NEWS FROM OPEN TOWN HALL
Innovative Ways to Share Feedback
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The City of Encinitas is empowering citizens to provide their input - online - about where housing should go, what it should look like, and in what quantities.Updating the City's Housing Plan invites residents to match housing types with neighborhoods and build their preferred strategy for meeting the City's housing goals.
Focusing on citizens, not just technology, is a mantra that we emphasize at Peak Democracy Inc. That’s why we're regularly developing innovative ways to encourage citizens to share their feedback - in ways that help increase public trust.
To learn about the comprehensive citizen engagement that we can develop with your government agency, contact us!
Online Engagement Consulting
Peak Democracy Inc. is known for having created Open Town Hall. More broadly, we’re actually a public engagement firm that specializes in engagement online. Each of our government clients and the engagements they conduct are unique, which is why we offer full-service consulting to every client. Our goal is to help you reach your public engagement goals and objectives in ways that increase public trust in government.
At the beginning of an engagement we’ll help you identify and refine your participation objectives, develop communication plans, and liaise between participating departments and third parties. We'll help you integrate in-person and online engagement, providing easy options for citizens to participate. And, if necessary, we’ll facilitate the development of custom software to bring you leading-edge technology, created with your specific engagements in mind.
Every time you engage the public, you have the opportunity to increase public trust in government. Our experience with over 100 government agencies, running over 1,700 online forums, enables us to offer both expertise and best practices for building public trust.
More Citizen Support
Making it easier for citizens to use Open Town Hall is a constant focus for us at Peak Democracy. Here’s what we’ve done recently to make Open Town Hall easier for citizens to use:
Our citizen support mailbox is just one part of how Peak Democracy helps citizens troubleshoot small problems. It just got better with the creation of support tickets, now associated with every email sent to email@example.com so that citizens feel assured that their issues are being handled systematically.
Citizens may now delete statements on topics that are open.
And, we’ve upgraded the hardware and software of Open Town Hall to double the speed at which Open Town Hall responds!
Focus citizen attention on area planning exercises using a simple yet engaging visual interface called Focus Areas.
Available on all Open Town Hall topic-types, Focus Areas enables citizen interaction via a dynamic clickable map, enabling citizens to select and comment on topics about a particular part of their community.
Focus Areas is just one of many graphical interface tools that Peak Democracy Inc is developing to encourage citizens to participate online. Ask your Peak Democracy Public Engagement Manager how your planning project can benefit from Focus Areas.
Our eye-catching budget topic-type just became a lot more powerful with three options for collecting input.
Formerly, the ‘Priority $500’ topic-type, the new Budget topic-type extends the same highly-engaging graphic interface to many more applications.
Ask citizens to allocate $500 or $100 according to their priorities or ask them to allocate percentages to their priorities.
Look for the Budget topic-type when creating your new topic or ask Peak Democracy for more information.
Residents aren't the only community stakeholders in town. You also want to hear from folks who work, shop or go to school in your community.
Now, Multiple Addresses gives them a voice. Citizens may register under multiple addresses to identify not just where they live, but where they own a business, work, or if they have an additional home address.
For most topic-types, Open Town Hall still operates on the principle of one statement per user, allowing the user the option to comment as a resident, worker, student or something else.
Multiple addresses may be added in the user's profile and the address they would like to use can be easily selected on a topic-by-topic basis.
A Case Study in Salt Lake City on how Filtering the Feedback can Mitigate Outsider Influence
Governments across the US and Canada are increasingly using online civic engagement tools to involve their communities in government decision-making processes. Those governments know that using online tools can increase public trust in their governance – but only if the tools have the appropriate feature-sets to avoid or mitigate common pitfalls of crowd-sourcing. One of these common pitfalls is called, outsider influence. Outsider influence can occur when a government puts its public forums online, because then anyone on the planet – or in the next town over – can try to overly influence the forum. But governments want to focus on feedback from constituents under their jurisdiction.
This outsider influence can be avoided or mitigated by the best practice of using an online civic engagement service that has the following feature-set:
- Requires participants to register in order to post their ideas or comments on the forum,
- Includes street address in the registration process (because zip code typically isn’t good enough for determining a participant’s jurisdiction),
- Geo-codes each participant’s address,
- Maps the jurisdiction,
- Places the feedback on the maps,
- Provides analysis tools to filter the feedback, and
- Doesn’t convey the address of individual participants (to maintain privacy).
Making these analysis tools available to the public as well as government staff and officials is also a best practice because that transparency can help build consensus in the community.
Additionally, it can be beneficial for the online civic engagement service to be able to configure a topic so that it’s available to: (1) the public, (2) just the government’s employees, or (3) the email list of a group such as a neighborhood association, or citizen focus group.
Salt Lake City UT has been using online civic engagement since October 2010. As shown in Screenshot 1, the city named its service Open City Hall, and departments from across the city government have posted well over 100 topics, and attracted over 33,000 online attendees. The service has a user satisfaction rating of 94% based on over 1,700 survey responses from its users.
In early December 2013, the Salt Lake City government posted a topic that asked the public for feedback on proposed ordinance revisions that pertain to horse-drawn carriage regulations – as shown in Screenshot 2. Staff configured the topic for open-ended comments (not as a poll, survey, priority list, blog, etc). You can visit the topic by going to: PeakDemocracy.com/1616.
The topic was open for public comment through early February 2014. Over that two-month period, over 1,500 people attended the online forum, and 288 registered participants posted a comment. As shown in Screenshot 3, about 80% of those participants were not residents of the city. Apparently, across the country, people interested in animal rights discovered the topic and posted comments – many requesting a complete ban on horse drawn carriages (not just a modification of the regulations). As shown in Screenshot 4, participants ranged from 170 jurisdictions – including as far away as Anchorage AK, Key West FL and Montreal QC.
Interestingly, the online service’s analysis tools readily revealed that 90% of the registered participants were first-time users of Salt Lake City’s online forum. In contrast, 4% of the registered participants had participated in over five other topics on the city’s online forum.
While the comments from people living outside of Salt Lake City could be informative, the city’s residents, staff and officials were able to use their online platform’s analysis and reporting tools to easily filter the feedback and focus on comments from constituents living in Salt Lake City. They were even able to drill-down and analyze feedback by council district, within the downtown area as well as by gender, age group, and also key words.
The city adopted the amendments, and posted that as an outcome on their online forum, and in an email to over 2,100 subscribers to Salt Lake’s Open City Hall.
Online civic engagement can increase public trust in government – but only when implemented in ways that can eliminate or mitigate pitfalls common to crowd-sourcing. One such pitfall is outsider influence that occurs when people outside of a government’s jurisdiction try to overly influence feedback to the government. Salt Lake City encountered this pitfall in their recent horse-drawn carriage topic, but was readily able to filter the feedback and focus on constituents living in the city.
Global Accessibility Awareness Day
On May 15, we invite you to participate in the third Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). The purpose of the day is to get people talking, thinking and learning about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) accessibility and users with different disabilities. The target audience of GAAD is the design, development, usability, government, and related communities who build, shape, fund and influence technology and its use.
While people may be interested in the topic of making technology accessible and usable by persons with disabilities, the reality is that they often do not know how or where to start. Awareness comes first. Read the blog post by Joe Devon that inspired GAAD .
Do you want to contribute to the day? Consider holding a free talk/gathering/Meetup, organize hands-on demos, or plan another activity that brings attention to some aspect of digital accessibility. You can make it big or small, virtual or in-person, formal, or less so. You can arrange something at work/school, or open it up to your local community. In addition to events, for an hour on that day, we will invite people to experience digital accessibility by unplugging the mouse for an hour and using the keyboard alone, or turning on mobile devices' accessibility features and surfing the web or using favorite mobile apps.
