Web 2.0: Texas city tests e-democracy

Fort Worth looks to spur citizen engagement using workgroup collaboration software

Live feedback

Vancouver, Wash., had a problem it needed to solve. The city is known for frequent public meetings that allow people to voice their opinions and participate in nonbinding votes. But the most influential participants are not always the most thoughtful or insightful. Sometimes they are merely the most vocal.

“Some people are willing to speak up in public meetings; others don’t feel comfortable doing that,” said Tom Nosack, performance analyst for the city. “We wanted to find a way to get the ideas of even those who are quieter.”

City officials said they solved the problem after buying an easily operated audience response system from TurningPoint. An employee plugs a radio frequency reader into a computer’s USB port, and participants at a meeting are handed credit card-sized response devices. The devices, each containing nine buttons, are radio frequency signal transmitters, and when a presenter queries the audience, people can press buttons to indicate their responses. For example, they might rate how important an issue is to them on a scale of one to four. The TurningPoint system instantly displays their responses on a PowerPoint slide.

Nosack said he chose the TurningPoint system because it uses PowerPoint, which is familiar to many presenters. The system’s other advantage is its small size. The state government has an audience response system that cities can borrow. However, each device is the size of a paperbacked book, which makes the system expensive to ship.

Vancouver spent about $2,000 for two sets of 30 TurningPoint cards. Nosack has an arrangement with another city for sharing 50 additional cards if either holds a larger meeting.

Vancouver has used the product successfully in a number of focus groups and meetings. “People are much more honest and willing to state their opinion with this than with a raising of hands,” Nosack said.

The system proved especially effective during a sexual harassment seminar because people could see on the screen how many people had been victims of sexual harassment, Nosack said, adding that if people had been asked to raise their hands, few would have been willing to do so.

— Larry Stevens

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.


  • Workforce
    White House rainbow light shutterstock ID : 1130423963 By zhephotography

    White House rolls out DEIA strategy

    On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued agencies a roadmap to guide their efforts to develop strategic plans for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), as required under a as required under a June executive order.

  • Defense
    software (whiteMocca/Shutterstock.com)

    Why DOD is so bad at buying software

    The Defense Department wants to acquire emerging technology faster and more efficiently. But will its latest attempts to streamline its processes be enough?

Stay Connected