By Christopher Steins
Planning, September 2002
This April, at the national American Planning Association conference in Chicago, I participated in a panel discussion on the uses of networked computers in government.
Session attendees showed tremendous interest in how e-government might be useful for urban planning, but many of them didn't have a solid grasp of what "e-government" actually means. Broadly, e-government is anything from responding to citizens' questions via e-mail to accepting payment for government services over the Internet. The World Bank defines it as "the use by government agencies of information technologies that have the ability to transform relations with citizens, businesses, and other arms of government."
That sounds great, but everyone needs some help with the basics. In this article I would propose a kind of taxonomy of e-government as it relates to planning, and a description of its top 10 applications.
There are four different, but sometimes overlapping, types of e-government:
G2C–Government to Citizen: This is the best known and fastest growing type of e-government.
G2B–Government to Business: Specifically intended to facilitate business interaction with government. This area has the greatest potential for urban planning, real estate development, and economic development.
G2G–Government to Government: Probably the least known type of e-government, G2G will greatly improve the interaction among local, state, and federal governments.
IEE–Internal Efficiency and Effectiveness: Government adoption of technology best practices from the private sector–such as supply chain management (tracking how goods are delivered to consumers) and human resources management that can increase efficiency and save money.
According to a 2001 National Technology Readiness Survey by the University of Maryland, the public would probably interact with government online if more services were available. More than 53 percent of adults who used the Internet during 2001 made an online purchase from a private company or service, but only 16 percent of this same group engaged in some type of e-government activity with their state or local government. That means there's a cohort of Internet-savvy users in search of applications that make their lives more convenient or interesting.
The benefits of e-government to government itself are even more obvious. According to a 2002 study by the Institute for Electronic Government at IBM, government agencies cut costs by 70 percent by moving services online instead of providing them over the counter.
Processing a piece of paper costs a government agency $5 on average. Generating that same form electronically costs only $1.65 on average; the savings come from labor, postage, paper, and equipment costs, according to a Gartner Group study.
Some of these technologies have been around since the advent of the Internet. Others have gone mainstream over the last few years. All of them can be implemented as part of an e-government strategy.
1. A website. A website typically serves as the foundation for delivering e-government services, and the place where most citizens initially go to explore the types of services that are offered.
As part of a government website, a good planning site should include agendas and minutes of planning commission and other planning meetings, digital versions of general or specific plans, an online form with which to contact the planning department via the website, the zoning code, and commonly requested planning forms available for download by interested citizens or businesses.
2. E-mail newsletters. Using e-mail to deliver information such as planning commission agendas is perhaps the easiest but most overlooked part of an e-government strategy. A planning agency can simply post a form on its website where interested citizens "subscribe" to a newsletter by providing contact information to a database.
E-mail newsletter software and vendors:
3. Web mapping. Most data has a geographic component, and geographic information systems and web-based mapping (sometimes called Web Geographic Information Systems, or Web GIS) take full advantage of it. GIS has been around for more than a decade, but sophisticated web-based mapping software allows affordable online delivery of complex data such as land-use information, zoning, demographics, aerial photos, real estate site location, routing, and analysis.
At the forefront of this kind of data leveraging is the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which, in addition to having a slick interactive atlas of the city on its website, is moving to require that the plans for new projects be submitted in a digital computer-aided design format. These plans then get integrated directly into the agency's Web GIS.
Leading software vendors and consultants:
4. Visualization. Virtual reality simulations of planned developments or neighborhoods are among the most expensive technologies on the list, but they can have a tremendous impact on the planning process. A virtual reality simulation allows you to see and experience a place as if you were walking through it. Planners can alter the simulation – by changing landscapes, streetscapes, or building configurations and textures – and immediately demonstrate to citizens and decision makers the visual impact of these changes.
Costs can vary widely. Modeling a five-square-block area in virtual reality can cost from $20,000 to $100,000. Increasingly, the power of visualization software is being combined with planning support systems to model complex planning decisions over time.
Leading vendors and consultants:
5. Planning support systems. Technology that integrates GIS, three-dimensional models, and decision-making tools is one of the fastest growing planning markets. A planning support system employs a sophisticated model to analyze a variety of socioeconomic, transportation, environmental, economic, or land-use data and show the outcomes of various assumptions and policy decisions.
By changing certain assumptions, the user can see the resulting changes in real time, or accelerate to see predicted changes, as a series of maps, charts, graphs, and in some cases, three-dimensional simulations of the resulting community or region. Increasingly, these systems are being used in conjunction with GIS.
An outstanding introduction to PSS is Planning Support Systems: Integrating Geographic Information System Models and Visualization Tools, published by ESRI Press. The book includes essays and analyses by several experts. Also, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency commissioned a study and evaluation of 20 of the top products, available online.
Leading vendors and consultants:
6. Technology for public participation. This type of technology can take many forms, from simple online discussion forums, to more formal visual preference surveys, to conference facilities wired to allow audience participation. Regardless of the technology, the goal is to facilitate decision making, both via the Internet and during face-to-face meetings. Planning tools for public participation have blossomed to include:
Online tools for opinion polling: One of the most well-known is the Visual Preference Survey™, which is conducted during community meetings of 100 to 300 people as well as via the Internet. Community residents rate a series of images showing various densities, streetscapes, architectural styles, and other land-use choices; their preferences are used to create a common vision and guide planning and development efforts. Simpler methods used to collect information include web-based surveys with a series of questions.