Other ideas include:
- publish a blog post on or before May 15, including background on GAAD and your organization/company's commitment to digital accessibility;
- If you are a web design, usability, web development, digital agency, digital accessibility or related firm, send an e-mail to your clients on or before May 15 to let them know that May 15 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, with a link to www.globalaccessibilityawarenessday.org, drawing attention to how your firm supports accessibility through services or education;
- announce a digital accessibility-related initiative on May 15, using the occasion of Global Accessibility Awareness Day to do this;
- identify and contact local Meetup or other associations/organizations of developers/designers (web, mobile, other tech), usability and other associated IT professionals and let them know May 15 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day and ask them to inform their memberships;
- Let your favorite tech publication or better yet, reporter or columnist know that May 15 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day and encourage them to cover the event;
- send an internal e-mail (e.g., to your IT staff, web development team, anyone involved in technology decision-making) informing them that May 15 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, discuss any accessibility initiatives that may be under way/remind staff of any technology accessibility policy that may exist and the role everyone plays in its success.
- Contribute your time to projects such as Fix The Web
Ideas from the 2012 and 2013 GAAD events can be found here.
Show your support for the effort and stay up to date by Liking and sharing the event's Facebook page. Follow @gbla11yday on Twitter and tweet using the #GAAD hashtag.
Add extra information about a project, process, or anything else— forum-wide— with Open Town Hall’s Pages.
Pages is a content management system designed for you and the content you would like to share with citizens.
Open Town Hall administrators can now create Pages that appear under the Info drop-down menu. Each page can contain photos, videos, links, and other rich-media. Pages is available from the Info menu on any page of Open Town Hall, making it an easy place to house information.
An email announcement has proven to be the most effective way to drive citizens to Open Town Hall topics. The most critical component of an email announcement is the link that points citizens to the topic. By following these simple tips, you can ensure the effectiveness of your email announcements:
- Place the link that takes citizens directly to the topic in the email. This link follows the format: http://www.peakdemocracy.com/xxxx with the x’s being the four digit number for the topic. This link takes citizens to the topic landing page, keeping the number of clicks it takes to get from invitation to topic to just 1.
- Place the link near the top of the announcement. Different people have different attention spans and you will typically reach everyone by including the link near the top. Don’t make or expect someone with a short attention to read through the entire email.
- Place the link in multiple places throughout the email. When referring to the forum, the topic, or the question the topic attempts to ask, link the text through to the same page, the topic landing page.
Photo Topic Type
A picture is worth a thousand words. Let photos do the talking on Open Town Hall’s new ‘Photo’ topic type.
The ‘Photo’ topic type allows citizens to post a photo, add a caption to the photo, and provide a statement that puts into words the significance of the photo.
Citizens may ‘like’ up to five photos. Favorite photos display inside a gallery, showing the number of likes each photo earned.
The favorites carousel displays liked photos
Of course, citizens can upload photos when participating in our other topic-types.
Discover a whole new way to see what citizens see using the ‘Photo’ topic type.
Good News on Heartbleed
A widely reported encryption flaw called the Heartbleed bug has compromised the security of many websites over the past two years. It is being called one of the biggest security threats the Internet has ever seen.
The good news is that Peak Democracy was never vulnerable to this bug. Our encryption technology never included a vulnerable version of OpenSSL which is responsible for this bug.
We recommend that you review the status of other websites with which you may have shared sensitive information.
Ideas are going places on Open Town Hall.
The ideas topic type now enables citizens to pin their idea to a specific place on a map. Using our mapping tools, it's really easy to see where citizens are focusing their bright ideas. View the idea title, description and full community conversation in just one click!
Staying Up To Date
Now its easier than ever to stay up to date. You and your citizens can subscribe to multiple channels to receive the information you want in the format you want. Here are the details.
Announcements deliver news from our clients to their citizens. Typically used to announce new topics or updates to existing topics, these announcements have been significantly upgraded to give you more control over their content and the timing of their delivery. Anyone with admin privileges (e.g., you and/or your Peak Democracy account manager) can author announcements in private mode enabling your team to review them. Once approved, you can publish them with a single click. Your residents can subscribe via email or RSS, as well as access an announcement log enabling them to see if they've missed something from your previous announcements, all from within Open Town Hall.
Sample email announcement
Our new statement feeds make it easy for you and your citizens to be notified whenever anyone posts a statement on any topic. Available for both On and Off Forum statements, items from these feeds can be delivered via RSS or email.
Subscribe to announcements or statements by email or RSS.
For clients running idea topics, idea and comment authors can now be notified in email whenever someone posts a comment on their idea or comment.
Similar notifications are available to the blogger and comment authors for clients running blog topics. Also, it is now possible to subscribe via email and/or RSS to all posts and to all posts & comments in blog topics.
The switch from the old to the new portal announcement system is available to every client at each client's discretion. Contact your account manager for more information and to schedule the switch to the new system.
We hope you like these new subscription options!
Accessible versus Convenient
We all like websites that are easy to use, and it's a pleasure getting things done with just a few clicks. While a growing number of websites provide that convenience to most of their visitors, only a handful offer that experience to blind users. In this article, we describe steps we're taking to make Open Town Hall not just accessible, but actually convenient for blind visitors. We'll also describe an optional change that you can make on your city/county website that will make it easier for blind visitors to get things done on Open Town Hall.
Most blind people use screen reader technology to access websites, listening to a synthesized voice read each heading, link and paragraph as they navigate through the page. While this worked well 15 years ago when websites were mostly text, a growing number of modern websites present a lot of information graphically. This is a problem for the blind.
While a picture may be worth a thousand words to sighted users, it can be almost worthless to blind users because screen readers are not good at reading pictures. It seems as though website designers must choose between sighted and blind users as they decide whether or not to use graphics to convey important information.
The high graphic version is convenient for sighted users
Open Town Hall solves that conundrum by providing a 'high graphic' and 'low graphic' version of each page. While the high graphic version uses pictures to quickly convey information to sighted users, the low graphic version uses headings, links and paragraphs to convey the same information packaged conveniently for screen reader users. Because the high and low graphic versions of each page are generated from the same Open Town Hall database, blind and sighted users are sure to get the same information.
The low graphic version is convenient for screen reader users
Each Open Town Hall portal has a special url that tells the user's browser to render the low graphic version. The low graphic url is easily accessible to screen reader users in the Skip to Content section of each Open Town Hall page. If you have embedded Open Town Hall in a page of your city/county website, that page can also provide the low graphic url in its Skip To Content section. Though this is not required, it would save a click or two for the blind as they navigate on your website to Open Town Hall. Your Peak Democracy account manager would be happy to provide the low graphic url for your Open Town Hall portal!
Convenient opportunities for online participation should be accessible to everyone. In order to ensure that all citizens can access the same online opportunities, agencies in the United States are required by law to provide websites that follow the recommendations of Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. Unfortunately, those recommendations are now obsolete.
While sighted users navigate with conventional symbols like these, the blind use different conventions to navigate through information on the web.
When the section 508 recommendations were written in 2001, websites were mostly text, headings and links. Informed by the style of that era, those recommendations created standards for screen reader software: technology that uses a voice synthesizer to translate the contents of a web page into the spoken word. To this day, the blind frequently use this technology to navigate through a web page, line by line, heading by heading, paragraph by paragraph or link by link, listening to each one spoken in turn by the voice synthesizer.
While the section 508 recommendations today are the same as they were in 2001, almost everything else has changed. Today, sighted users get much of their information on the web graphically. Rather than reading text, most sighted users prefer to focus on pictures, icons and symbols to quickly understand the content of a web page. Modern website designers accommodate that preference by emphasizing graphics over text.
This is a problem for blind people. Screen readers are not very good at describing graphic elements. The more information is conveyed graphically on the web, the harder it becomes for the blind to access that information.
Take, for example, the carousel. The home page of many websites features a carousel that scrolls through important information every 5-10 seconds. Like the accelerator and brake in cars, each carousel is equipped with standard controls that sighted people now expect: A link to page backwards, a link to page forwards and a set of dots to jump to a specific item in the carousel.
