By Josie Noah, MPA/MPL Candidate, University of Southern California
Editor's note: Urban Insight was responsible for developing and collecting data from the Louisiana Speaks web-based survey.
As planning projects begin to rely more heavily on internet technologies to engage the public in the planning process, it is important to understand whether they are successful. Following the devastating aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Louisiana Recovery Authority established the Louisiana Speaks Project in order to begin the rebuilding and planning process. The Project faced many challenges, including a largely displaced population. The goal was to reach out to the public and develop a vision for the future of Southern Louisiana.
To do this, Louisiana Speaks utilized a variety of public participation methods, including web, television, radio, mailings and community meetings and workshops. The outreach resulted in over 27,000 responses to a survey and thousands of participants in meetings and workshops. This report will examine the use of Internet technologies as a participatory method in the Project and analyze the effectiveness of this tool in the planning process.
The Louisiana Speaks Project aimed to engage the residents of Southern Louisiana in rethinking and rebuilding the future following the devastating effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Project was spearheaded by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, and was an attempt to turn the tragedy of the damage into a plan for recovery and growth in the region for the next 50 years.
The challenges facing the project team were enormous, including: a largely displaced and cynical population, reduced access to technology, a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and situations, and an area that had been inundated with programs. Joe Distefano, the Project Lead for Louisiana Speaks, reflected that it was challenging to get residents to focus on the future when they were so concerned about the present (2009). To tackle these issues, the Project utilized a variety of community outreach techniques, including a traditional methods as well as a significant web component.
Figure 1 shows the breadth of outreach that was undertaken during the Project's 18-month duration, beginning in January 2007. Within each phase, web-based techniques are bolded. The strategies aimed to engage and inform the residents during the planning process.
More than 27,000 residents and stakeholders participated in the Louisiana Speaks Project to develop a vision for the future of South Louisiana. "The vision builds on a sustainable recovery that restores coastal wetlands, constructs strategic levees, and reinvest in historic communities. New growth is focused in and around existing communities, linked to investments in protection infrastructure, regional transportation, and economic zones" (Louisiana Speaks).
The vision was adopted by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the Louisiana State Legislature and the Office of State Planning in 2007 (Distefano 2009). The Center for Planning Excellence, a nonprofit in Baton Rouge, continues to turn the vision into reality, by working with local and state officials to implement its recommendations.
Now we turn to look at the specific web based tools that Louisiana Speaks used to engage the stakeholders of Southern Louisiana.
Three online techniques were developed to engage stakeholders in the planning process:
The development of a web presence included the creation of www.louisianaspeaks.org, the official website of Louisiana Speaks. The website's main purpose was to disseminate information. Figure 2 shows the homepage of www.louisianaspeaks.org.
Today, the website hosts information on the results of the Project and the steps being taken to implement plans throughout the state. Visitors can download results of the survey and read the plan developed from the efforts. Figure 3 shows a portion of the Louisiana Speaks Regional Plan, demonstrating to visitors how to move from vision to reality.
Louisiana Speaks also developed a web presence by posting videos on YouTube and linking from other related websites, including the Center for Planning Excellence, www.planningexcelllence.org. The three videos posted on YouTube were viewed a total of 1000 times (Louisiana Speaks, YouTube). Figure 4 shows one of the videos posted.
The most interactive of the online tools developed for Louisiana Speaks was the web-based survey. The online survey modeled the paper and phone surveys. The survey (web, paper and phone) resulted in 27,000 responses. Online responses accounted for 53 percent, paper accounted for 42 percent and phone for 5 percent (Louisiana Speaks 2007). Figure 5 shows the first question of the online survey.
Finally, email communication enabled stakeholders to stay engaged through updates and meeting announcements.
The Louisiana Speaks Project is the largest regional planning outreach campaign ever conducted in the United States to date. With more than half of its public participation coming through online venues, Louisiana Speaks demonstrated an impressive online component of public participation in the planning process.
Using the work of three public participation experts, I will analyze the main online and traditional forms of participation (website, survey, and workshops) that were used in the Louisiana Speaks process.
