The open house, the workshop, the charrette, the visioning meeting, the roundtable, the public hearing: these time intensive platforms for civic participation have shown their limitations in being able to entice more community members into the planning process. Witness the limitations of the series of public meetings about 1) planning for increased LASD enrollment 2) planning a new community center on our Los Altos Civic Center land. Only a miniscule percentage of our 25,000 or so constituents are enjoying civic engagement.
The 2012 and 2013 LASD meetings about enrollment growth north of El Camino and the charter school attracted maybe 600 unique parents and 50 unique “mature adults.” The spring 2014 community center meetings – sponsored by the City and by the Los Altos Forward non-profit – have attracted maybe 300 unique “mature adults” and 30 unique “parents.”
If ever there was a time to try something new, it is now
– Hillview is in play again
The old Hillview School site is a point of contention, important to the progress of the City’s Civic Center revival and important to the School District’s pursuit of expanded school facilities Should the majority rule? Maybe, maybe not. Our representatives are charged with making the final decisions. But in the meantime, let’s assess how large, how persuasive the factions are which support these competing propositions: 1) Put a school on Hillview, 2) Put a school with city shared spaces on Hilliview, 3) No school, rather city facilities designed for students – eg. a teen lounge.
Also the community should verify whether or not the “findings” of LASD Task Force on Facilities, devised by only 13 citizen advisors guided by 2 District staff, are accepted or rejected by the community. 1) Accept the findings: Yes, we need 2 new pieces of land, and 2 new schools and the necessary large parcel tax and boundary redraw. 2) Reject the findings: No, we can use the district land more intensively – one or more of…place 2 schools per site, remodel as 2-stories, reconfigure grades, boundary redraw, and a smaller parcel tax, etc. [Lalahpolitico: obviously the “framing” of the issues here is just a suggestion. I’m just a committee of one!]
First Impressions 0f Online Civic Engagement Platforms
Let me describe some of the online systems I think have relevance in our community. These range from $1000 a year, a project to $10,000 a year, a project. But $10K a year would be cheaper than these charrettes and polling, wouldn’t it?
Speakup – NO. eComment – Yes.
Speakup is a hosted discussion website a city can link to its own city web portal. Speakup is designed to have city staff post issues or questions and to allow constituents to interact with each other and staff. In the examples I saw, it was rather creepy to have city staff jump into a conversation thread very quickly. That probably tends to limit constituent participation.
Also, there is no real constituent verification. Users can fake where they live, their name, and how many of their personas participate in a discussion. Like in a focus group, a few can dominate the conversation. This is another turnoff for would be honest participants and tends to limit constituent adoption.
“After a civil start, a few outspoken participants dominated the discussion, which became a back-and-forth between a man posting detailed complaints about construction and people who used sarcasm to poke fun at him while hiding behind online aliases or first names. To post on the Speak Up! site, people must register with a valid e-mail address. They do not have to use their real names, though some have.” Lalahpolitico: a valid email is a pretty low bar. Thumbs down. There are better systems than Speakup.
eComment works tightly with the Granicus council meeting online agenda system. It allows submission of real online Public Comment letters and cards to be attached to a specific agenda item, discussion item, or official hearing item. These become legal parts of the proceeding records with less work by staff than collecting emails. Many users might appreciate being able to weigh in any time of day or night from home.
However, it appears that eComment does no analysis. Staff has to export to excel. So what do the online comments mean? Are they read? Or are they just meaningless? Do they get published at all? In Los Altos the time window to submit a comment to city council could be as short as 4 days – the Brown Act advance notice for an ordinary meeting agenda item. I guess the window on Public Hearings could be 30 days though. Thumbs sideways. eComment could be good for routine public engagement around council meetings. Starts at $300 a month. This isn’t a good fit for the more complex Hillview issue in Lalahpolitico’s opinion.
Granicus is the company used by the City of Los Altos for its video streaming and archiving of council and Planning & Transportation Committee meetings. Our city also buys the Granicus agenda and minutes archiving service and is doing a great job of linking the printed agenda items to segments of recorded digital video. The School District, new to Granicus, is using it at a very basic level…with one fixed camera set on wide angle, it’s a little better than live streaming of audio only. The Granicus company is based in Austin, TX.