While sighted people recognize their function by their shape and position on the carousel, blind people don't have that advantage. Instead, they must listen to the voice synthesizer report the existence of each link and dot, and deduce their function from some very incomplete information. To add insult to injury, after figuring out what these links and dots do, the blind user often concludes that they aren't even needed! The most convenient way to page through a carousel is to follow the same line-by-line or heading-by-heading pattern used to page through all the other content on the page.
Website carousels weren't common when section 508 was drafted, and neither were 95% of the other graphic conventions that now guide sighted users quickly through the web. In the race to make life easy for sighted users, the blind community is falling further behind. To the extent that section 508 gives web developers an easy box to check and report they've met their accessibility requirements, that regulation now hurts more than helps the blind community.
At Peak Democracy, we are committed to going beyond section 508 requirements. We are working with blind users to help us understand how they navigate the web, and evaluate our efforts to make Open Town Hall as easy as possible for them to use. In our next post on Accessibility, we'll share our first report card with you, as well as some things that you can do to make your Open Town Hall portal more accessible to your blind residents. Stay tuned!
Websites are required by law to be accessible to people with disabilities. Embodied in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, these regulations were interpreted in 2001 to prescribe techniques for designing web pages in ways that should make the web accessible to people with disabilities.
Open Town Hall complies with those regulations. Making Open Town Hall accessible to everyone, including the disabled, is integral to our mission of broadening participation.
Nevertheless, 508 compliance alone is not sufficient to ensure true accessibility. The accessibility techniques were written more than 12 years ago, in an age when modern web pages had a big black title, a few blue links and a bunch of tiny black text in a jittery font. Remember that? Reading more than a few pages was exhausting. Unfortunately, this is the experience that people with disabilities usually have today using assistive technology to read web pages, even those that are 508 compliant.
We can do better than that. Peak Democracy is committed to making participation as easy as possible for people of all abilities. As a central part of that commitment, we are pleased and honored to announce a new member of the Peak Democracy Board of Advisors: Katherine Schneider.
Katherine Schneider, Ph.D. is a retired clinical psychologist living in Eau Claire, WI with her ninth Seeing Eye dog. Katherine has published a memoir To the Left of Inspiration: Adventures in Living with Disabilities, a children’s book Your Treasure Hunt: Disabilities and Finding Your Gold and a book for seniors, half of whom will develop disabilities, Occupying Aging: Delights, Disabilities and Daily Life. She originated the Schneider Family Book Awards for children’s books with disability content through the American Library Association and an award for superior journalism about disability issues through the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.
We met Kathie last year when Eau Claire launched its first Open Town Hall topic. She contacted us with some suggestions for improving accessibility, and it turned into a watershed moment for us. Having her insights and guidance have opened up a whole new way of thinking about accessibility - thinking that is already bearing fruit.
Kathie is helping us to review the performance of Open Town Hall as it interacts with assistive technology. With each deploy, we are now able to include at least one new accessibility feature that improves the online experience for disabled users (see our next blog post regarding our latest accessibility feature.) Perhaps most importantly, we are developing a deep appreciation for the chasm that exists between the perceptions of most sighted people and those of blind people, and of ways to bridge that gap using modern technology as well as old-fashioned listening and imagination.
If you are interested in bridging that gap, I recommend you read Kathie's blog. If you know of other thoughtful users with disabilities who would like to share their insights with our development team, by all means invite them to connect with us. And, stay tuned for these blog posts, where we will be announcing new insights and features to help bridge that gap.
For Our Clients
Approaching the end of 2013, we've decided to start "For Our Clients": a newsletter to share information and strengthen our relationship with our clients.
Peak Democracy is the only provider of online public engagement services that does not accept outside investments - neither from venture firms nor from philanthropies. While some of those institutions support well-intentioned programs to build public trust in government, our experience is that they simply do not have our clients' deep understanding of the day-to-day challenges of maintaining and building that trust.
This makes our relationship with our clients unique. Because we accept money only from our clients, we are answerable only to our clients. We rely entirely on our clients to set our direction, to evaluate our performance and to experience the real challenge of building public trust in local government.
About once per year, most clients evaluate our performance by deciding whether or not to renew their subscription to our Open Town Hall service. This year our report card looks pretty good: 88% of clients up for renewal chose to renew their subscription to our Open Town Hall service. We believe that means 88% decided that the price we charge for Open Town Hall is justified by the value we bring to their communities building trust in their governance.
Next year we intend to do even better. We have plans to add new features, provide new services and further enhance the value of our offering without increasing our prices for existing services to existing clients.
But we don't want to wait for the report card at the end of the year to see how we're doing. We would like you to give us ongoing feedback during the year to tell us how we're doing and what we can do to improve.
We know you are busy and don't expect you to make time for an extended dialog every month. If you would prefer to be one of our 'quiet' clients and simply use our tools to run your online public engagement activities without involving Peak Democracy staff, that would be fine.
But if you can take a few minutes (or more) to share with us your insights about what works, what doesn't and what we can do to improve our service, that would be helpful. Helpful not just for you and not just for us, but for agencies across North America who face similar challenges building public trust in government. Those agencies will look to the service based on your input to help meet those challenges.
To everyone we wish a great thanksgiving and a happy holiday season. We hope that our relationship with you has helped you to give your communities more to be thankful for in 2013, and will help you build even stronger communities in 2014.
The Staff at Peak Democracy
By doing one simple thing you can jumpstart participation on your Open Town Hall topics.
You know where Open Town Hall topics are but citizen’s don’t. There will be the rare visitor to a topic who navigates through your governments webpage to Open Town Hall but in most cases citizens navigate to a topic via a link in an email announcement.
Email is the most effective component of a successful outreach strategy. Every topic should be announced to multiple email lists: the larger the lists, the greater the participation. The email should be dedicated to just the topic, and contain at least one link back to the forum high in the announcement.
Peak Democracy can provide an announcement template for your emails; it will contain the link from the topic's settings page, which you can also copy and use in other announcements.
Your government probably maintains lists of subscribers for their own email notifications. If you have access to those lists, they are often the best source of participants for your first few topics, before the Open Town Hall subscription list grows.
Many elected officials maintain their own email lists of constituents. If possible, we recommend that you announce topics on those lists: those announcements can yield significant participation – as well as build rapport between the officials and their constituents.
The chamber of commerce, neighborhood associations and other civic leaders frequently maintain email lists whose subscribers would value the opportunity to participate in your Open Town Hall topics. If possible, we recommend that you use those lists as well.
Remember, you don’t need those other lists, you simply need to have the gatekeepers for those lists send the announcement that we can craft on your behalf.
Of course, there are other methods that we did not review that you may employ to build participation that include social media, Public Service Announcements, announcements at face-to-face meetings, and flyers. In any case, please do contact Peak Democracy to discuss completing your public participation plans.
Peak Democracy chosen as ICMA leader in online civic engagement
Peak Democracy is celebrating our selection as a leading practices provider in online civic engagement with the ICMA’s Center for Management Strategies (CMS).
The highly regarded Center for Management Strategies is a collaboration of leading service, training and research providers with a focus on improving organizational efficiency and effectiveness in local government.
“The Peak Democracy team is delighted to have been identified by the ICMA as a leader in online civic engagement”, said Robert Vogel, CEO of Peak Democracy Inc.
Cheryl Hilvert, Director of the Center for Management Strategies at ICMA said, “Online civic engagement is one of the biggest trends in government, and the team at Peak Democracy is an excellent resource for government staff and leaders.
Peak Democracy is a non-partisan company with a mission is to use online civic engagement to increase public trust in government.
