Can "Webinars" Make Planning Workshops Obsolete?

Ken Bernstein's picture
Can planners effectively use on-line meeting technology to host public participation workshops? The City of Los Angeles' Department of City Planning recently decided to find out for itself by experimenting with a "webinar" format for two kickoff workshops highlighting the City's 2010 draft citywide Bicycle Plan.

A webinar is a web conference, where participants can access a virtual meeting using a computer and Internet connection. Participants access a website to see the presente's computer screen and also listen to the presenter through the computer's speakers or using a telephone.

The Los Angeles Bicycle Plan seemed to be an ideal fit for experimenting with the webinar format. Los Angeles is a huge city of over 465 square miles, with infamous traffic gridlock that makes it challenging for many citizens to attend evening meetings about citywide planning policies. We also wanted to find a better way to engage the Bicycle Plan's multiple types of "stakeholders," many of whom might be unlikely to attend more traditional public workshops, including the bike- or transit-dependent, students who bicycle to school or colleges, and parents of young bicycle-riding children.

With the invaluable guidance and assistance of Chris Steins, co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen and CEO of Urban Insight, a Los Angeles-based technology consulting firm, we set up two back-to-back webinars for the evening of July 22. The first session focused on the Bicycle Plan itself and the second addressed the proposed implementation strategy for bike facilities over the next five years.

For this experiment, we chose GoToWebinar software, and, given that it was our first use of webinar technology, we chose to keep the event somewhat simpler by using a "moderated" format, where we would take written questions, which our moderator would read aloud to query the Bicycle Plan team.

We set up for our webinars in a City Hall conference room, hooking up two laptop computers (one for the presenter, who would run the PowerPoint presentations visible to participants, and another for our moderator to monitor and manage the session), with the project team gathered tightly around a Polycom Speaker Phone for the audio. City Planning Associate Jordann Turner served as the presenter of the PowerPoint presentations, while Planning Assistant Jane Choi acted as moderator, combing through and posing the participants' questions. City Planner Claire Bowin and Department of Transportation Bicycle Coordinator Michelle Mowery handled the Q& A responses.

So, how did the webinars go, and what lessons did we learn about the use of webinar technology for public engagement in planning?

Participation: We marketed our webinars largely through an email and web campaign involving bicycle advocacy organizations, the City's 90 Certified Neighborhood Councils, City Councilmember newsletters, notices in bike stores, and other communications tools. Our message emphasized that the webinar offered a unique opportunity to learn more and ask questions about bicycling in Los Angeles, all from the comfort of your own home. We were generally pleased with the public response: 118 registrants signed up to participate in the first webinar.

However, on the night of the event, participation in the actual Plan webinar topped out at 59 – a 50% "no-show" rate. A significant percentage of the participants were already-engaged activists on bicycle issues, not the broader cross-section of non-traditional participants who had signed up originally. What happened? My own theory is that the "comfort of your home" offers a double-edged sword: yes, it has the advantage of convenience, but it also presents many competing distractions (the remote control, dinner-time, the kids, or the IPhone) that make it all too easy to bypass civic engagement on any given evening.

Making a Human Connection: Despite the convenience of the web format, the quality of intangible human connection is definitely diminished on-line. For the presenters, it's impossible to "read" the meeting through non-verbal cues or the overall "feel of the room" one gets while making a traditional public participation. As for the participants, some felt frustrated that they had little or no feel for who was joining them in this shared on-line experience. For future webinars, we will likely consider ways of enhancing the connectivity of participants, most likely by enabling oral participation.

Partially compensating for this loss of "feel," the moderator's on-screen "dashboard" in GoToWebinar allows the session organizers to see all written questions and comments instantly.This allows the moderator to take the pulse of the entire audience simultaneously, based on whatever participants are verbalizing – something that is never possible at a traditional public meeting.Furthermore, GoToWebinar also allows meeting organizers to see an "attentiveness meter", monitoring whether participants have switched their attention to email or another application on their computer screen. It was fascinating to watch the attentiveness meter ebb and flow (seemingly without relationship, however, to how compelling a particular comment or question seemed), with the portion of fully-attentive participants largely ranging from 35% to 65%.

The Presenter Experience: The experience of delivering a webinar feels somewhat akin to hosting a radio program from an isolated studio setting. Because the high-fidelity speaker phone would pick up ambient noise or background whispering, the team needed to communicate with one another by passing notes and pointing to their computers. The experience and the technology itself require some practice and acclimation: a "dress rehearsal" two days before the event proved very helpful to allow the team to sharpen its presentation and get used to GoToWebinar.

