NEWS FROM OPEN TOWN HALL
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.