Collaborative design in charrettes and community meetings: Participants can draw electronically or see their suggestions incorporated in real time in computer-generated models. Tools used for collaborative design range from several of the planning support systems to three-dimensional, real-time rendering software.
Electronic meeting systems: These are typically used in larger and more formal conference settings, where participants use small handheld devices (like TV remote controls) to send poll choices to a central computer in the room that calculates the results from the group and projects them onto a large video screen, providing the presenter and the audience immediate feedback. The city of Vancouver, British Columbia, has permanently wired its science theater for instant audience polling of proposed regional/urban plans.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development commissioned a review and presentation of the leading technology tools for public participation.
Leading vendors and consultants:
7. Online planning portals. The World Wide Web's greatest strength is an ability to build communities without regard for geography. Planning portals on the web enable professional planners and other interested parties to share best practices, stay current with trends around the country, conduct research, interact with other planners, locate Internet resources, and find employment.
A local government organization might not develop its own portal, but professional staffs can turn to portals for information or research. Portals also serve as a model for how larger governments (for example a state government) might provide resources to its local government and business partners.
Several top urban planning portals:
8. Content management systems. Most public and private-sector organizations will be using content management systems within five years. CMS enables the user to store information in an online database using a web browser. Anyone can publish to a website or intranet and quickly update or add information. CMS makes web content dynamic instead of static; the most current information is always available on demand.
If a city's zoning code were managed in a CMS, updates to the code also would be reflected in real time on the city's website. The core data gets stored in one central place, but can be published in multiple formats: to a website or intranet site, on a handheld, via e-mail, or even fax on demand. Many organizations develop their own content management systems, although several commercial packages are also available.
Leading consultants and vendors:
Enterprise (large-scale packages for use across an entire enterprise):
Free or low-cost:
9. Permitting and zoning systems. Over the last three years a flood of new software has come on the market that enables cities to manage zoning codes in a digital format and publish online, often with sample images, renderings, multimedia, and links to definitions and additional information.
Permitting software allows the planning department to track the status of permits in real time; increasingly, these systems are being posted on websites to allow citizens and businesses to apply for and track the status of permits online. Several systems also allow developers or architects to submit required documentation (such as CAD drawings) electronically as well.
Leading consultants and vendors:
10. Handheld devices. Handheld devices, such as Palm Pilots, provide a revolutionary way to collect data, perform site surveys, and deliver information to mobile workers. The city of Los Angeles is using a system that allows building inspectors to download a list of buildings for inspection in the morning, and then conduct the surveys by entering data into their handheld devices.
These devices allow the inspector to enter data only once, they reduce errors, and they accelerate the delivery of compliance letters and reports, which are completely automated. The compliance data is then recorded in a database, mapped, and made public through a local community mapping website, Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles (nkla.ucla.edu), so that residents can access and track data about their neighborhood.
Leading software developers for handheld devices:
Online education means providing educational materials through a website that students can access around the clock. Online education has saved private corporations millions of dollars in travel time and expenses because employees can learn on the web instead of traveling to a central classroom or learning facility.
E-government offers two opportunities for online education. The first involves internal training for professional staff. The second, now emerging, is educating local residents or businesses. To help prepare citizens for a comprehensive plan process, for example, a city might offer an online introduction to the principles of smart growth or New Urbanism.
E-commerce is probably the most difficult strategy to implement successfully, but the potential rewards, measured in enhanced productivity and increased revenue, are great. A city could create tremendous good will with citizens (and save money in processing costs) if residents could obtain approvals of nondiscretionary permits and pay for them via the city's website.
How many more home-based businesses would register with the city if the city offered clearly defined online application and payment processes? The process of accepting credit card transactions in return for services is fairly straightforward; the more difficult problem is figuring out how to integrate online payments with existing processes.
Many of these urban planning technology strategies can be applied to a variety of different types of e-government. The accompanying table helps to place these strategies in the larger context of the different types of e-government.
How can you build or expand e-government for urban planning? The first step is to evaluate which of the strategies would produce the biggest return for your agency. Performance measures might include cost savings, increased efficiency, and better communication with constituents.
Consider convening an internal committee to develop recommendations about which e-government strategies would be most immediately useful for the greatest number of residents or businesses as well as the city itself. For example, by making commonly requested planning forms available on your website, you may be able to reduce call volumes by as much as 10 percent.
Once you have decided on an e-government strategy, be sure to publicize your successes, both on planning websites and to the local media, to build community support for larger initiatives. E-government is here. By establishing yourself as a leader, you will be at the forefront of planning practice.
Christopher Steins is CEO of the Internet consulting firm Urban Insight, Inc. (www.urbaninsight.com), and editor of Planetizen (www.planetizen.com), the urban planning and development network. He is based in Los Angeles.
If you know about good examples of e-government for planning that belong here, email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared on www.planning.org, the website of the American Planning Association.