Who comments in PlanningAlerts and how could it work better?

In our last two quarterly planning posts (see Q3 2015 and Q4 2015), we’ve talked about helping people write to their elected local councillors about planning applications through PlanningAlerts. As Matthew wrote in June, “The aim is to strengthen the connection between citizens and local councillors around one of the most important things that local government does which is planning”. We’re also trying to improve the whole commenting flow in PlanningAlerts.

I’ve been working on this new system for a while now, prototyping and iterating on the new comment options and folding improvements back into the general comment form so everybody benefits.

About a month ago I ran a survey with people who had made a comment on PlanningAlerts in the last few months. The survey went out to just over 500 people and we had 36 responders–about the same percentage turn-out as our PlanningAlerts survey at the beginning of the year (6% from 20,000). As you can see, the vast majority of PlanningAlerts users don’t currently comment.

We’ve never asked users about the commenting process before, so I was initially trying to find out some quite general things:

  • What kind of people are commenting currently?
  • How do they feel about the experience of commenting?
  • How easily do they get through the process of commenting?
  • Do people see the comments as a discussion between neighbours or just a message to council? or both?
  • Who do they think these comments go to? Do they understand the difference between the council organisation and the councillors?

The responses include some clear patterns and have raised a bunch of questions to follow up with short structured interviews. I’m also going to have these people use the new form prototype. This is to weed out usability problems before we launch this new feature to some areas of PlanningAlerts.

Here are some of the observations from the survey responses:

Older people are more likely to comment in PlanningAlerts

We’re now run two surveys of PlanningAlerts users asking them roughly how old they are. The first survey was sent to all users, this recent one was just to people who had recently commented on a planning application through the site.

Compared to the first survey to all users, responders to the recent commenters survey were relatively older. There were less people in their 30s and 40s and more in their 60s and 70s. Older people may be more likely to respond to these surveys generally, but we can still see from the different results that commenters are relatively older.

Knowing this can help us better empathise with the people using PlanningAlerts and make it more usable. For example, there is currently a lot of very small, grey text on the site that is likely not noticeable or comfortable to read for people with diminished eye sight—almost everybody’s eye sight gets at least a little worse with age. Knowing that this could be an issue for lots of PlanningAlerts users makes improving the readability of text a higher priority.

Comparing recent commenters to all PlanningAlerts users
Age group All users Recent commenters
30s 20% 11%
40s 26% 14%
50s 26% 28%
60s 18% 33%
70s 5% 8%

There’s a good understanding that comments go to planning authorities, but not that they go to neighbours signed up to PlanningAlerts

To “Who do you think receives your comments made on PlanningAlerts?” 86% (32) of responders checked “Local council staff”. Only 35% (13) checked “Neighbours who are signed up to PlanningAlerts”. Only one person thought their comments also went to elected councillors.

There seems to be a good understanding amongst these commenters that their comments are sent to the planning authority for the application. But not that they go to other people in the area signed up to PlanningAlerts. They were also very clear that their comments did not go to elected councillors.

In the interviews I want to follow up on this are find out if people are positive or negative about their comments going to other locals. I personally think it’s an important part of PlanningAlerts that people in an area can learn about local development, local history and how to impact the planning process from their neighbours. It seems like an efficient way to share knowledge, a way to strengthen connections between people and to demonstrate how easy it is to comment. If people are negative about this then what are their concerns?

I have no idea if the comments will be listened to or what impact they will have if any

There’s a clear pattern in the responses that people don’t think their comments are being listened to by planning authorities. They also don’t know how they could find out if they are. One person noted this as a reason to why they don’t make more comments.

  • I have no real way of knowing whether my concerns are given any attention by local council.
  • I have no idea if the comments will be listened to or what impact they will have if any
  • I believe that the [council] are going to go ahead and develop, come what may. However, if I and others don’t comment/object we will be seen as providing tacit approval to Council’s actions
  • Insufficient tools and transparency of processes from Planning Panel.
  • I don’t feel I have any influence. I was just sharing my observations, or thoughts with like minded people who may. (have influence)
  • I do get the ‘Form Letter’ from Council but I’m not in any way convinced they listen.
  • The process of being alerted and expressing an opinion works well but whether it has any effect is doubtful.
  • Although councils do respond to my comments, it is just an automated reply. The replies from City of Sydney are quite informative but the ones from Marrickville pretty meaningless.
  • I am not in any way convinced anyone listens. A previous mayor stated he ONLY listens to people whose property directly adjoins the building site.
  • –I know it’s money that matters, not people

Giving people simple access to their elected local representatives, and a way to have a public exchange with them, will hopefully provide a lever to increase their impact.