Peak Democracy Expands to Canada
Peak Democracy is launching our service in Canada this month, and we're proud to start in Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta and in West Vancouver, British Columbia. Peak Democracy’s exclusive focus on working with government agencies is a perfect fit for Canada’s strong democratic tradition. Canadian’s are some of the world’s most intensive internet users and it only follows that there is a huge opportunity in Canada for more ‘public business’ to be conducted online.
Our Canadian clients are supported by Canadian staff, Canadian servers, and a Canadian URL peakdemocracy.ca. This ensures the highest privacy standards possible and adherence to all municipal, provincial, and federal legislation.
Peak Democracy deals in Canadian dollars, and we even speak Canadian: If community enquiry is centred on a rezoning proposal for your neighbourhood Timmies, we’ll get it sorted!
Seriously speaking, we are honoured by the opportunity to work with and learn from our new clients north of the border. If you are north, or south of the border, we would love to hear from you and provide you with an Open Town Hall demonstration appropriate for your locale!
Enterprising Cities use Open Town Hall to Increase Public Trust in Government
Enterprising governments that provide communication channels, which foster broad, diversified citizen engagement, can deliberate in ways that increase public trust in government. Open Town Hall is a platform that provides enterprising cities with a communications channel for civic engagement – online.
In fact, the US Chamber of Commerce recently touted Salt Lake City as one of the nation’s most enterprising cities – due in part to the City’s Open City Hall service (a rebranding of Open Town Hall). Moreover, in 2012 Salt Lake City was ranked the top digital city in its population category (125,000 to 250,000) – again, partly in recognition of its Open City Hall service. (see http://www.govtech.com/e-government/2012-Digital-Cities-Survey-Winners-Announced.html) .
Another, Open Town Hall user – the government of Ann Arbor was also ranked a 2012 top digital city in its population category (75,000 to 125,000).
These enterprising cities are bringing citizens together with their governments to address problems and opportunities – and they’re doing it online – which is the way that citizens are increasingly accustomed to doing business.
The Welcome Carousel
We’re thrilled to announce our Open Town Hall Welcome Carousel: a slick display above the fold on the landing page that lets you set the first impression that your residents see – and the first action that they do - when they arrive at your Open Town Hall portal.
Want to target your residents into a hot new topic? With a few clicks, you or your Peak Democracy account manager can upload a picture, compose a quick inviting message, as well as point the ‘Call To Action’ button to your topic intro or your input form -- and voilà – visitors will naturally flow toward that target.
Or maybe you would prefer them to be a little more informed before they pop into a topic? Position your ‘About Open Town Hall’ message first in the carousel, so they are encouraged to get some background on the forum before jumping in to participate.
With the Open Town Hall Welcome Carousel, you can even encode the carousel items into a url, so you can distribute different welcome messages to different audiences, which is great for neighborhood residents interested in specific land use issues.
Last, but not least, the Welcome Carousel will help you drive citizens to the place you want them to go with just a single click!
How the City of Rancho Cordova is Building Public Trust in Government
When residents of Rancho Cordova, California asked their City Council to loosen restrictions on raising chickens, the City wanted to first hear from a broad spectrum of residents. Before finalizing their decision, the City wanted to encourage participants to first learn about the issue, then engage in a nuanced discussion without polarizing the community for or against the proposal.
Under the leadership of City Manager Ted Gaebler, Rancho Cordova decided to use Open Town Hall to broaden the discussion online beyond the few who attend face to face meetings. The City named the forum "Engaged Rancho Cordova" and designed their 'Urban Chickens' topic to present background information then collect open-ended comments without requiring participants to adopt a yes or no position.
More than 200 residents visited the topic, which gathered responses from residents with a broad range of thoughtful perspectives. Acknowledging that there would be the occasional irresponsible chicken owner, one resident nevertheless encouraged the city to loosen the restriction, noting that dog ownership is allowed despite the less than perfect record of a few dog owners. Another gave a careful point-by-point rebuttal to the five most frequently cited reasons for restricting chickens. Yet another listed seven specific items that should be addressed in a well-structured ordinance.
To help synthesize insight into these nuanced perspectives, the City made a special map of 'Engaged Rancho Cordova Districts', enabling decision-makers and others to see what residents from each district were saying. They could also click on the word cloud to see statements containing frequently occurring words (like 'Enforcement') and on demographic tallies to see trends in perspectives by age and gender.
Based on this thoughtful input, the City Council directed staff to draft a new ordinance to loosen restrictions on chicken ownership. At the same time, the Council directed staff to address some of the common concerns expressed on Open Town Hall.
Rancho Cordova announced this outcome on their Open Town Hall platform and distributed the announcement to Open Town Hall subscribers. On the platform and in their email, citizens now have a concrete example of the City's commitment to incorporating nuanced, thoughtful input from many residents into the decision process.
Engagement is only effective when communication methods reach out to the entire community. That’s why Peak Democracy is committed to compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which outlines the standards by which websites should be designed for readability by those with disabilities. We test our own pages for 508 compliance.
It’s very important that all the pages on your Open Town Hall forum be legible for people who consume information in other ways, including the topic introduction pages that you design. In this blog post we would like to provide you with a couple of tips that will help your topic introductions comply with Section 508.
Images can be tagged with what is called an ALT or Alternative Text tag. The ALT tag describes the image. For a person who is visually impaired, their screen reader software will tell them about the image by reading the ALT tag aloud. An ALT tag can easily be added to an image by double-clicking on an image in the introduction and adding a short description of the image in the Alternative Text field.
On many websites including Open Town Hall, standard text and link text have different colors. This helps to distinguish links from non-links to those of us that see color. However, to the color blind, links and non-links could look very similar if there are no other differences in their appearance. For this reason it is important to change more than just the color of the text in links.
Open Town Hall follows a standard convention: in addition to being a different color, links are also underlined when they occur in a paragraph of non-link text. Check that links occurring with non-link text are underlined. If not, format the text as a paragraph – or call your Peak Democracy Account Manager to ensure those links are visible to the color blind.
For more information on 508 compliance for web-based applications, please visit the US Patent and Trademark Office website - or simply contact your Peak Democracy Account Manager.
A small change with a big difference, Open Town Hall administrators can now select one of eight topic types when creating a new topic. Selecting the right 'topic type' when creating your new topic selects the right set of tools geared to collecting public feedback that is most meaningful for your community to consider.
In brief, here are the eight topic types:
Formal Feedback - Collect comments from participants.
Feedback with Support - Collect comments from participants while allowing them to support other users' comments.
Ideas - Invite users to participate in the online version of a professionally facilitated brainstorming exercise with four phases: Brainstorm, Review, Refine, Act.
Poll - Collect responses to a poll. Collects comments too.
Priority 500 - Invite users to allocate $500 among goals that you specify. This most often is used as a participatory budgeting exercise. Collects comments too.
Priority List - Invite users to prioritize a list of items by dragging the items up and down in the list with the most important items at the top. Collects comments too.
Area Plan - Invite users to drop place type markers on a map to indicate the type of land use/features/elements they want to see and where. Collects comments too.
Survey - Invite users to complete a traditional survey.
New User Interface
Open Town Hall now uses a state-of-the-art user interface that mimics the style of your website and optimizes the display for all devices: a full browser, tablet or phone.
Here's how it works. The display of the site changes based on which device is accessing the site using what is called 'Responsive Design'. And a tool called a 'Theme Roller' allows us to customize each Open Town Hall portal to use the colors and fonts of your own website. Here are a few photos that show these changes.
On a full browser, Open Town Hall embeds in your website, coordinating its fonts and colors with those of your website:
Open Town Hall renders a simple header on tablets:
Following emerging responsive design standards, phones show the simplest version:
And last but not least here is the color editor built into our theme roller, which allows administrators to customize color with a hex color selection tool. The tool allows you to set the hue, brightness, and saturation of a color:
Registered users who have not yet verified their email address, now receive a convenient reminder while they are logged in on Open Town Hall.
