Web 2.0: Texas city tests e-democracy
Fort Worth looks to spur citizen engagement using workgroup collaboration software
- By Larry Stevens
- Apr 18, 2008
As everyone who has collaborated on projects knows, once a group gets too large, managing the workload becomes problematic. There is no perfect size for a workgroup, but most project managers might think creating a workgroup of 3,000 people is asking for trouble. And yet that is the number of people whose ideas officials in Fort Worth, Texas, consider when they develop the city’s comprehensive plan.
Fort Worth is the 19th largest city in the United States and the second fastest-growing metropolitan area. Its population is about 686,850. The city gained 22,750 new residents in 2006.
The comprehensive plan is the city’s guide for making decisions about growth and development. It includes strategies for promoting economic growth, meeting the needs of the expanding population and revitalizing the central city.
Fort Worth is a large city by many measures, yet city officials want to create a small-town democracy in which all citizens can have a say in the city’s direction. “It’s very important for us to get input from as many stakeholders and citizens [as possible] before we make important decisions,” said Chris Kerzman, information technology business coordinator at Fort Worth’s Department of Planning and Development.
To learn if their good intentions were feasible, city officials decided to experiment with collaboration tools from Limehouse Software. Small groups working on projects typically use such software, but a few cities, such as Fort Worth, have discovered it can be useful for collecting and organizing citizen comments.
Fort Worth officials purchased licenses for two Limehouse tools:
- Ucreate, which has automatic formatting and indexing features and enables people to work together on documents.
- Uengage, with features that capture public feedback.
Initially, Fort Worth will use the tools for automating some of the procedures that employees use to create monthly dockets for zoning cases. However, because the software is Web-based and hosted by Limehouse, it will be easy to solicit public comment on projects, city officials said. Kerzman said he hopes to gain the greatest benefits from that use.
Unlike most city officials who develop comprehensive plans every five years, Fort Worth leaders decided to review and update the city’s comprehensive plan each year. Creating that plan requires dedicated staff members who spend almost a year to update, edit and publish the plan.
For several years, the city gathered citizen comments on the plan from cards distributed at public meetings. Each year, city officials collected about 200 cards with comments that employees entered into a database. The department or manager responsible for a particular section of the plan analyzed the comments on that portion of the plan. However, that approach had limited effectiveness because it was time consuming.
Last year, the city decided to make it easier for people to offer suggestions by inviting them to e-mail their ideas to city officials. The number of comments surged to 3,000, which was good for democracy but a problem for the Department of Planning and Development.
“Our staff had to read each comment, decide which section of the plan it referred to — something which was not always obvious — and then forward the comment to the person responsible for that part of the plan,” Kerzman said. “It was time-consuming and far from an exact science.”
However, with the new collaboration tools, people can submit their comments online under the specific section of the draft for which they have a comment or suggestion. Staff members don’t struggle to match comments to the relevant sections of the plan, and people can view the comments others make. City officials said they hope this brainstorming aspect of the tool will raise the level of residents’ involvement and improve the quality of ideas.
Another benefit of having the comprehensive plan online is that the city can quickly publish draft versions of the plan and eliminate costs associated with its distribution.
The city used to print multiple draft versions of the 350-page document at a cost of $8,000 a year. More recently, the city posted it online as a PDF. City officials wanted residents to be able to download the plan quickly, so they broke it up into chapters. Department staff members used page layout tools to insert changes in the chapters. Each new draft took staff members about 20 hours to create and upload.
In contrast, the new collaboration tools automatically reformat the document when people make changes.
Kerzman decided that the department could benefit from collaboration software after seeing a demonstration of the Limehouse products at the Texas American Planning Association Conference in 2006. The city assessed some similar products, but those from Limehouse were the easiest to use, he said. The tools run on the company’s Web server and require no installation or additional infrastructure. It took two weeks to make the licensing arrangements and one day to train five employees to use the tools.
The cost of the software is based on the number of licenses. Because Fort Worth has a large planning department, it paid $110,000 for licenses. However, there are no additional costs or licenses associated with using the software to collect feedback.
Kerzman said it is too early to determine the city’s return on its investment. City officials expect to realize savings on document preparation and printing costs, but Kerzman is not focused on cash savings. “This will help us be much more responsive to our citizens,” he said. Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about informat on technology since 1982.