Denver Needs Higher Standards for Community Engagement

Published on November 18, 2021

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DENVER – Denver needs to raise the bar to achieve more comprehensive and inclusive public notice and engagement, according to a new audit from Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien, CPA.

“Communicating with the public is important but difficult to do effectively — and not all city agencies take it seriously enough,” Auditor O’Brien said. “When you’re building a bike lane or doing road work, for example, those are projects residents want to know about ahead of time, not find out about when they’re already commuting home.”

Our audit team looked at how the city complies with public notice requirements, whether those requirements are enough to ensure members of the public are informed, and whether the public is given real chances to participate and provide input in the decision-making process.

We found selected agencies don’t always meet the minimum public notice requirements and those minimum requirements aren’t enough to ensure community members are meaningfully engaged.

Public notices are a minimum form of outreach on a spectrum of engagement activities meant to increase transparency; they are legally required and intended to inform. By comparison, public engagement encompasses a variety of activities intended to both inform and involve the public. While engagement is not legally required, it is crucial to informing and engaging residents.

“Public notice requirements exist as the very minimum means of helping the public participate in the process,” Auditor O’Brien said. “If those requirements are not met or if they are not adequate to make people aware of a project, then the city hasn’t done enough.”

We chose three case studies for our assessment because they involved extensive engagement and outreach and they had prominent public notice activities in their mission and work. The three case studies were:

  • The Department of Community Planning and Development’s Group Living Text Amendment project.
  • The Department of Transportation & Infrastructure’s bike lane installation process for two projects.
  • The agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships’ 10 volunteer commissions.

In terms of public notice, Community Planning and Development was the only one that fully complied with the minimum notice requirements for its project. However, those requirements were only to email City Council members and registered neighborhood organizations, and not the public more broadly.

Meanwhile, Transportation & Infrastructure couldn’t show it fully complied with its own public notice requirements and notice may not have been consistent for both bike lane projects we examined. Human Rights and Community Partnerships oversees 10 commissions, all of which exhibited a pattern of noncompliance with open meetings requirements.

Even if all city agencies complied with minimum public notice requirements, the city likely isn’t setting expectations high enough to ensure comprehensive and inclusive engagement. Adhering only to the public notice requirements may result in missed opportunities for the city to engage with the public as it develops projects, and community members may not know those chances for input exist.

For example, the only notice requirements for the two bike lane projects were related to the paving work associated with bike lane installation. No notice at all was required for the bike lanes themselves.

Some agencies went above and beyond with their engagement efforts, but the city could do more to ensure consistent and effective engagement across all agencies.

“The city isn’t asking enough of itself,” Auditor O’Brien said. “The city should raise its standards permanently so meaningful inclusion and engagement aren’t ‘above and beyond,’ they’re just part of doing business.”

In some cases, public notice might come too late for the public to provide significant input. In the case of the Group Living Text Amendment, public notice requirements began years after public engagement activities started.

“I’ve heard from members of the community about several instances when they felt they only found out about city projects after it was too late to do anything about it,” Auditor O’Brien said. “We couldn’t look at every example in this audit, but our findings offer lessons many city agencies would do well to learn.”

Additionally, relying heavily on registered neighborhood organizations may leave gaps in the city’s engagement. Not all neighborhoods have a registered neighborhood organization, the groups are run by volunteers with limited support from the city, and some have difficulty in reaching residents of apartment buildings or townhome communities.

“I’m happy to attend registered neighborhood organization meetings throughout the year, and I’ve seen firsthand that sometimes it’s a room of 50 people and sometimes it’s only five,” Auditor O’Brien said. “Registered neighborhood organizations don’t reach every community member who is busy juggling everything else on their to-do lists, so the city needs to proactively notify and engage residents using a variety of means.”

We also found Denver’s agencies have a decentralized system to post required public notices and engagement opportunities on the city’s website. Public notices and calendars of events may be difficult to find using the search function, and users must understand how the city’s agencies work to find what they need. Equity and inclusion may be difficult to achieve when the government provides only limited ways to access information.

“The city is working to improve its website by building it with a resident’s perspective in mind,” Auditor O’Brien said. “However, until more updates are made, some people may only find what they need if they already know what they’re looking for.”

Finally, public engagement offers opportunities for public inclusion in decision making beyond the minimum of public notice requirements. However, standards, expectations, and practices for public engagement varied across the case studies we reviewed:

  • Community Planning and Development mostly aligned with leading practices for engagement, but the department had no formal guidelines for its efforts.
  • Transportation & Infrastructure’s approach to engagement was inconsistent and lacked formal guidance.
  • Staff support roles for the 10 commissions under Human Rights and Community Partnerships are not well defined, and the commissions do not consistently or formally set strategic goals. Additionally, the city does not clearly communicate how the commissions’ input impacts city decision-making.

City agencies need standards and expectations for the public engagement process. Agencies should set goals for public participation, use methods to achieve inclusion, and develop criteria for a formal process and how to efficiently and effectively use resources.

A transparent government seeks to ensure community members affected by government decisions can both influence and actively participate in making those decisions. By providing more access to public notices and structure and guidance around public engagement, the city could ultimately provide higher-quality services to residents and business owners.

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