Surveys are a very familiar channel of communication through which citizens and governments engage. Asking multiple questions allows for citizens to have more input and governments more insight. However, the design of a survey affects the number of people who participate, the number of questions they complete, and quality of the data. To optimize your survey, we would like to offer you a few design tips:
Keep it short
As a general rule, the more you ask in the online environment, the more likely it is that a citizen will not complete the survey or complete only certain sections. Time necessary to complete the survey should be limited to 5 minutes or less. You can push the boundaries and ask more questions about a controversial issue.
Stay on target
Ask yourself, what will you do with the information you receive from citizens? If you don't know, you may not need to ask the question. Avoid asking questions with no clear purpose. Citizens realize that government listens to them when they respond to feedback received from citizens - not when citizens are asked a question.
For the most objective answers, avoid loading questions with biased or leading language. Think about how you can ask the question in the most concise way possible. Additionally, think about how citizens may respond and ensure that the question allows them to answer in a way that is true for them. For instance, include other, do not know, or no opinion as optional answers.
One at a time
Ask one question about one specific item at a time. If a question asks for an opinion on more than one topic, it would probably be best as a separate question.
Test it out
Do a dry run and pretend your answering the questions. Do the questions make sense to you, and are you able to provide the right answer?
Ensure that residents have at least one opportunity to provide a subjective statement. Without this opportunity you may not end up with the information you need to drill down and make sense of the responses from a poll, multiple-choice, or other pre-formatted response to a question in your survey.
CPBB Annual Conference
The 2013 "Summit of Leading Practices" Annual Conference is taking place in Arlington VA on July 9th and 10th.
Brought to you by the Center for Priority Based Budgeting (CPBB) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in partnership with the Alliance for Innovation (AFI), the summit is an excellent source of information about local government leading practices. The Summit will feature discussions, case studies and presentations on priority based budgeting, fiscal health, civic engagement and high-performance organizations, all topics that are critical to the success of local governments.
Don't miss this opportunity to find out about these leading practice areas, and meet senior local-government managers and elected officials who have employed these strategies in their organizations.
Open Town Hall now allows for members-only access to topics on forums to aid in the expansion of your local government’s engagement effort.
Previously, Open Town Hall topics could be opened either to the general public or just to staff. Now, access can be granted to a third group of users, defined by a membership list.
This is particularly useful for focus groups, task forces, citizen advisory committees and expert advisory committees. Ask questions of these select groups to gain an edge on trends in your community.
Easily define your members-only group by adding email addresses to a list from the admin system. Ask our staff to assist you in creating your innovative members-only outreach effort!
Upload a File
In October, Open Town Hall created a feature for users to upload a photo or a video.
Now, they can upload a file to add more information to back up, or simply add, to their statement. Upload up to 5 files totalling 5 MB.
Survey topics on Open Town Hall are now more tightly integrated into the platform's Insight Bar. This enhanced integration enables you to analyze the breakdown of responses to individual questions within the survey, find out where responses are coming from inside and outside of your community, and assess the demographic details of participants.
Open Town Hall's survey feature enable you to ask your community multiple questions under a single topic. You can ask as many questions as you like, and you can structure responses around frequent question styles such as: check all that apply, select your most preferred option, add an open-ended comment, choose a numeric value, and others question styles. You can also easily configure each question to limit the number of choices that can be selected, make answering a question required; and add messages within the survey where necessary.
The options are endless and the choices are up to you. Of course, Peak Democracy staff are always on call to help you customize your engagement exercise whether it involves a multiple survey question, or other topic types.
Based on popular request we've recently overhauled how our reporting feature works.
Back in February we let you know about our one-click reports and how handy they are as a quick way to compile the information you need. Now, these one-click reports are integrated with our insight tools.
When you click on an insight, the one-click reports will download a comprehensive set of data that compiles all of the information contained in that insight!
Available in both PDF and CSV formats, one-click reports are available from the insight tool bar in the lower-right hand corner.
Search among topics
When clients are planning to post a topic, they often ask us how other clients have framed and configured similar topics. After all, why reinvent the wheel if you don't have to? With so many topics, there are a lot of great ideas captured in the hard work someone else has put into crafting the perfect topic.
Peak Network allows portal administrators the ability to search among all topics using key words. Not only will results from a Peak Network search pull up all topics containing the key words, the results will be ordered in descending order with the topic that received the highest number of statements at the top of the list. Peak Network is available from the admin system.
Create topic templates
If you find a topic that you would like to use as a template, simply click on 'Copy' from the Peak Network search results and a new private topic will be drafted automatically in your portal.
Area Plan Widget
Claim your place
What types of land uses should go where? That's a common planning question asked during the development of high-level land use or zoning plans. Local Governments depend on in-person meetings to answer this question. Meetings such as workshops and design charettes use maps and professional facilitators to ensure community direction is considered.
Now you can tap into the community's take on what land uses should go where using our new Area Plan widget. Area Plan presents citizens with a map, land use 'Place Types', and asks them to place the Place Types on the map.
A place for everything, and everything in it's place
Place Types within Area Plan are customizable. Create a name for each, a description, and even add an image showing a sample of what that Place Type might look like.
Area Plan maintains a record of each users map and collates all of the maps in the Area Plan insight. Area Plan makes the work of analyzing community feeback a breeze; zoom, pan, and select any combination of Place Types to find patterns in the results.
Open Town Hall collects a lot of information in varying formats from a large number of people. Collating that data in a way that makes sense to present to the public, elected officials, and other staff people is critical to understanding what people said. Open Town Hall makes it easy to collate data in ways to view high-level patterns or drill-down into a topic to pull out critical insights.
One-click reports create easy to read, on-demand reports that contain a comprehensive set of data that compiles the topic name, question, and introduction, along with all responses to that topic from each user. Available in both PDF and CSV formats, one-click reports have proven so effective that we are currently working on including data from our popular insight tools.
View the breakdown of responses from inside or outside a specific neighborhood or at a distance from a location using our maps insight tool. Likewise, use the demographics insight tool to see the breakdown of opinion by age, sex, and frequency of participation. The tally and priorities insight tools display overall averages. And, last but not least the word cloud insight tool shows you the most often used words in statements.
Dynamic and comprehensive
Within each of the insight tools click on a word, district, or result to bring up the associated statements. These tools are dynamic and update as soon as another user posts a statement. Our insight tools work with a number of our widgets and other tools so that you can slice the data in interesting ways to find patterns and critical insights. For instance, the map insight tool can map the priorities, tally results, or budget preferences for any district.
Building Trust Takes Time
Trust sprouts when people come together in clearly defined roles. It grows as they get to know each other and discover shared interests. It blossoms when they realize common goals together.
Government sponsored online civic engagement is fertile ground for growing trust. Staff, citizens and elected officials come together - in many cases for the first time - to understand each other's roles, to explore shared interests and to realize common goals. Let's examine the roles of each party, and how online civic engagement can bring them together to make great community decisions and build public trust in government.
Staff provides facts and proposes options
Official decisions do not occur in a vacuum. They are set in a complex framework of laws and regulations at the federal, state and local levels. They are vetted against the budget, the general plan and other initiatives crafted to protect broad public interests. They look more like the labored output of a committee process than brilliant flashes of creative insight.
Most citizens, and many elected officials, do not master this complex framework, nor is it their job to do so. This is the job of professional staff, and nowhere is that job more important than in the guidance staff provides during the decision process. Staff crafts the feasible options that focus the community dialog in fact-based productive directions.
Citizens participating in fact-based discussions witness the value that staff brings to the decision process. Through staff guidance, citizens know that their time is not wasted discussing irrelevant options that are beyond the local jurisdiction or that conflict with the law, the budget or other constraints. For many citizens, this is their first direct experience of the role staff plays in the decision process.
