3 governing challenges, 3 Web solutions

Agencies use different social-media tools to gather public input

In a crisis, sometimes it pays to follow the crowd.

When the California state budget crisis struck earlier this year, Santa Cruz was hit with an almost immediate 15 percent cut to its general fund revenues. The budget for the city’s economic and redevelopment department shrunk by 27 percent the day after the state budget law was signed.

“The magnitude of this problem was absolutely huge for the city,” said Peter Koht, Santa Cruz's economic development coordinator. “We were no longer sure if we could provide all of the services that citizens have come to rely on.”

Rather than circling the wagons and figuring out how to deal with the budget crisis on their own, city leaders used a technique called crowdsourcing to get ideas from the community. City officials began using a Web application to explain the problem and let people share suggestions on how to deal with it and then vote on those suggestions.

New Web 2.0 tools and social-media technology — such as blogs, wikis and Santa Cruz’s ideas application — make crowdsourcing possible. Agencies can use Web applications like an interactive suggestion box that is unbound by time or geographical constraints. Crowdsourcing tools are not a substitute for elections, referendum questions or face-to-face public meetings, but they are a tool public officials can use to gauge opinion and solicit input.

White House officials recently used the technology for the Open Government Initiative, and other federal, state and local governments are putting the tools to use. The tools do not need to be overly sophisticated. Some are rather simple, such as a blog, and can be set up in less than a day.

Here are examples of agencies's work with crowdsourcing and the Web tools they used.

Environmental Protection Agency: Blogging its way to better public dialogue

Proving that the technology you use doesn’t have to be overly complex, Environmental Protection Agency officials used a simple blog to elicit comments from the public about ways to improve the agency’s water quality enforcement programs.

“It probably isn’t what most would think about in terms of a traditional blog,” said Lisa Lund, director of the Office of Compliance at EPA’s enforcement program. “It is not somebody doing a brain dump. We laid out a couple of questions and asked for input and feedback on those questions.”

EPA posted the questions as blog entries and let people respond to as many of the questions as they liked. Nearly every response was posted publicly, and officials blocked only obscene or potentially slanderous posts. Many of the ideas focused on EPA’s problems with creating a link between permit processes and enforcement and compliance information.

“We were very pleasantly surprised with the level of sophistication and knowledge that we saw,” Lund said.

The blog was active for three weeks in August and attracted about 250 ideas, some of which EPA officials will incorporate in a draft strategy document. Officials plan to post the draft plan on the agency’s Web site and will highlight the origins of the ideas.

“It will give people a sense of what got utilized, what didn’t and why,” Lund said.

Lund advises other agencies that use a blog to crowdsource to write discussion questions that are clear and specific.

“It took some time and effort to craft them in a way that was easily understandable to the general public and yet would lead to the kind of information that we wanted to get,” she said.

San Jose, Calif.: Wiki widens public involvement

As agencies get more comfortable with crowdsourcing, more sophisticated tools are available to help interact with the public.

City officials in San Jose, Calif., are using a set of customizable Web collaboration applications on a site named Wikiplanning to help draft a city update plan, named Envision 2040.

Officials hope the technology draws more input than live meetings and provides more age diversity among those who respond, said Kim Walesh, the city’s chief strategist. Live meetings tend to attract residents who are older than 55.

“The next demographic bulge in the city is the 18- to 34-year-old population,” she said. “They, after all, are going to be the ones running the city in 2040, so we wanted to get their input.”

With Wikiplanning, residents and merchants can log on to the site and share their ideas about San Jose’s future. Participants can let community leaders know how they feel about specific issues through online surveys and wiki discussion boards. A photo-sharing page allows people to post photos of city features and share their opinions about those features.

San Jose officials said they think the technology is a way to augment in-person meetings. Residents like the technology because it is more flexible than attending a town meeting at a specific location, date and time, Walesh said.

Walesh said it helps to provide incentives to use the crowdsourcing technology. San Jose offers site visitors the chance to win tickets to cultural activities, such as concerts, museums and the theatre.

Santa Cruz, Calif.: Idea app helps get and vet ideas from the crowd

When Santa Cruz officials wanted to get public input on how to deal with their budget crunch, they turned to a Web application named UserVoice. They set up the site in eight days on no budget.

The technology lets the public submit ideas and then vote on others’ suggestions. People can add comments to further refine ideas. The technology also shows users whether someone else has already posted a similar idea.

Santa Cruz residents came up with several ideas that surprised government leaders, Koht said. For example, residents said they favored sharing the administrative duties for recreation and the fire department with the county government.

Koht said he thinks the technology shouldn't replace live meetings, but it does address some of the shortcomings of public gatherings.

“We did not want to give the debate over to the loudest people, we wanted to see what the consensus of the community is,” he said. “I think this site really managed to expand the debate.”

Koht said the city will use the technology again.

“I think we set up a new model for how to get public feedback, one that has a very low overhead and a very low demand on city time and IT resources,” he said. “I think it will be deployed for other big, contentious issues.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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