Peak Democracy: Open Town Hall – excels at troll & bully control – YES
Town Hall is also type of hosted discussion group. “…users are authenticated and limited to only one comment/response per topic, to insure that single voices don’t dominate. Algorithms and Peak Democracy employees monitor comments, watching for any signs of bullying, offensive language and personal attacks. A safe place attracts more moderate voices. Open Town Hall also adheres to the legalities of government participation, ensuring that it’s easy for governments to follow the rules for monitoring, record-keeping, insuring free speech rights, etc. The company is based in Berkeley, CA. It’s target market is municipalities.
Town Hall seems to have the most picky participant authentication of the online systems. One must submit an address and the company says it verifies 99.7% of cases. If you are familiar with Nextdoor.com which verifies a participant’s residence by postcard, you can appreciate the value of participant authentication. However, unlike at Nextdoor.com, you can post as “name withheld” so the neighbors won’t know what you think. The address info allows the company to geo-code each particpant’s location. City staff do not comment. City staff admins can correlate comments with the geographic location of the commenter and generate heat maps of where aggregate comments are coming from. Comments are subject to lexical analysis so city staff admins can search for terms or view a word cloud showing the most common terms. Comments can be exported for publishing or further analysis.
Lalahpolitico saw Town Hall working pretty well for Palo Alto a couple of years ago when the city wanted to learn about constituent opinion about high speed rail going through town. As one would expect the vast majority of the comments came from people located near the tracks.
Lahlahpolitico thinks this system could work well for a BIG ISSUE question like – Should Hillview 1) revert to a LASD run school facility 2) become a LASD run school facility with City run(?) shared large meeting space, physcial education, and art and music spaces 3) become a City run civic center multi-generational element ( pool, community center, senior center, fields, library, etc.) – with programing for infants, kids, teens, parents.? Who would be a “constituent?” I’m guessing it should be the combination of the City of Los Altos, City of Los Altos Hills, and the Los Altos School District.
A drawback is that it takes work to collect one’s thoughts and write one’s opinion for a virtual town hall. Probably the first people to carefully write up their opinion for a cyberspace Town Hall will be the the most activist people – the people already spending hours and hours at charrettes, workshops and meatspace meetings. The activists can reach out and ask “followers” in their networks to echo and plagiarize their written up opinion. And it is natural that less-informed constituents will be interested in reading the early posts of the more-informed, more opinionated activists.
For the non-writers, there are little polls/surveys. These are Town Hall’s “Prioritization widgets” which allow participants to give a simple opinion on issues, by prioritizing items — government spending, budgetary cuts, and policy issue priorities. This might be very useful when Los Altos City Council next needs to rerank our capital infrastructure projects for funding. The public could weigh in. This widget probably would also be a good fit for some of the city’s Community Center Planning. The architects talked to 100 people in the focus groups who collectively came up with 29 uses for the building. Using Town Hall, many more people could rank the 29 uses. TownHall has versions for mobile phones. Thumbs UP.
A Virtual Town Hall Needs Promotion. To reach beyond the activists and their networks, the City needs to do more marketing. Obviously a virtual town hall would be prominently promoted on the city website, but who surfs there! No one. So then there is email. LASD has its vast parent email lists through the PTA. The City probably has a few people on the listservers, which send untargeted messages. To match the email reach of LASD, the City could look at the nextdoor.com’s “City Program” which allows a city to do email broadcasts by neighborhood. In this way, the City could reach the many people who don’t read the Town Crier, who don’t have kids under 16, etc. It’s nice to see the City on Facebook and twitter now; these could help promote a civic engagement system. [Yup, Facebook is definitely NOT a civic engagement system itself.] It’s really too bad the city’s sign ordinances are so restrictive. Why are small posters so evil? Every telephone pole, every a-frame, even the shop windows are overregulated. Very undemocratic. Finally, sending a postcard to every “Resident” is rather cheap these days thanks to the US Post Office program – price of $3,100 for 10,000 big postcards delivered.
Placespeak.com – No trolls & bullies, but your neighbors will see your name
The Placespeak system is also a web hosted discussion group system. Like Peak Democracy’s Town Hall, it verifies a partipant’s residential address, but keeps that private, and does geocoding for analysis of discussion. Unlike the Town Hall system, participants must login with their real name however, and cannot cloak it. Unlike with Town Hall, a Placespeak particpant can make multiple comments, not just one per topic.