Citizens give input
Most citizens are too busy with family and work obligations to come down to city hall to participate in community meetings. At the same time, many citizens now expect to conduct every important aspect of their life online - whether banking, socializing, shopping, learning, working or participating in community decisions. Forward looking local governments are providing their citizens with online opportunities to participate in the decision process.
Online participation is more than just a reaction to citizen demand. It opens the door to broader participation from a more diverse cross section of residents. The voices of the usual few who participate in face-to-face meetings at city hall can now be augmented with input from residents, many of whom are participating for the first time.
Decision makers uphold broad public interests
Decision makers – whether elected officials, appointed officials or staff – uphold the interests of everyone in the community, both those who participate and those who do not. For citizens who only hear the opinions of friends around the kitchen table, it can be hard to understand decisions that reflect broader interests. Online participation exposes citizens to more of the information that decision makers have, making their decisions easier to understand and their motives easier to trust.
Online civic engagement as a mirror onto the community
Online civic engagement reflects the facts that frame decisions and the values of citizens beyond one’s immediate circle of friends. With this insight, citizens have an opportunity to understand – sometimes for the first time - the challenges that governments face as they make tough decisions. Peak Democracy believes that this understanding is the basis for building public trust in government. We look forward to building it with you.
Demographics Insight Tool
Understanding which segments of the population in your community engage in the decision making process or hold specific opinions is invaluable information for decision makers.
Based on popular request from clients, we've recently released a powerful new Demographics Insight located on the insights toolbar for portal administrators.
The Demographics Insight shows the age and gender for all users who volunteer their information, in addition to the number of topics each user has participated in.
As each user posts a statement to a topic, the system will automatically ask them to voluntarily provide their demographic information. This information becomes part of each users profile and becomes part of a topics record as soon as the user participates. Best of all, the Demographics Insight is clickable, allowing decision makers to focus their review on selected segments of participants.
Keep it Short & Simple
Cut through the noise
To ensure that your topic is an absolute success, keep the intro short and simple. Messages bombard people constantly. Cutting through the noise to grab someone’s attention is a good enough reason to keep topic introductions that you post on Open Town Hall short and simple - in addition to a few other key reasons:
Communication is a two-way street
With any kind of communication, its quality will be limited by the party with the lowest level of familiarity with a topic. In short, your conversation is with the public and in order to receive meaningful input and engage them, use language and present information in a way that doesn’t require knowledge about the latest technical terms used in government organizations. Get to the heart of the issue. Keep your topic short and simple to speak their language.
Time is of the essence
Online, time is of the essence and attention spans are short. Everyone wants to harness the convenience and flexibility online engagement offers, but that also means posting content in a way that considers the small time commitment participants expect with online media. Online civic engagement works by enabling people to participate without requiring them to make a major time commitment. Keep your topic short and simple to fit the online environment.
Simplicity & Detail
Simplicity in general doesn’t mean excluding necessary information. Each topic landing page features a 1000 character display that allows for a short summary - for people with little time and interest to review the topic summary before posting feedback. For people with more time and interest the ‘read more’ feature allows a person to look beyond the summary for more details before posting feedback.
Open Town Hall provides you with the platform and the tools to get more with less. Depending on the response from any question there is always an opportunity to ask more pointed questions to drill down into an issue. The insight tools that are part of an Open Town Hall subscription allow anyone to drill-down into the results of an online discussion.
Photos and Videos
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Yesterday we deployed a new system that shows users how to post pictures and videos from their favorite photo/video sharing sites - and within 24 hours we received two beautiful examples. We'll shorten this blog post by 2000 words right now - check them out:
Let's build a trail in Salt Lake County
Let's Improve this intersection in Aspen
More Tools for Forum Administrators
Respond to comments on Open Town Hall
Do you wish you could respond to a comment on Open Town Hall? Perhaps someone is asking a question - or is making a comment without accurate information - and a response would help inform the author and the community at large.
Administrators can now do that on Open Town Hall. To do this click the 'Review' button on your admin system. Next, click the mail icon under each comment to write your response. Then click 'Send' to email it to the author. To make this response viewable by the public, under the author's comment, select 'Public'. Now, you have responded to a comment!
Create and manage Priority Widgets
Open Town Hall admins can now create and manage our powerful set of Priority Widgets.
Create a Priority List widget to see how your community prioritizes a list of opportunities. A Priority Spend widget shows how participants would prioritize a set of budget items that cannot all be funded. The Priority Cut widget shows which items they would cut from a budget. Last, the Priority 500 widget enables participants to spend an imaginary $500 on various goals that you define.
All of these widgets are now available to admins to collect the feedback best suited for your Open Town Hall topic!
Manage your maps
Your clickable maps reveal deep insight into what residents are saying and where they are saying it. You'll probably accumulate a good number of maps - from your jurisdiction and council/commission boundaries to special wards or planning areas.
Now you can gather all your maps together into one place. Check out the new maps feature in your topic admin system, where you can select the subset of maps available for your topic as well as specify the default map shown when the user first displays the map on the statements page.
Monitor the Monitor
At Peak Democracy we take civility monitoring very seriously. Every statement is monitored by software as soon as the author posts, and manually by staff usually within a few minutes.
Now you can monitor our monitoring process! Click on the Review tab of your admin system to see a realtime report of how many statements we have monitored and which ones are still in the queue.
In fact, the Review tab reveals a wealth of information about statements and our monitoring process. In just a few clicks you can see which statements are civil, and drill down to the fine details for the few that are not. The review tab aggregates comments from all your topics in one place - so it is a great tool just to quickly review all comments across all topics.
Questions about our civility monitoring? Ask your account manager and you'll get a civil response - usually within minutes!
Open Space. Open Data.
Open Space in the New User Interface
Today we released a new user interface designed to make participation even easier by reducing clutter and injecting open space into the landing pages. We've made our buttons bigger and easier to click, and inserted more white space between items to make each one easier to read. At the same time, you'll see more introductory information about each topic on the overview page, making it easier for participants to understand the background information before reading statements and/or posting their own.
Open Data, Too
Earlier this month, we reinforced our commitment to open data: everything that is published on the pages of our website is now also available in machine readable form: you can download the latest comments, support counts, region of origin for each comment as well as prioritizations for each of our Priority Widgets. Simply click on the CSV link on the statements page, import the file into a spreadsheet, then slice, dice and report on the data however you want.
Priority 500 Widget
Allocate scarce dollars
If you only had $500 to spend toward meeting your community's goals, how would you spend it? Operating within a budget is tough, and our newest widget helps participants appreciate the tradeoffs required to make a budget work.
We are pleased to announce the Priority 500 Widget. Define a list of results (goals) that your community may wish to achieve, and one or more sub-results for each. With the aid of a 'thermometer' that tracks their progress, your participants can each spend an imaginary $500 on the various results and sub-results.
Analyze the results
The results are summarized four different ways. On the statements page you can see individual users' allocations displayed; you can also download them as a PDF. In the Insights Bar you'll see the allocation averaged over all participants in the Priorities Insight, and also in cool info popups that move as you hover on the map.
Corollate results with place
The map enables you to probe for relationships between allocations and place. Perhaps residents inside town have different priorities from those outside town. Decision makers and others find this information invaluable in evaluating public input - and they can glean that from our Map on the Insight Bar.
Simply hover over a region on the map, and voilà - the average allocation within that region are displayed. By hovering over different regions you can instantly see how the average priorities vary with the region. We think this is a very cool way to understand your participants' priorities - and we hope you agree!
Online Public Comment Forums
Ways to Leverage and Combine Online and In-Person Feedback
When government leaders complement conventional public hearings with online public comment forums (OPCFs), they can then take advantage of a variety of benefits that augment their insights, enhance their deliberations, and ultimately increase public trust in their governance. This article highlights those benefits.
Posting OPCFs in advance of public hearings enables government leaders (and the public) to be better prepared for the meetings, and thereby make the meetings more efficient and productive. For example, the feedback from OPCFs in advance of public hearings decreases the likelihood that feedback during the meeting will surprise government leaders – and accordingly, reduces the potential for rash or poor decisions.
