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... To get an idea of what the public customer really faces, try this: approach your planning office as if you were a citizen going there for the first time. Planning staff is too accustomed to the environment to be objective, but commissioners should still be able to have a different perspective.
What does the front entry communicate to the public? I know several planning departments that have signs on the door announcing they are "closed Friday afternoons." Planning directors have a ready excuse: they are so overburdened that they and their staffs need some time away from the public to catch up on paperwork. No, they are not going fishing -- or golfing -- or just loafing. But what does a naturally suspicious public inter from such a curt communication? If your planning office has to be closed to the public at some time, give an explanation: "Closed Friday afternoon to process applications. For emergencies, call ... ."
Now, open the door. It is a distinct plus if it is always in an open position, but that is a rarity. Look carefully at all the directions or signs. Are they couched only in "plannerese" or have they been translated into plain English? If you have a minority population, you may need signs in their language, too. Try to remember how little you knew before you became a planning commissioner. ...
Are there comfortable chairs and timely reading material that has not made the round of the doctor’s office first? How about a coffee pot with freshly brewed coffee?
If people have to wait, has someone or something told them about how long that would be? A bell or buzzer is certainly better than having to pound on the counter. And are there comfortable chairs and timely reading material that has not made the round of the doctor's office first? How about a coffee pot with freshly brewed coffee? Being short of cash does not excuse you from providing simple refreshments. Most people will be pleased to donate something to pay for this gesture of hospitality.
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Elaine Cogan, founding principal of the Portland, Oregon planning and communications firm of Cogan Owens Cogan, has consulted for more than 36 years with communities undertaking strategic planning and visioning processes. Cogan has been honored for her work on a variety of citizen involvement projects.