The user interface is very attractive. Actually the company targets large developer/architects and commercial and mega-planning agencies. For example, Consider Lennar Homes, developer of the Los Altos old plant nursery along El Camino, next to the Vitamin Shoppe. When that project was in the planning stage, Placespeak would have been useful for Lennar, neighbors, and the city. The company is based in Vancouver, BC. Thumbs sideways.
Mindmixer.com – MAYBE
This system at its core is also a hosted discussion group/poll. This Omaha, NE company has the best buzz, marketing, IPO, and look and feel. They claim they get a great deal of civic engagement. The CEO Bowden says, pointing to low income school districts as a shining example of engagement, “We knew that in terms of real-life meetings the baseline number of participants was really, really low. But we now have school districts where more than 8,500 out of 16,000 parents have signed up for the site and are engaging.” Lalahpolitico could not confirm that claim.
A key issue with this system for Lalahpolitico is that “Participants can use existing Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google accounts or their email address to sign up.” There are a large number of fake persona accounts on those social media and ditto for email addresses. So the lack of participant verification in the Mindmixer system is a problem. Our local community is very, very sophisticated with faking. As Lalahpolitico has relatives in Nebraska, I can vouch for the fact they authentically let it all hang out on Facebook, etc. But on the right and left coasts, I don’t see this setup not being gamed.
However Mindmixer has done some interesting things. It’s quick polls are slick. It does cheesy “affirmations” for submitting posts. It has a points and reward system with local merchants for participation! Lahlahpolitco, just does not think these things will play well in our community. Thumbs sideways.
This is a San Francisco based company that places posters at intersection, points of interests, that invite a pedestrian, transit rider, biker (hopefully not a driver) to comment or take a short survey via text message on a phone or tablet about the question or topic on the poster. A hosted site. The company targets local governments.
Lalahpoltico: This could be interesting around downtown Los Altos and the civic center. Also Loyola corners. Let people say something, anything from their phone. If they are engaged by Textizen, maybe upsell them to write a more thoughtful essay for a more deliberative participation on Town Hall. As of April 2014, Textizen is available from the Granicus App Store. http://www.granicus.com/product-innovation/official-launch-appstore-for-government-it/
Crowdbrite is a freeform discussion group, where the comments are represented as sticky notes on a idea “canvas.” This approach does seem to align somewhat with the way that Los Altos Forward likes to conduct its “conversations” about the civic center and downtown. But Lalahpolitico found the interface rather clunky.
“Ideas submitted on Crowdbrite appear in real-time as sticky notes on your project canvas. With Crowdbrite you can manage discussions, moderate projects, or contribute ideas from anywhere, at anytime! Gain real-time access to projects and never miss an important team meeting or workshop.” Lalahpolitico: Thumbs sideways.
This website is a gamification of community planning. Lalahpolitico thinks this is not useful in the short term. However, if the community is serious about engaging the high-schoolers, this might be useful. Thumbs sideways longterm. Thumb down short term.
Lalahpolitico thinks Peak Democracy Open Townhall is the first choice to deploy as a pilot test of an online civic engagement platform in the Los Altos Area. First project? How about the Hillview site topic?
We obtained our website technology from Lake Oswego, Oregon. That city is a Town Hall user. Must be an omen?[CORRECTION April 15, 2014: The two council members who will hold public roundtables to assess the current state of civic engagement are Jeanne Bruins and Jan Pepper, not Val Carpenter.]
The City Council voted on March 25 for form a council subcommittee of Jeannie Bruins and Jan Pepper who together will hold 2 public roundtables about “community engagement.” They hope to attract large and diverse participation! Lalahpolitico expects to see the “choir.” These two meatspace meetings are intended to assess what informational and engagement processes are already working, and what else people might want. There will be a professional facilitator. See the council report March 25, 2014
Lalahpolitico hope this Pepper-Bruins effort quickly evolves into forming a temporary Citizen Engagement Advisory committee. This group would advise the city on…
1) Sunshine ordinances that improve the meatspace meetings and freedom of information flow
2) Online and offline improvements in civic engagement and outreach for traffic, planning, housing, etc. This advisory group could evaluate one or more of the online products Lalahpolitico has just reviewed, plus other contenders.
Another City government transparency goal should be Open Data. I understand that the city is looking a the Junar platform, which is one of the market leaders. