Taking Public Feedback Beyond Social Media (from Granicus)

One of the issues that I have written about a bit on my Wise Economy Blog and in my last book, The Local Economy Revolution is that social media, as much of a junkie as I am for it myself, is a lousy public engagement tool.

One problem is that it’s scattershot — they go to everyone and anyone, regardless of what they’re actually interested in.  The second is that there’s no channeling — there’s little ability to create a structure that guides people, that leads them to focus on the things that the community needs to address.

The third issue is that, while people may or may not respond (and it’s certainly easier to respond to a Facebook post or a tweet than to an item buried in a written report), those response are similarly all over the place — your ability to get a clear picture of concensus and priorities is at the mercy of whether you, in your reading of those 745 comments, only remember the ones that used colorful language or expressed a strong opinion.  The risk of drawing a skewed conclusion and missing the boat on what the community as a whole is saying….let’s just say, I don’t like those odds.

Because of its scope, Granicus does a consistently good job of understanding the big picture within governments operate, and this summary of a recent webinar provides valuable insight along those lines.

Read the whole thing here

By Matt Hall

Social media is an effective part of many government agencies’ citizen engagement strategies, but it has its limitations. While sites like Twitter and Facebook make for great avenues to get the message out, they don’t do quite as well cultivating the quality of feedback that government agencies are looking for.

In order to develop a richer conversation with citizens, it’s important to have an online platform that encourages thoughtful conversations rather than the quick and short responses of social media. It must be a place where feedback is heard by government officials and it is constructive, focused, and actionable.

Last week, we held a very popular webinar on this topic: A New Level of Public Feedback: Going Beyond Social Media, featuring Jordan Gilgenbach, the Communications Coordinator for the City of Edina, MN, myself, and Thao Hill, VP of Sales at Granicus. We discussed why social media sites for government agencies are best used as informing tools, and what it is that makes a dedicated online engagement tool more effective for generating insightful citizen feedback.

Creating a Digital Engagement Strategy

With only 12% of public feedback being facilitated through Facebook, and 91% of government agencies we surveyed actively looking for a better way to gather quality public feedback, we wanted the presentation to focus on the keys to creating a digital engagement strategy that works.

To achieve this, we used the highly popular IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation. For 25 years, the IAP2 (International Association of Public Participation) has been working with diverse communities worldwide to identify core values, best practices, and technological strategies for increasing the reach and quality of public participation.


This spectrum of increasing levels of public engagement starts out with the “Inform” tools that social media functions well as. But to get to deeper engagement, we have to move further up the spectrum. We showcased how government agencies are starting to adopt all-in-one civic engagement platforms to reach a broader audience, educate, and enable participation in government that actually adds value….

How the City of Edina Gathered More Constructive Public Feedback

The real value of cultivating more meaningful public feedback online was demonstrated when Jordan Gilgenbach shared Edina’s story. Edina is a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis, MN with claims to fame being the home of the international Dairy Queen headquarters and the very first enclosed mall. Having been an early adopter of social media, Edina also was aware of its limitations. Jordan explained where social media was successful for the city and where it was problematic.

The City of Edina started using SpeakUp two years ago, but one year ago, they started a new strategy: monthly discussions. Since then, they’ve seen an increase in the user base by over 130%. Jordan also elaborated on how they are now getting much more thoughtful feedback, the benefits of all the discussions being centralized, and how much easier it is to use the reporting tools over collecting feedback through social media.

Jordan wrapped up his story in explaining the value of the SpeakUp feedback by showing off a couple of Edina’s real life discussions. These were pretty neat, revolving around the unanimity in a beekeeping discussion and the diversity in opinion on food trucks.

There was a fantastic Q&A section at the end where we addressed numerous issues like the frequency of negative comments (only 0.2%!!!) and what to do with them. Jordan also had a few words to say about the importance of getting buy-in from organization leaders.

All in all, we had a great time and there was so much to talk about. I want to thank Jordan and the City of Edina for coming on to share their story, and I hope you’llcheck out the recording of the presentation.




Is Online Engagement Prone to Hijacking? (from Bang The Table)

Bang the Table recently converted its BTT web site from a general company page to a blog/content curation source, which is welcome because so few people are writing about these issues from an Australian perspective.  And Crispin and Matt are about as close to long-timers in this field as anyone, so I’m usually willing to listen to what they have to say.

This article does a particularly good job of making a well-reasoned apologetic for one of the reasons people often bring up to me as a reason why they don’t do online public engagement:  they’re afraid someone will “hijack” it.  As Crispin points out here, that risk can be pretty readily controlled — in some ways, even better than you can control engagement “hijacking” in real life.

Read the whole article here


Before committing to a new engagement strategy it is natural to consider risks and risk management. It is quite natural, therefore, to ask if online engagement processes are prone to hijacking.

Many organisations which are new to engaging their community online harbour understandable fears that the process will be ‘hijacked’ or stacked by vocal minority groups. Actually this is a perfectly normal phenomenon. People are more motivated to contribute on an issue if they are passionate about it. Whilst passion can be positive or negative we know that negative emotion is often dominant in the public policy arena with those who are happy with a proposed policy or outcome usually happy to look on, feeling no reason to enter the debate.

Where this becomes a problem is if this tendency to collect minority views skews a decision making process. A few points on this:

  • This is not just a feature of online engagement. All forms of community engagement are prone to attempted ‘stacking’ or ‘hijacking’. In my time as a public servant I saw allegations of people being bussed in to public meetings rent-a-mob style; of petitions infested with false signatures; and of submissions being made in the names of people who are resident in the local cemetery. Only this morning the Sydney Morning Herald is reporting a case of a developer allegedly offering $15 an hour through an employment agency for people willing to write letters in support of their development. Nobody is suggesting that because of these rare instances Councils should no longer accept submissions or hold meetings.
  • At Bang the Table we encourage e-participation, preferring this phrase to e-democracy. If you go into definitions they are pretty similar concepts in meaning but I feel that the former implies that online engagement is part of a broader decision making process. A process that gives the maximum possible number of people the chance to participate and which draws out views, ideas and opinions which may have never been heard in a traditional process. These are then mixed with data from other forms of engagement, expert inputs etc and form the basis of recommendations and decisions. E-democracy is much the same thing but, to me, the words carry an implication that decisions might be made based on the pure numbers involved in the online engagement. This encourages gaming style behaviour. In our EngagementHQ site moderation rules we have the following statement:

‘Every comment is valued for its content. This discussion forum allows everyone to have a say and it brings out many different ideas and viewpoints. A single comment may have as much influence as 100 comments if the idea is a good one.’

I believe that this is fundamentally important and that online engagement should nearly always be set in this context.

  • A well run online engagement process actually helps you get a much better handle on what is happening. The reporting tools that are provided with specialist online community engagement platforms allow you to properly understand user behaviour. This includes the behaviour of those users who may participate without commenting. Knowing how many people have visited, which documents they have downloaded, which videos they have viewed and the demographics of participants are all things that will help you properly understand what has happened in an online engagement process. It becomes easy to spot the difference between a small group of disgruntled individuals and an passionate community. In fact, online engagement allows you to draw these distinctions much more accurately than traditional engagement does. If you have 10 angry people attend a meeting you have no idea what the rest of the community are thinking. If 10 angry people comment in an online forum but you can see that 10,000 others visited the site, downloaded relevant documents, watched the videos and chose not to comment you can draw some well informed conclusions that the anger of the 10 is not necessarily shared by the entire community.
  • Finally, the point I always make to nervous clients is that the decision making organisation does not cede control by allowing an online discussion to take place. You may find 20 people with one viewpoint and they may feel they have won the debate by being the only view expressed on the site. In no way does this obligate your organisation to do what they suggest. It simply tells you that this view is held passionately by a small group. You still get to judge what to do with that information. I think it is beholden on you to get back to those people with feedback but not to automatically do as they demand. Some years ago we did a consultation for a regional council in Australia who wanted to ask the community for ideas to spend a funding windfall. A number of people used the site to campaign for a conservatorium of music. The Council did not then feel automatically obligated to build one. It simply showed that the musical community had spread the word about the site and made a strong contribution. Many of those people also commented on other issues while in the site – they got involved, the creative and musical talents of the town were emphasised to the Council but nobody felt stacked, hijacked or otherwise violated by the process.

10 Things to Keep in Mind When Planning a PlaceSpeak Campaign

This article from the consulting firm RM Delaney is interesting for four reasons: first, it gives a good how-to for using both the PlaceSpeak platform and for preparing for online public engagement generally.  Second, it gives a pretty even handed evaluation of the tradeoffs implicit in PlaceSpeak’s geo-verification model, which is arguably its most unique feature.  Third, it’s one of the first I have seen from a consultant describing specifically how to work with a certain platform (I think these kinds of relationships are going to become more and more common.  Finally, it references me and EngagingCities for some reason.  🙂

Several days ago, while doing my regular scan of Twitter on the bus to work, I read Della Rucker’s (from Engaging Cities) article on online engagement. So much of Della’s article reminded me of one of our recent projects that had an online component to it and our experience with it, that I thought I would write our lessons learned – for us to remember in the future, but also for anyone planning a similar engagement project.