"What's a webinar?": Leading up to the event, some participants and members of the public sent emails asking what a webinar is and how it works. Until the use of the tool and this term becomes more prevalent, we may choose to call our future web-based public events "on-line workshops."

Taking Advantage of Presentation Technology: The webinar format is particularly well-suited to sharing computer-based presentations, on-line information, or other visual information that would be more difficult to share or make clear at a public meeting in a large room. For example, during the second webinar, Jane Choi skillfully used the zooming presentation editor Prezi to zoom in on portions of maps detailing the plans for build-out of the citywide bicycle network over the next five years.

Time and Cost Savings: The webinar format saves public agencies many of the costs, setup and travel time, and logistical complications associated with meetings and room rentals. RSVP's and "check-ins" are handled automatically, without requiring staff time. Whereas recording a traditional public meeting for posterity would require multiple cameras and microphones, the entire webinar's proceedings may be recorded with a click of a button, and then loaded onto a web site.

An Emphasis on Substance: Because no single member of the public could disrupt or dominate the meeting, the workshops gave all participants an equal opportunity to be heard and the sessions felt more substantive and informational than most traditional public meetings. The questions and reactions were pertinent, varied and insightful, and we were able to address a large number of issues within relatively short periods of time. It was impossible to address all of the questions during the webinars, but we committed to answering the remaining questions through written answers on-line.

Conclusions

For our next "experiment," we intend to hold a supplemental Bicycle Plan public hearing on the web next month, where we will take oral public comment on the draft plan.

In all, we concluded that webinars are probably not a complete substitute for in-person public meetings and workshops.But particularly for meetings convening participants across large geographic areas and for topics where visual information or on-line interactivity is important, web-based workshops can be a useful supplement to these traditional formats.

Ken Bernstein is Manager of the Office of Historic Resources and Principal Planner of the Citywide Planning Division for the City of Los Angeles' Department of City Planning.

Comments

Comments

Webinar weariness

Ken, thanks for conducting the experiment (and Chris, thanks for making it possible).

My feeling is that webinars have become too common. Often "pushed" digitally, notices of webinars are annoying when they arrive via email. Most webinars are off topic, overly commercial, or badly produced; or they have little new information to offer. My tendency is to ignore webinar offers, although I force myself to examine each carefully. There are gems amid the rubble.

Overall, however, webinars are no longer the turn-on that they were earlier in the decade. To draw participants, their content must be exceptional, they must offer real opportunities for equal participation (not just being lectured to), and the possible outcomes must be concrete including implementable solutions. Most webinars cannot guarantee these rewards to their attendees. Nor, since the attendees are often anonymous to one another, is there an assurance that the webinar isn't being circumvented by special interests with personal access to the planners.

This may be one reason your attendance was so off. Another is that webinars are ephemeral. This can be an advantage, as it requires little effort to participate. But it can also spell doom.

When one commits to physically attend a meeting, one must block out not only the time for the meeting but also periods of time before and after. Having set aside this time, participants aren't tempted to do something else. Commiting to a webinar requires promising little more than hanging up the phone. It's as easy to forgo a commitment as to live up to it. Even easier. Or at least, to multitask other projects while pretending to pay attention to the webinar.

Reading your comments, my takeaway is that webinars are cheaper for governments to sponsor and easier for organizers to conduct, because interaction is limited. They may for that reason become popular with city managers and urban planners.

But if the attendance among key parties is commonly as weak as you experienced, and if the participants' experience during the webinar was as problematic as mine has been during most webinars, maybe webinars aren't suitable for this type of co-creative planning effort. They are a useful educational tool, good for sharing data that will figure into the planning process. They are also good as archives of keynote presentations that deal with the big picture (similar in this regard to the TED speeches).

For solving problems, however, my sense is that other collaborative technologies (e.g., real-time HD videoconferencing) and better yet, old-fashioned charrettes and workshops, with a lot of good-faith contention, are more effective.

The bigger problem is, how long can cash-strapped municipalities and districts continue to meaningfully involve citizens in their planning activities? Historically, given the current competition for resources, it's critical for them to do so. But funds are not forthcoming. We live in tough times, technology notwithstanding.

Robert Jacobson, Ph.D., Urban Planning (UCLA)
Bluefire Consulting • Tucson, Arizona
GEMBA Innovation • Vedbæk, Denmark
USA Phones: +1 520-762-7267 | +1 520-370-1259 mobile
Sweden Phone: +46 40 692 8484 (redirects to USA number)
Skype: bob.jacobson (with a dot)

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