Furthermore, in comparison to convening a single public hearing or even multiple public hearings on a particular topic, convening an OPCF in addition to a public hearing, can enhance the perspective of government decision makers. This enhanced perspective results from how the OPCF can both (1) materially increase the quantity of feedback (often by a factor of three to ten), and also how the OCPF can (2) diversify the demographic of people that provide feedback. The conventional and online forums create two data sets of feedback, and therefore that feedback can not only be aggregated, but the two data sets can be compared in informative ways.
Comparing the feedback from the online and in-person forums results in basically three scenarios – as shown in Figure 1. These three scenarios are summarized below.
Consistent Feedback: When the feedback from the two types of forums is relatively consistent with each other, then that can give government leaders more confidence that the feedback is representative of the community. When decision makers have a robust understanding of the sentiments of the community, then they can be more decisive.
Opposite Feedback: When the views from the two types of forums are relatively opposite of each other, then that can give a government leaders the political fortitude to go against either the input from the online forum or the public hearing. While this will likely frustrate one of the opposing sides, at least the government decision-makers can show some affinity with a segment of the community. In other words, the government leaders can claim that they aren’t making unilateral decisions that ignore community input.
Mixed Feedback: If the input from the two types of forums is relatively mixed – with no clear consensus, then that can give government leaders the mandate to seek compromises – and base those compromises on high quality input from the two forums.
Of course, each of the above scenarios, the guidance to government leaders is more definitive when the quantity of feedback is relatively large.
In summary, the advanced feedback that online public comment forums provide to government leaders better prepares them for public meetings, and the advanced online feedback can be combined with the public hearing feedback to give government leaders enhanced guidance on controversial decisions.
The Referendum Effect
Government officials that are augmenting and diversifying feedback from their community via the internet should be aware of several challenges and potential pitfalls. These challenges include keeping the forums legal, civil, and fair — and equally important, preventing a pitfall with crowd-sourcing known as the Referendum Effect.
This blog post starts with a brief description of the Referendum Effect, and then focuses on how it can be impeded using online public comment forums (OPCFs).
How Crowd-Sourcing Produces the Referendum Effect
The Referendum Effect characterizes the loss of decision-making autonomy that government leaders incur when they are pressured to make decisions that are based on the majority opinion that is expressed via public feedback -- regardless of whether that feedback reflects the opinions of the majority of their constituents. More specifically, the Referendum Effect occurs when public feedback that doesn't accurately reflect the community's opinion, usurps the decision-making independence of government leaders.
This dynamic is prevalent in conventional public hearings, and can also arise when public feedback is gathered using online crowd-sourcing techniques in which participants are encouraged to vote on comments.
The referendum effect can be especially intense when public feedback is one-sided. One-sided feedback puts pressure on elected officials because if their decision goes against the sentiments of the one-sided feedback, then the officials can be accused of not supporting the (apparent) will of the people (even when the one-sided feedback doesn't accurately reflect the community's opinion).
The pressure to comply with the non-representative public feedback is typically inflicted by the people giving the feedback, but it can also be self-inflicted by elected officials because they think that the people that are not providing feedback are indifferent, apathetic and/or most importantly – are less likely to vote.
How to Minimize or Prevent the Referendum Effect
There are techniques that can minimize the potential of online forums to create the Referendum Effect. The most straightforward technique is to caveat the forum with messaging that explicitly addresses expectations. For example, Peak Democracy Inc's Open Town Hall OPCFs integrate the following message in the user interface: As with any public comment process, participation in Open Town Hall is voluntary. The statements are not necessarily representative of the population, nor do they reflect the opinions of any government agency or elected officials.
Another straightforward technique to minimize the Referendum Effect is to exclude the word "vote" from the user interface -- as the "v-word" can create an expectation that feedback with the most votes wins.
An additional and more sophisticated approach to minimizing the potential for the Referendum Effect is to structure the online forum to solicit only qualitative feedback (as opposed to quantitative feedback). For example, instead of the online forum requiring participants to indicate "yes" or "no", or option 1 or 2, the online forum can simply ask for a comment.
Structuring an OPCF using a qualitative format can eliminate the Referendum Effect, but if the qualitatively formatted forum garners lots of participation, then it can be difficult for decision makers to read all of the comments. This challenge can be addressed with clever analytical tools. For example, Peak Democracy Inc's Open Town Hall OPCFs can be configured to enable participants to support comments. The comments can then be listed in order of most to least supported, and links to similarly supported comments can be provided. This “related comments” graph enables decision makers to synthesize voluminous online feedback.
Enabling users to support other comments makes the OPCF structure slightly more quantitative. However, the risk of the forum becoming a vote for the most popular comment can be reduced by not showing the number of supporters that each comment obtains, and instead only listing comments in order of most to least supported.
In summary, caveating online forums, not using the v-word, and structuring forums for qualitative feedback can prevent the Referendum Effect, and thereby enable government leaders to leverage OPCFs without the risk of losing their decision-making authority. To learn more about the Referendum Effect and ways to prevent it, contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Priority List Widget
When you want public input on a list of priorities, try our new Priority List Widget: a new way for residents to suggest priorities in your Open Town Hall topics. You define a list of priorities and background information about each. Then, your residents can prioritize them by dragging the items up or down in the list - either with the mouse on a computer or with their finger on a smartphone / iPad.
We also provide analysis tools enabling decision makers and others to see trends across participants' priorities in four different ways. On the statements page you can see individual users' priorities displayed; you can also download them as a PDF. In the Insights Bar you'll see the average priorities in the Priorities Insight.
Corollate priority with place
Now that you know priorities averaged over all your participants, you can probe for relationships between priority and place. Perhaps residents nearby a proposed development project have different priorities than those far away. Decision makers and others find this information invaluable in evaluating public input - and they can glean that from our Map on the Insight Bar.
Simply hover over a region on the map, and voilà - the average priorities within that region are displayed. By hovering over different regions you can instantly see how the average priorities vary with the region. We think this is a very cool way to understand your participants' priorities - and we hope you agree!
SMS + QR = Participate Now
When residents see a document, flier or poster announcing your latest Open Town Hall topic, now they can start participating right away from their phone using text messages or QR codes.
Text in to Open Town Hall
Residents can now engage with Open Town Hall via SMS. Request an SMS number, and Peak Democracy will provide you with a local phone number configured for civic engagement. Residents can text a message to their Open Town Hall number, and receive instructions for immediate participation as well as an option to receive text announcements to stay up to date on topics in the future. For texting residents, it couldn't be easier to stay connected to your Open Town Hall forums.
Scan in to Open Town Hall
For residents with a QR code scanner on their smart phone, it is even easier. Download and print our QR code in your document, flier or poster. Then, QR-savvy residents will point their scanner at the code and with a single tap, enter your Open Town Hall forum optimized for the resident's device (iPhone, Android, etc.) Very cool!
Insights Bar: Initial Toolset Release
Today we released the Insights Bar - a set of tools that empower decision makers and others to glean deep insights into comments posted on Open Town Hall. Five tools are available, and more are on the way!
Word Cloud: See which words occur frequently across many comments by looking at the larger words in the word cloud. For example, if the word 'Bike' is large, it occurs frequently in many statements. Click it to read the statements containing the word 'Bike'
Search: Enter a phrase (in quotes) and/or select a city to display just comments containing that phrase and/or coming from an author in that city.
Map: See your town on a 'Heat Map' - many comments come from the dark colored regions, while few comments come from the light colored regions. Hover for more detail, and click to see just those comments.
Tally: If you define a poll in your topic, you'll see the tally results here.
Connected Statements: If you enable users to support statements, then you'll see connections between statements in this insight.
Stay tuned for more Insights as we release them, and tips on when and how to best use them.
Mobile Open Town Hall
Many residents prefer to use their mobile phone over their computer to be online - especially those with newer phones such as iPhones. Others are more comfortable using a full browser sitting at their desktop or laptop computer. Our goal is to provide an online experience that works for everyone - and we reach that goal using a strategy called 'graceful degradation'.
When someone visits Open Town Hall using a full browser on a desktop or laptop computer, they see our forum framed inside our client's website. That works great on a full browser - but not so great on the small screen of a mobile device. In these cases, Open Town Hall 'gracefully degrades' to display just the 'bare' forum, without the client's website frame.
iPhones and more
Set your preference
This is all automatic 'behind the scenes': users just point their browser to Open Town Hall from any computer or mobile device, and we render the version optimized for their device. If users want to override our automatic optimization, they can tap 'mobile' or 'classic' to set their own preference. To learn more about our mobile strategy contact Robert at email@example.com.
Should names be required?
Before posting a statement, we require every statement author to register using their full name, street address and email address. At the same time, we agree to not share that information with anyone without the author's consent, unless we are required by law to do so.
One of the reasons we have this policy is to help us monitor the forum for civility: Name and address helps to ensure that no one person dominates the forum, and enables us to contact the rare author who posts a disruptive statement to resolve the problem without infringing on free speech rights.
The option to allow 'Name not shown'
It also enables our clients to decide whether to require authors to show their name next to their statement. If our client checks the 'Allow name not shown' box in the admin system, then authors will have the option to display 'Name not shown' instead of their name.
Is this a good idea? We frequently hear the concern that 'Name not shown' would encourage some authors to post statements containing personal attacks, profanity or other disruptive content. Reading the blogs and newspaper comment boards, it is easy to understand where that concern comes from: civility is not the norm on the web.
'Name not shown' is different from 'anonymous'
Open Town Hall is different from a blog. Most blogs are filled with comments written by anonymous authors: neither the reader nor the blog owner knows who wrote the statement. This enables some authors to write offensive statements while hiding behind their anonymity.
On Open Town Hall, no statement is anonymous, even when 'Name not shown' is used. We know the name, address and email address of every author, and monitor every statement - signed as well as 'Name not shown' - with software and staff to the same standards.
The choice is yours
Some people with great ideas will not participate if they are required to show their names. Especially for contentious issues, some will be afraid of interfering with their personal or business relationships by signing their name next to their opinion. Allowing 'Name not shown' allows more people to participate - and that helps broaden civic engagement and better inform community decisions.
We encourage you to browse through our 600+ forums and see for yourself. The choice is yours: you can require names on some topics and allow 'Name not shown' on others. After reading through our forums, almost all of our clients routinely allow 'Name not shown' - and routinely get constructive, insightful comments on Open Town Hall.
Why Public Hearings Need to be Augmented via the Internet
Across the US and in other democracies, public hearings have been a mainstay of civic engagement and feedback to government leaders. Indeed, public hearings are often the most influential channel for feedback to government decision makers. However, this long-standing tradition of democracies has become incompatible with the lifestyles and mindsets of many citizens. This incompatibility is especially problematic for citizens with moderate views or an inclination to compromise, as well as parents with young children, adults with busy work schedules, and people that aren’t too mobile (i.e. being infirm or incapacitated).
This blog post details a series of problems with public hearings, and then culminates with an explanation of how online public comment forums complement public hearings in ways that (1) address their deficiencies, (2) enhance the insights and deliberations of government decision makers – and ultimately, (3) increase public trust in government.
The conventional approach to making decisions in local governments culminates at the city council meeting (or facsimile). These meetings are typically run under Robert’s Rules of Order, and each issue incorporates a public hearing. This public hearing isn’t the only source of community input to the decision makers, but it’s typically the only channel of public input that is officially unfiltered and open to the public. This transparency imbues the public hearing with extraordinary influence.
As the only official, unfiltered, transparent forum for citizen feedback, many residents, decision makers, and journalists erroneously conclude that the feedback at a public hearing is representative of the community. In other words, if the public hearing is dominated by one-side of an issue, then many mistakenly conclude that the community must be commensurately for that one-side. Likewise, if the public hearing is polarized by uncompromising opposite sides of an issue, then many mistakenly conclude that community must have few if any people that have moderate views on the issue and would advocate for compromise. Without other official, unfiltered, transparent channels of input, it’s hard not to assume that the public hearing is a proxy for the community. However, that assumption can weaken the decision making process and frustrate the public. Why is that assumption risky? Because public hearings have attributes that have become incompatible with the lifestyle and mindset of many Americans.
From a lifestyle perspective, public hearings are typically held in the evening and have agendas that don’t have time allocations and are subject to reordering. Consequently many meetings run late into the night. Perhaps these attributes weren’t a problem decades ago, when life was slower, young children were living with extended families, work schedules were less hectic, and most families had two spouses with only one working full time. But these days, attending public hearings is challenging for adults that are responsible for young kids or consumed by full time work responsibilities.
From a mindset perspective, constituents with an opinion on an issue but who are not passionate about the issue are unlikely to make the commitment to participate in the issue’s public hearing. Likewise, constituents with moderate views and inclinations to compromise are also unlikely to incur the inconvenience to attend the public hearing. This results in public hearings that are frequently dominated by people with extreme views – and that further discourages moderates from attending because the mob of extremists can intimidate the moderates from speaking.
Some might argue that the people who don’t prioritize attending a public hearing are indifferent or apathetic about the hearing’s topic. But that’s an insensitive outlook because it’s tantamount to believing that voting should be more challenging so that only those citizens that feel passionately about a particular candidate should vote in that candidate’s election.
The solution to this community feedback and decision-making problem is straightforward: establish other forums for community feedback that are official, unfiltered, transparent and have attributes that augment and diversify participation beyond public hearings. For example, establish online public comment forums (OPCFs) that emulate the order and decorum of public hearings.
OPCFs enable time-constrained residents to participate at the time and place of their convenience. By emulating the order and decorum of public hearings, OPCFs are fair and enable everyone to understand and learn from other perspectives. Also, integrating OPCFs with online analysis tools enables decision makers to efficiently synthesize voluminous feedback – and thereby enhance their preparation for public hearings.
OPCFs aren’t a replacement for public hearings. Instead, OPCFs complement public hearings by augmenting and diversifying civic engagement. This will enhance the perspectives of government decision makers, lead to more informed deliberations, and ultimately increase public trust in government.
Providing communities with OPCFs for feedback to government leaders isn’t a radical idea – as a high percentage of Americans (and residents of other democracies) already provide huge amounts of feedback to communities, organizations and companies via popular online services such as Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and TripAdvisor. However, in contrast to businesses, the challenges for governments are to offer OPCFs that are legal, civil, fair, insightful, cost-effective and don't usurp the decision-making authority of government leaders (known as the "Referendum Effect"). To learn more about addressing those challenges, contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Participate+ for Broader Participation
We released three new features that help you get out the word and build participation without compromising the great quality statements that routinely appear in our forums. Collectively called Participate+, these three features make it easier for participants to quickly voice their opinion and to invite their friends to join the community discussion on Open Town Hall.
When a well written statement expresses the opinion of many residents, many users click the support button next to the statement and express their opinion in just a few seconds. In this latest release, we've made it even easier for new users to quickly register and support statements in just a few clicks without leaving the statements page.
When you enable this, statement authors are invited to recruit others via email or social sites to broaden participation and support their statement. Many of those will go on to write their own statement, further broadening participation.
Looking for citizen input on a fun topic? How about a T-shirt design for your summer concert series? Complement your serious topics with an occasional fun community builder, and use our Reward feature to offer prizes to the residents whose statement gets the most support.
Mix and Match
You can turn these features on or off, and optimize the feature set for each topic to maximize participation without compromising the forum quality. To learn more about maintaining quality or our other participation building features, contact Robert at email@example.com.