning process. Hence, it is very important to think of alternatives mediums or ways to use technology effectively to engage larger public.

One the one hand, the posts concerned with the large number of people without access to the technologies needed to take advantage of the e-government tools make an excellent point. On the other hand, under the circumstances of the case, communication technologies made it possible to cover more "ground" much more quickly than would likely otherwise have been possible. It might simply not have been possible to hold enough public meetings in enough different places to reach the diaspora of poor Mississippi residents created by Katrina. One solution might have been to use technology to facilitate communication with distant governments and/or community-based non-profits who could then conduct meetings with the aid of distant officials. Such a hybrid approach might have taken advantage of the telepresence made possible by technology, while still involving people without their own access to technology.

I find it hard to believe that the project budget was only $2,500. Set aside the time constraint issue, the lack of administrative capacity, or even the absence of advanced planning…if your total project budget is that small (and does even include advertising) how can you realistically expect any kind of positive outcome?

I also think that the idea of using radio to reach the public was great. Unfortunately, this was overlooked. Perhaps if they had advertised the website and the 1-800 number on the radio they could have seen better participation. However, with the displacement of people and the fact that they really did not know where everyone was, it makes it hard to know where to advertise. Maybe if the project budget was significantly larger they could have covered a larger base.

I would say that the lesson learned here is that it takes more than just advanced planning. You can plan all you want, but if you don’t have the resources to implement the plan then what good does it do?

One item from the case study that I found interesting was how entrenched definitions of "community" translate into the cyber-world. What happens when place-based communities scatter? Does the internet have the capacity to regroup place-based communities back onto a virtual common ground? The author notes that it was challenging to know where citizens were living after the hurricane, and therefore it was hard to contact them about the citizen engagement opportunities on the internet or through the phone line. I think the lack of response from citizens in this scenario also draws attention to what Servon and Nelson noted, that the internet is not an integral piece to every person's life. It is useless for the illiterate, or those that do not have access to the technology. Therefore, one must be cognizant of the fact that when utilizing the internet as an avenue for civic engagement, he or she is only reaching a certain segment of the target population.

In general, there appears to be a great lack in administrative oversight concerning the participation process in New Orleans. I believe that the staff had honest intentions of gathering information, but were rather obscure about what they would do with information once collected. I personally did not understand the reasoning for gathering information from the public openly, if the purpose was to collect and not do anything – this really did nothing but craft distrust between the administration and the public. It also appears as though little publicity but the minimum was offered to garner the attention of the public. Had more staff time and funding been available, I believe this would have greatly benefited the process.

Furthermore, the administration did a poor job at reaching out to the public they were interested in as they had little idea of where the refugees were located and whether they had access to internet to participate in the process. These key issues highlight the lack in attention that the administration provided to receive true responses from the public in question. In the case study, the public I presume was a mix of low-income minority people that did not participate in the forums. This ties well into the Servon and Nelson article, in how community technology centers may be of great assistance in this type of participation process. For instance, had the administration utilized such centers if they existed or were able to create centers for a short period, they would have potentially been able to receive the responses they wanted.

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