The Effective Planning Commissioner

Dealing With Negative Attitudes Towards Government

November 14th, 2013

Editor's Note: Along with Elaine Cogan's article, we're posting an article by long-time planner Bruce McClendon on customer service and planning -- and a four-part update of one of our most popular articles, "Citizen Surveys: Taking Your Community’s Pulse," by Thomas L. Miller of the National Research Center, Inc..

Check all you think apply. My local government:

  • wastes tax dollars on non-essentials
  • is too bureaucratic
  • generally has the right priorities
  • tries to be responsive to all the citizens
  • is captive of a small group of vocal people
  • is the best we can get considering the circumstances
  • cannot be trusted

What would you add?

Do your answers reflect what polls tell us are the sentiments of the majority of people?

Yes, generally, citizens distrust government at all levels. As a planning commissioner, you cannot change the world, our national attitudes, or even persuasive negative feelings people may have toward your local city or county. But by realizing you are a part of that government, and making sure you and your staff and colleagues are accessible and responsive, you may at least have a positive affect on how people perceive the planning function in your community.

Begin by examining the planning office itself. Consider the first impressions of most citizens who are likely to be nervous or ill at ease in approaching anything to do with planning or restrictions on how they can use their property. Do you provide an environment that is welcoming and non-threatening? You do not need a large budget to create that effect.

Walk in as if you are a citizen applying for a zone change, conditional use, or other planning matter, for the first time. Is the door generally open or at least easy to access?

people sitting in waiting room
How comfortable is the waiting area in your planning department office? Do people have to sit and wait long for assistance?

Next, look around. Are there clear and readable signs, in more than English if your population is bi-lingual, that direct people where to go for specific needs? Does the waiting room area have comfortable chairs with coffee or water available? Are there posters or art work on the walls? Is there a children’s play area, so appreciated by parents with young children? Is someone usually at the desk to answer questions? How high is that desk or table? Intimidating or inviting? If you cannot afford to station staff at the front all the time, is there a handy bell to summon help and is it answered promptly?

Another most important matter is how your staff interacts with the public. This may be less easy to observe but you can get some idea of their attitudes by noticing how and where they confer with applicants. Is the planning office generally in an open environment where everyone can see and hear, or are there conference rooms or areas where the public can discuss their issues in a private setting? The latter is most preferred and if you can put yourself in their shoes, you can understand why.

Are citizens viewed more as an annoying nuisance?
Are citizens viewed more as an annoying nuisance?

As a commissioner, you should not be interacting with staff on a day to day basis, but you should have an open relationship with the planning director that reveals how he or she relates to the public. Are people perceived as a nuisance to getting the “real work” of planning done or as individuals who should be served respectfully, even if their requests appear to be bizarre or unacceptable? This attitude will permeate to the staff and should be discussed at the time of a scheduled review or another time, if negative feelings are apparent or persuasive.

What about handouts? Are all applicants given a clear paper description of the appeals process, with deadlines and names and phone numbers of people to contact with any questions? Please make sure the material is absent of jargon and legalese. If that is necessary, include the information as an addendum. Print materials in languages other than English if your population requires it.

Now, let us move on to the room in which commission meetings are held. There are all kinds: from formal council chambers or courtrooms to informal conference rooms used for many purposes. Whatever the venue, examine it from the public’s perspective and make sure it as welcoming and comfortable as possible, with sufficient seating for all.

Always have written agendas and other material on hand for people to pick up and format your agenda so that the public’s matters are taken up first, not shunted to the end of a long afternoon or evening session.

Now, your meeting begins. I have covered the topic of how commissioners should conduct themselves in several other columns. 1

Suffice it to say that for now, if you are successful in creating an environment for the public you serve that engenders trust and positive feelings, this attitude may even spill over to other areas of government.


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.