Construction and infrastructure projects: Is online participation the future?

In half a year without planning dialogues or discussions as face-to-face meetings, project managers, politicians, authorities and citizens have learned a lot.

Impulses for the Dialogue with Citizens

With the lockdown, everything changed at a stroke - even for project communication on large construction projects. Since the introduction of requirements for face-to-face events in Germany, citizen dialog and participation formats are no longer possible as usual. In recent months, citizens, politicians, representatives of public authorities, clubs and associations, who used to put their heads together with planning maps and models, have only been able to come together under difficult conditions. What has happened so far and where is the journey going? We are taking stock.

Legislation is finally moving - PlanSiG comes into force

Legally prescribed participation and consultation formats, such as discussion meetings in the course of planning approval procedures, can no longer be held as face-to-face events. In order not to delay the approval procedures for major construction projects, politicians have reacted quickly. The Planning Security Act (PlanSiG) came into force at the end of May 2020. The "Act to Ensure Proper Planning and Approval Procedures during the Covid 19 Pandemic" is intended to ensure that approval procedures and public participation can continue despite infection control requirements. The authorities conducting the proceedings can now also design the legally required participation formats as online consultations:

  • Publication on the Internet is now sufficient as a publication of planning documents.
  • Local public announcements may be replaced by an announcement on the Internet. This can eliminate the need to lay out documents (often a whole shelf with folders full of expert opinions) in town halls, district offices or authorities.
  • Anyone wishing to submit written objections and comments can now do so electronically, i.e. by sending an e-mail.
  • A discussion appointment may be conducted as a telephone or video conference.

E-mail instead of letter - the big hit?

The rapid implementation of these legal innovations is a positive signal. The fact that the changes towards more online dialog only came about under the pressure of a pandemic and have the status of a transitional arrangement is evidence of outdated procedures in administrative procedures. Admittedly, in the context of citizen participation in terms of accessibility, consideration must also be given to those who have no access to the Internet. But for most citizens, writing letters and going through piles of paper in the city hall seem like relics from another time. A development towards the "online first" principle is long overdue in administration and public participation. Our opinion: The new opportunities created by PlanSiG must not remain a temporary solution and must be established in the long term.

Online formats everywhere - practice, practice, practice

Whether discussion meetings or voluntarily carried out participation formats of project sponsors: In recent months, online formats have been tested more intensively than ever before and have been subjected to numerous trials. However, a routine such as that which exists at on-site events for most project sponsors has not yet been established. Various formats and online tools have been and are being tried out and the market for these providers is currently developing rapidly. Communicators, construction project managers, politicians and citizens are becoming familiar with the situation of speaking to a larger audience in front of a webcam. More and more people are asking whether there isn't a more professional background for video conferencing than the lumber room at home. The experience that all participants are now gaining with web-based events will be useful even beyond the pandemic. One thing is certain: online formats will remain the norm even after the pandemic.

Sometimes irreplaceable: the conversation at the buffet

Because so much is currently taking place on the Internet that it is all the more apparent what the value of personal encounters at face-to-face events is. Not everything that a face-to-face event offers can be replaced by an online format. A sober exchange of information also works in a video conference. But the interesting encounters and the moments that remain in your memory - let's be honest - are often over coffee and butter pretzels at the buffet.

We in the Citizen Communication team realized how valuable and important emotions are in planning dialogues and citizens' forums when we closed the computer in our home office after countless videoconferencing dialogues. How can we promote trust between participants in online dialog events? What can we as moderators do to capture the emotions of the people and the mood in the virtual space? Questions like these are occupying us communicators much more intensively in these times than before.

"New Normal"? In moderation please!

After half a year of intensive learning and trial and error, everyone involved has come a long way - both in terms of the framework for online consultation (PlanSiG) and in terms of our personal experiences. The knowledge about what works online and which dialogue we prefer to conduct personally, if we are allowed to do so again, has been consolidated. The Corona pandemic has started a learning process with a booster. But even after six months, we are still far from reaching a "new normality" in terms of online dialog. The digitization of communication channels in approval procedures by PlanSiG was overdue. However, we hope that online formats will not become completely the norm in public participation. In a heated debate about construction projects, it is allowed and encouraged to argue and discuss face to face. We prefer to meet people with a real smile and like to say goodbye with a warm handshake.

Your contact person

Johanna Härtl

Johanna Haertl
+49 911 530 63-108
jha[at]kaltwasser.de

Saying goodbye to compulsory presence opens up new avenues –

but also reveals shortcomings. The right mixture makes it!"