The Elephant in the Room: Why do Online Public Engagement -or any civic tech? (from Granicus)

This piece from Michael Ashford at Granicus is a little more high-level than I usually run at this site – I usually put less technical, more deep-thought work at EngagingCities – but I thought this piece was both very important, and perhaps gives some insight into the thinking behind one of the larger firms on the OPEE.  And it’s crucial stuff to be thinking about.  Read the whole thing here, but think hard about the real reasons why you’re doing online public engagement — or any of the other newfangled stuff.

In the final few pages of the book, Goldsmith and Crawford write: “Above all, we think it is important that these new developments be understood as tools, not as ends in themselves. … We must not embrace the use of digital tools for its own sake.”

Finally, someone had addressed the elephant in the room.

For all the upward movement in the civic technology space – the Knight Foundation reports that from 2008 to 2012 the civic tech field grew at an annual rate of 23 percent – many of these companies have struggled to gain a foothold.

Many chalk it up to government’s unwillingness to change, or its workers’ aversion to technology, or the complex intricacies of the procurement process.

But are those the real reasons?

If you take a holistic look at the civic tech space, much of the emphasis is about putting enough pressure on government to bend to the public’s demand for technology, focusing so much on changing the citizen experience first, with little forethought given to how internal government process will need to change or adapt to support a new technology.

Too often, governments adopt technology to appease pressure rather than with an open-armed embrace. Thus, much of the civic tech space is ignored, seen as  “nice-to-have” or as a checkbox on a list – as ends, rather than tools, as Goldsmith and Crawford warn against.


Crowdsourcing Urban Service locations (from Textizen)

One of the potential uses (and, frankly, a pretty low-hanging fruit) for online public engagement is to figure out where the things that people use or benefit from ought to be placed.  Engineers and urban designers spend huge amounts of time trying to prognosticate where features like street trees or bike racks should be located…of course, what they are trying to do is to place them in the most useful locations, so that lots of people use them and are happy with the whole deal.

But, as our history of urban design messes worldwide shows, the experts often don’t get it right.  As a result, it makes sense that an important element of this process should be understanding what regular users think would be useful.  That’s not rocket science, but harder than it looks: when you rely on paper maps at a meeting and ask people to mark where they think specific things should happen, very often they read the map wrong.  Paper maps are harder for most people to connect to reality than most planners would like to admit.

This article outlines a great collaboration between OpenPlans, whose crowdsource mapping platform has been discussed here before, and Textizen.  The goal of this project is to identify  the best locations for a new network of bike share corrals — an item that can wildly exceed or wildly miss its expectations, depending on where it’s located.

You can read the brief description of the project here, but what I want to call out to you are three elements:

1) This approach makes the location recommending process about as frictionless as possible.  There’s about 100 potential pre-vetted options available (so no risk that the highest vote-getter will turn out to be logistically impossible), people send a text  when they are in a location that they think would work well, and their input pops onto a map.  No trying to figure out the cross street or which way is north or whether I am on this corner or that corner.  And you don’t have to try to remember where you were when you get back to your computer.  Or whether your data plan is about used up (assuming you had one, which you might not).  Just send a text.  Easy cheesy.

2) Note the interface between the online feedback and the in-person, visual experience.  The murals are central to the success of the project, not only because they mark those previously-vetted locations,

From Textizen. Image via temple_sea on Instagram

but because they cut through the environment’s clutter and grab the potential user’s attention.  I am often surprised at how often I still have to say this: you can have the most whiz-bang online tech in the world, but if you don’t connect it to people’s lived experience, get their attention, you will have wasted your effort.  The offline marketing is every bit as important as the onlineexperience.

3)Both of these platforms were built as Open Source, which means that the specific code is available to anyone who wants to use it.  You can copy pieces of the code, make your own revisions on your own version, and use that to build something that can work seamlessly with the original application.

The benefits of open source in civic technology at this stage of the development of this industry are exceptional.  With conventional applications, like many of those in the online public engagement space today, the programming that drives how it works and what it does is “closed” — that is, it’s proprietary to the business.  This is a pretty typical way of doing business, but it means that most of these apps are, as it were, rigid — they can’t be substantially changed or adapted, and getting one to work in conjunction with another is a clunky process, at best.  I’ve driven those types of collaborations as a consultant, and the logistical barriers result in a product that doesn’t work anywhere as well as it should.   In one case, the only solution was two separate web sites “skinned” to look like each other (and that was only feasible because one provider had the flexibility to match its user interface to the other, which could not significantly change).  But share information between them?  Use inputs into one program to populate a map in another?  Impossible.  Can’t be done.

OpenPlans has been a strong advocate for open source civic technology, and Textizen got its start in Code for America, for which open source is a core value and a characteristic of pretty much every CfA initiative that I know of.  Because they are both open source, making these two work together — sending Textizen inputs directly into the OpenPlans maps — could be done with a minimum of fuss.  Both companies could see easily what needed to happen on both sides to make that happen, so that it became (I would guess) a relatively straightforward programming exercise.  Instead of settling for a clunky, off-putting experience, the open source paradigm allowed both companies to focus on the main goal: making the user experience as engaging and frictionless as possible.

Good job, guys!



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.



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.”



Tying into research: a survey getting help from PlaceSpeak

Colleen Hardwick, the founder of PlaceSpeak, holds a Ph.D. in geography, a factor that I think gives a methodological robustness to much of the PlaceSpeak model.  Her organization’s partnership with higher education has continued, and recently PlaceSpeak decided to promote a survey regarding online public engagement processes.  Here’s the summary from the researchers:

Participation through online platforms is increasing while internet use, literacy and connectivity spreads through our society.