We were working on a project where our client was a post-secondary education institute planning their Strategic Plan, and wanted to conduct comprehensive stakeholder engagement to involve all stakeholders in the Strategic Plan. In addition to interviews with decision-makers and key stakeholders, we held student focus groups, staff focus groups, and a World Café session for the staff, but the engagement also had an online component to it – for a wider public reach and for those who were not based in the Lower Mainland.

For the project’s online component, we selected PlaceSpeak, a Vancouver-based online engagement platform designed to give projects a wide online reach, and geo-coded non-anonymous public input. Based on Colleen Hardwick’s (PlaceSpeak founder) conviction, the geo-coding required from members on PlaceSpeak is that key component that makes the input from participants valuable for the simple reason that the input is then not anonymous, and therefore, not random. At PlaceSpeak, the comments belong to real, “verified” people, and online engagement is not “social media for play,” but a “real deal.”

I have been a fan and follower of PlaceSpeak’s work for years. I am impressed with how the platform gives you easy access to a variety of projects in the area where you live, how easy it is to learn about new projects and remain informed, as well as how easy it is to speak your mind. PlaceSpeak also makes it very hip to be informed and engaged in projects happening around you because it is effectively connected to social media, making it a great platform for those “in the know.”

So, when this opportunity to collaborate with PlaceSpeak presented itself, I was thrilled. The project was very successful, but we have learned several lessons.  I am writing these down, so that next time we have a project with PlaceSpeak, we are fully prepared.  So here we go:

  • Your PlaceSpeak project is easy to promote. Promoting a project repeatedly is what gives it exposure, and on PlaceSpeak, that’s easy to do. You can plan to publicize your PlaceSpeak site on your social media channels daily. This is what really made the difference for us, and I think that by the end of the project, everyone who wanted to know about it, knew about our project’s online engagement component. Make sure you change your project’s overview photo every couple of days to ensure some image diversity on your Facebook posts, and embed PlaceSpeak’s widget for easy access to your online engagement on high-traffic sites of your client’s website. And keep adding images to your resources page daily – images are what makes the site more visually appealing.


  • Budget for resources and time to build and maintain the PlaceSpeak site. As Della Rucker mentioned in her article, “online engagement often looks appealing to a local government or organization because we don’t have to spend time printing boards and staffing evening meetings. Online public engagement, however, requires staff capacity, just a different kind of staff capacity.” We knew we had to allocate resources and time to having someone put everything together, but we were not prepared for the amount of time we needed for maintenance. To keep the project page interesting, fresh and current, it is important to keep adding images, resources, respond to discussion board comments, etc. And all this requires time and wo/man-power. (Since our collaboration with PlaceSpeak, they have added a Topic Set Up fee in addition to the subscription in order to train and transfer knowledge between the PlaceSpeak consultants and the proponent’s team. You will still need to assign a person to manage the site, but the additional help with the set-up from PlaceSpeak consultants should definitely help).


  • Have all the content ready to populate the site before you start building the site. This, of course, seems very obvious and self-explanatory, and we totally thought we did this well. We had all the poll questions, discussion board questions, and surveys created, reviewed and approved before we started our work on building the site. What we were missing were the “little” things, and gathering those little things took time. We realized only when we started to build the site that, of course, we needed an overview image, an updated logo, images for the resources, etc. It is important to have all these little things ready to go, or you might find yourself in a frustrating situation where you are planning to launch the site, but receiving the proper images might not happen right then and there because it is end of a working day, and people you need these “little” things from would not be at their computers until the next day. 


  • PlaceSpeak can feature only one survey at a time. We had four different surveys for four different stakeholder-types, and we wanted all four launched at the same time and have them live for the duration of our online engagement. This meant that we had to combine the four surveys into one, which then branched into four based on the response in the first question. This took some last-minute reorganizing and some more time reframing the surveys in FluidSurveys.


  • Make a good use of your PlaceSpeak consultant….


Read the rest at http://www.rmdelaney.com/news/10-things-keep-mind-planning-placespeak-campaign/#more-2574


Public Engagement includes Educating: from MindMixer

As I’ve written elsewhere, I came into my public engagement/urban planning/economic revitalization work through a weird side door.  I have a degree in education, and taught middle school English for a couple of years before I started my tangled professional journey.  I don’t think I know another person in this work who comes from that background.  Even though I haven’t taught in a classroom for years, that teaching perspective still pervades my approach — when I work with community members, someone usually figures out that I’m an ex-teacher within about 10 minutes of when I first open my mouth.