Arnstein's "A Ladder of Citizen Participation" proposes a ladder of citizen power in decision-making. The ladder ranges from nonparticipation to degrees of tokenism and of citizen power. Louisiana Speaks used a range of the levels with its participatory strategies. The website would fall under "informing," as a degree of tokenism. The survey would rank slightly higher, as "consultation," also a degree of tokenism. Arnstein explains that this level of citizen power allows for stakeholders to express their opinions; however, they "lack the power to insure that their views will be heeded by the powerful" (1969, 217).
The more traditional form of participation, the workshop, expands the level of citizen power to that of "partnership", a degree of citizen power. During the workshops, participants examined alternatives and discussed tradeoffs with traditional power-holders, characteristics of a higher level of citizen power.
While larger numbers of people participated via the web, the more powerful forms of citizen power occurred in a more traditional format, the workshops.
In "Analyzing the Representativeness of Internet Political Participation," authors Best and Krueger evaluated factors that influence online and offline participation. The study found that people from higher socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds tend to disproportionately possess the factors, including "Internet skills", that predict online participation. Whereas Internet skills and SES predict online participation, offline participation is best predicted by the possession of "civic skills" and "political interest." The study also found that "those with high levels of civic skills also tend to possess high levels of Internet skills" (Best & Krueger 2005, 196).
Best and Krueger discovered that "Whites, compared to non-whites, possess a moderately greater probability of participating in online political activity after controlling for other relevant factors" (2005, 194). Figure 6 shows the race of survey respondents and the total population of Southern Louisiana as a percentage of the total. While survey respondents were not required to declare their race, the figure shows that African-American survey participation as a share of total survey participation was smaller than their respective share of the total population. This may suggest the existence of a barrier to online participation, through a combination of lack of access and/or comfort with the technology.
Joe Distefano suggested that uneven access to internet was a challenge during the Project. Targeting lower SES populations where they had access to the internet was a mechanism that was developed later in the Project (2009).
Best and Krueger's work suggests that the factors that enable participation, Internet skills, civic skills, and political interest, are not evenly shared among all members of the population. Extra efforts, such as those described by Distefano, must be employed to overcome the differences among the population.
Creighton's The Public Participation Handbook discusses methods of public participation and their role in the process. Websites are discussed as a useful tool for information dissemination, although, as Best and Krueger identified in their study, Creighton warns of potential barriers to online participation. Surveys serve as an assessment of public opinion at a specific time. Creighton states that "public opinion can change rapidly" and they are best paired with other more in-depth forms of participation (2005, 129). In the case of the Louisiana Speaks Project, public opinion was heavily influenced by the recent hurricanes and the devastation that ensued. According to Creighton, workshops provide an opportunity for more in-depth analysis of data and provide participants an opportunity for high levels of interaction (2005). Distefano also discussed the importance of an in-depth ground campaign utilizing local leaders, or "Champions," to engage the public (2009).
Each of the three studies provides an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the web as a mechanism for public participation. The analysis suggests that the web, through the website and the web-based survey, was an effective way to engage the public. Web-based methods, however, did not result in a strong transfer of power to the participants. In addition, web-based technologies may have presented barriers to entry for many stakeholders. The workshops provided the most comprehensive form of public participation. Figure 7 summarizes the findings of the analysis in a matrix depicting the method of participation with the works of the authors identified above.
The Louisiana Speaks Project engaged the Southern Louisiana region in the largest public participation campaign in planning history in the United States. The Project utilized a combination of traditional and web-based outreach techniques. Although groundbreaking in its scope, the Project's web-based survey and website did not transfer decision-making power to the participants and may have limited participation by stakeholders without access or ability to use the Internet.
The successful adoption of many of the policies developed during the Project suggests that Southern Louisiana was able to work together to choose its future following the devastating effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While the Project's use of Internet technologies may have excluded some stakeholders, its attempt to reach out to the displaced members of the community and engage the entire community is laudable. The Louisiana Speaks Vision will help to guide development and planning policy for decades to come in Southern Louisiana.
Josie Noah is an MPA/MPL Candidate at the University of Southern California. She prepared this case study while enrolled in a graduate course on Internet Technologies and Urban Planning, taught by Chris Steins.