We are running this survey as part of a University of British Columbia graduate student research project to find out about your preferences and experiences with online participatory processes in general, and more specifically in regards to your experiences with PlaceSpeak. On average, respondents are taking 9 minutes to fill out the survey.

We are trying to reach out to as many PlaceSpeak members and users of participatory web platforms as possible. The more you share this topic and invite people to take the survey the better. Thanks in advance for going the extra mile.


We need much more research on why and how people use online public engagement tools, and it’s likely that online public engagement platforms that build partnerships with research institutions are going to have stronger and sounder methods for improving online public participation.  Kudos to PlaceSpeak for helping to widen knowledge, and we’re glad to help spread the reach of this researcher.

You can learn more about the study and take the survey here.  I hope you will.

Test you: a quiz about the real and perceived differences between residents and officials (from MindMixer)

I frankly haven’t decided what I think of this myself, but I think it’s too interesting not to share with you.

MindMixer launched a “quiz” this week that I think is intended to get public official types thinking about what residents really want out of public engagement.   It’s a fascinating exercise, but I can’t tell at this point if it’s a marketing tool or if they’re actually gathering information to try to identify trends and commonalities (MindMixer tends to be better than many of the smaller firms at compiling and analyzing user trends across projects, in part because their projects are relatively consistent and in part because they have the bandwidth to do so).

When you take the quiz, you get presented with five statements, and you have to identify whether the person who said that was a community official or a resident.  At the end of the questions, you find out whether you were “right” or “wrong” and then given a little extra information.  My own problem is that the actual source of the quote is never identified, so even though the introduction says that all the quotes are from real people, the lack of citation sort of underctuts the believability.  Plus it’s assuming that one person’s single quote reflects a very large population.  None of which negates the information attached to the feedback, but the more competitive among us (ahem…) are probably inclined to complain about test and argue with the teacher over the grade.  Fat lot of good that does, but it is a little distracting.


My Type -A issues aside, the information in the feedback makes it worth a small bit of your time.  Without giving you the answers (teacher!!), here’s a couple examples of the explanations:

two people talking

from MindMixer

Every year, just 9 percent of Americans attend in-person meetings. Just like you, people are busy, and taking the time to go to a meeting where they might only get a few minutes at the microphone – and no promise of getting anything in return – is too high a barrier.”

“To a certain extent, community leaders and community members are most concerned with outcomes. You work toward goals. So with everything you do, the payoff is in seeing its positive effect. For Meg Kelly, project manager with Bluestem Communications, long drives and longer days of working with locals and leaders in the Lake Winnebago region of Wisconsin paid off when she observed people with varying backgrounds, on different corners of the lake, coming together online to improve their quality of life.”

So you get an easy mix of facts, arguments in favor of online public engagement and leads on examples that might help you make the case in your community.  Probably a worthwhile way to spend a few minutes…just don’t worry too much about your “grade.”


Introducing Citizen Space user group meetings (Delib)

User group meetings are a valuable tool in the technology worker’s box — they give the participants an opportunity to not only ask questions of the developers, but learn how their peers are using the tools — new ideas, hacks or workarounds that weren’t part of the orginal plan, issues that he or she might hit in using the tools in a different situation or on a project with a higher level of complexity.  And they’re golden for the developer — not only do they build a personal relationship with their users, but they discover new uses, hear about emerging needs, and get the ability to explore how their product actually works or doesn’t work from the point of view of the users themselves.  Most of the major technology platforms, including consumer aps like Evernote and Box, as well as most of the programming platforms, have either online or in person user groups, or both.

At this point, the use of user groups in online public engagement is rare overall, probably due to the bootstrapped nature of most of these firms and their often huge geographic coverage.  Bang the Table does an annual conference for its Australia users,  but most of the rest are more limited.  As I said, in a lot of cases I think that can be chalked up being small, spread-thin firms, but it’s also possible that the ones that come out of a consulting background might have less exposure to the use of user’s groups, or less willingness to share the reins with their users.  In those cases, the firms are probably not helping themselves in the long run.

Delib just made an early foray into establishing user’s groups, focusing on an in-person meeting format close to their home turf, and sponsored by a couple of longtime clients/collaborators.  Relying on an in-person model means that this user group is not going to reflect the full range of Delib users (who are all over the world).  But it’s a good start — and like most things in technology, it’s better to take an imperfect crack at improving something, learn from that experience and use that to figure out prudent expansion, than it is to do nothing.

Here’s Rowena Farr from Delib:

After a few months in the making, we finally have two user group meetings planned this year – let’s all meet up and get to know one another!

BIS Digtial Engagement

Who are the user groups for?

Digital leads, analysts, policy leads, communication managers – anyone using Citizen Space or interested in digital engagement. We’re hoping the groups will be a mix of people with different skills.

What should I expect?

Sessions on all things digital engagement. Including the following:

  • Show and tell of recent or upcoming engagement exercise. Review of the process and challenges of how you do consultation
  • Example from an analysis team and/or input from Delib on tools for analysis in Citizen Space
  • Citizen Space roadmap – we’ll talk through our plans for development of Citizen Space and garner your input
  • Top tips and best practice examples

Tell me when it is and I’m there with bells on!

The first is a central government user group meeting on the afternoon of Friday 29th August, hosted by Department of Health in Whitehall. Focusing on specific examples from central government.

The next is a full-day user group meeting hosted by Birmingham City Council in late September/October. This will include some useful workshops as well as discussions around benchmarking and collaborative working, amongst many other things.

Interested in attending? Contact one of our Account Managers – Louise ( or Rowena ( or give us a call on 0845 638 1848.