As a result, I’ve often felt that planning and economic development tend to give that public education element of the planning and decision-making process less attention than they should.  We tend to assume that if we tell the public once, in a dense, top-heavy “existing conditions” report, then everyone will have magically absorbed every one of the facts that we put in it.  There’s a reason why teachers don’t just thrown The Scarlett Letter at you and tell you there will be a test on Friday.  Getting you to the point of understanding it takes much more hands-on work than that.

This piece that MindMixer ran in August doesn’t get into an exhaustive review of the educational components of their projects, but it gives a decent overview of how that element played out in a variety of planning and transportation projects.  Regardless of what type of initiative you’re doing public engagement about, put some serious thought into how you can best bring the community along to understand the context and the options better.  Don’t just assume that they’ll read a think report, and that if they don’t, “they just don’t care.”

And you might find it useful to talk to a teacher.  They know a think or two about it.

Here’s MindMixer:

As Jim Morrison said, “Summer’s almost gone.”

But the approaching fall doesn’t have to just mean an end to lazy days by the pool and afternoons of freedom for school children. It can also be about renewal. New beginnings.

No one understands the value of starting fresh quite like planners and design professionals. Coming up with a comprehensive plan or drawing a blueprint for a new public library holds limitless potential. The idea of creating something from scratch is exciting, just like the anticipation of a new year at school.

Along with that sense of renewal, of course, comes the chance to learn something new. Just like in school, in design and planning there is an opportunity for the expert to not only educate the people on his or her meticulous process and grand scheme, but there is also the chance for the people to educate the expert on the things they love about where they live. The people and the plan become more informed.

We’ve worked with a number of different design professionals and planners who have made education a pillar of their projects.


In the early stages of planning the Kansas City streetcar starter line and extensions, providing information has been half the battle.

“We are constantly educating the people about a streetcar and what it can do – how safe, how quiet, how much it will cost,” explains Gunnar Hand of the architecture firm BNIM, which is leading the project.

People have preconceived notions about what a streetcar will mean for them personally and, at least in Kansas City, it has been a barrier so far to making progress on the return of rail.

Gunnar says as more people are educated, public sentiment will continue to shift, but it’s an ongoing process.

In Lindfield, Australia, just outside Sydney, the city, residents and architects at BVN Donovan Hill are getting public input on plans to transform a vacated college campus into a school for life-long learning. The “School of the Future” project is about getting an entire community to think differently about something they’ve always known to be one way.

“It’s about reinterpretation of the site, the educational model, how learning takes place, and the way in which a school might engage with a community.”

As BVN’s Fiona Young explains, that reinterpretation has to happen hand-in-hand with a re-education of the community that the school of the future will serve.

playgroundIn the Windy City, the Chicago Park District has nearly 600 parks to maintain and 2.7 million people to please. For the city, starting fresh has meant creating a budget alongside those parkgoers. It has meant asking for their help in setting the priorities for the places they love.

For many people, the priority is the children. With that in mind, the district is working with the mayor’s office to identify the playgrounds throughout the city that are most in need of rejuvenation through theChicago Plays program.

A large part of what is making that partnership work is educating people on the improvements. Of the city’s 523 playgrounds, the city explains to residents, 300 are at least 15 years old and “in need of replacement.” Over the next five years, they will all be addressed, with neighborhoods lobbying to get their playgrounds at the top of the list, and agreeing to maintain them once they’re rebuilt. Before any of that happens, 600 people have participated in the playground nomination process atImprove Chicago Parks.

palmtreesSouthern Florida governments and the National Park Service are working together to create a path that would make access safer and more sustainable in the treasured Everglades National Park. It’s a controversial topic, and residents raised questions about the project’s impact on the delicate environment and the wildlife that inhabit it from the beginning.

In stepped education. Planners held regular and methodical public meetings across the region, inviting people to learn more, and share their concerns about the path’s effect. Supplemental information was made available and questions were answered round-the-clock at theRiver of Grass Greenway engagement site. The continuing conversation has both educated people and shaped the greenway.

The coupling of education and renewal of these projects has strengthened the planning process and ultimately encouraged people to take ownership of the plans themselves. “We do think that opening minds to possibilities and helping people think broadly is critical to the process, and we’re delighted to see the conversations emerging,” Fiona Young explains about the Lindfield School of the Future project.

Through working with the public, Fiona says, her team of planners has learned tactics they can utilize in projects in the years to come. “We’re getting a sense from the community of what we need to make clearer,” she explains.

“This helps us shape our next steps and strategize the process ahead.”



Comparing MetroQuest and MindMixer – From MetroQuest

This post is a couple of months old, but I think it’s notable for a couple of reasons.  First is practical: it gives a good basic understanding of the different purposes and functions of two well-known platforms.  Second, it represents one of the first times that I’ve seen one of the available online public engagement platforms speak directly to where they fit vis a vis  the other available commercial platforms.  In the early days of this field, it seemed to me like most of the providers wanted to believe that they were ideal for every community, every project, every situation. When you’re a start-up, your product is your baby, and we’re all inclined to believe that our baby is the most beautiful of all.   Most of those have since learned that they need to be a little more focused, that their specific tools are well-suited for certain uses and not so well for others.

My only complaint with this post is the claim that MetroQuest is the “only platform with an extensive toolbox of screen types.”  While it’s not clear to me exactly what is meant by “screen types,” and it’s true that most of the app-type providers have one standard interface that can be skinned to match a certain project’s graphic design, one should note that some of the providers, such as EngagingPlans, offer a very high level of flexibility, and that several providers are working on creating higher levels of customization.  Also, MindMixers do provide pretty robust tools for participant education through embedded video, linked documents, etc.  But unlike MetroQuest, the MindMixer interface doesn’t force you to go through that material first.  There are pros, and there are cons.

Here’s Dave Briggs of MetroQuest:


Project leaders are faced with challenging decisions when designing community involvement approaches for planning projects. In some situations, online engagement can provide a cost-effective alternative or complement to traditional forms of engagement. Choosing the most appropriate online tool to meet the needs of the project can be difficult since many tools seem similar.

MetroQuest and MindMixer are two of the most popular tools and many people ask how they differ. The short answer is MetroQuest is a survey tool and MindMixer is a crowdsourcing tool.

Crowdsourcing tools, like MindMixer, encourage participants to generate their own ideas and vote on each other’s ideas so the most popular ideas rise to the top. The content is primarily text-based questions and responses.

MetroQuest, as a style of survey tool, collects very specific input from participants to inform decision-making for the planning process. It’s also a highly visual and educational tool that helps people learn about the choices and their tradeoffs to inform their input.

Next are some key differentiators to help determine which tool is right for your engagement needs.


Differentiator MindMixer MetroQuest

What type of input do you need from the public?

→ Public provides open-ended ideas.
With crowdsourcing tools, participants create their own content or ideas. Input is open-ended and text-based in most cases. It can be freeing for participants to have this flexibility but it can be difficult for planners to analyze the results for reporting.
→ Public provides specific input that can be tabulated and analyzed.
With a survey, the project team creates specific questions for participant response. These can include a wide variety of input types, such as priorities ranking, item rating, comments on maps, scenario voting, and budget allocation. Quantitative outputs can be easier to analyze and summarize in planning documents.

What functionality and types of interactivity are needed?

→ Idea generation and voting are needed.
MindMixer has a standard format and can be deployed out-of-the-box. It’s functionality is focused on idea generation and voting.
→ Various types of interactivity are needed.
MetroQuest is the only tool available that has an extensive toolbox of screen types to satisfy diverse needs. As such each MetroQuest configuration is tailor-made by the MetroQuest team in collaboration with project personnel to best meet the needs of the project.

Is it more important that participants communicate with each other or with the agency?

→ Dialog flows from participant to participant.
In crowdsourcing, dialog is between participants. They generate the ideas and vote on each other’s ideas in a collaborative exercise.
→ Dialog flows from participants to the agency.
In a survey, the dialog is from the participant to the agency or planning team. The planning team defines the questions and participants respond.

Is community education a key requirement (e.g. learning about options & tradeoffs)?

→ No, education is not critical on this project.
In MindMixer, the content is created by participants. They can offer any idea they wish. It’s up to users to consider those ideas and make their own conclusions.
→ Yes, education is a key component.
In MetroQuest, the content is created by the project team and is presented in a way that can be quickly and easily understood by the public. Learning is up front and built into the interface to help ensure the input being collected is informed.

Throughout the course of planning projects there is often a time to generate ideas followed by a need to develop and refine alternatives. We are thrilled to recommend MindMixer to assist with the former and we stand ready to assist with the latter.