I would only comment on applications that really affect me

There was a strong pattern of people saying they only comment on applications that will effect them or that are interesting to them:

  • I would only comment on applications that really affect me, don’t want to just restrict any application.
  • Not many are that relevant / interest me.
  • Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it is right making comments that don’t directly impact
  • I target the ones that are most important
  • Only interested in applications which either reflect major planning and development issues for the district as a whole (eg approval for demolition of old houses or repurposing of industrial structures) or which affect the immediate location around where I live.
  • I comment on those that affect my area
  • I only comment on applications that may effect my immediate area.
  • Comment on those that I get that are significant,ie: not on normal sheds,pools,dwellings etc.
  • only comment on ones that I feel directly impact myself or my suburb
  • I would only comment on an application, that adversely affected me or my community.
  • Not all relevant to me. Also don’t want to be seen as simply negative about a lot of the development
  • A lot are irrelevant to my interest.

How do people decide if an application is relevant to them? Is there a common criteria?

Why don’t you comment on more applications? “It takes too much time

A number of people mentioned that commenting was a time consuming process, and that this prevented them from commenting on more applications:

  • Time – not so much in writing the response but in being across the particulars of DAs and being able to write an informed response.
  • Not enough time in my life – I restrict myself to those most relevant to me
  • Time poor
  • It takes too much time, but one concern is that it generates too much paper and mail from the council.

What are people’s basic processes for commenting in PlanningAlerts? What are the most time consuming components of this? Can we save people time?

I have only commented on applications where I have a knowledge of the property or street amenities.

A few people mentioned that they feel you should have a certain amount of knowledge of an application or area to comment on it, and that they only comment on applications they are knowledgeable about.

How does someone become knowledgeable about application? What is the most important and useful information about applications?

Comment in private

A small number of people mentioned that they would like to be able to comment without it being made public.

  • Would like an option to remain private on the internet – eg a “name withheld” type system.
  • Should be able to make comments in confidence ie only seen by council, not other residents
  • I prefer not to have my name published on the web. The first time I commented it wasn’t clear that the name was published.

Suggestions & improvements

There were a few suggestions for changes to PlanningAlerts:

  • Should be able to cut and paste photos diagrams, sketches etc.
  • I was pleased that the local council accepted the comments as an Objection. But it was not clear in making the comment that it would be going to the council.
  • There could be a button to share the objection via other social media or a process to enforce the council to contact us.
  • Some times it is hard to find a document to comment on if I don’t know the exact details, The search function is complex.

Summing up PlanningAlerts

We also had a few comments that are just nice summaries of what is good about PlanningAlerts. It’s great to see that there are people who understand and can articulate what PlanningAlerts does well:

  • PlanningAlerts removes the hurdles. I hear about developments I would not have otherwise known about, and I can quickly provide input without having to know any particular council processes.
  • Its an efficient system. I’m alerted to the various viewpoints of others.
  • Because it shares my opinion with other concerned people as well as council. Going directly to council wouldn’t share it with others concerned.

Next steps

If we want to make using PlanningAlerts a intuitive and enjoyable experience we need to understand the humans at the centre of it’s design. This is a small step to improve our understanding of the type of people who comment in PlanningAlerts, some of their concerns, and some of the barriers to commenting.

We’ve already drawn on the responses to this survey in updating wording and information surrounding the commenting process to make it better fit people’s mental model and address their concerns.

I’m now lining up interviews with a handful of the people who responded to try and answer some of the questions raised above and get to know them more. They’ll also show us how they use PlanningAlerts and test out the new comment form. This will highlight current usability problems and hopefully suggest ways to make commenting easier for everyone.

Design research is still very new to the OpenAustralia Foundation. Like all our work, we’re always open to advice and contributions to help us improve our projects. If you’re experienced in user research and want to make a contribution to our open source projects to transform democracy, please drop us a line or come down to our monthly pub meet. We’d love to hear your ideas.

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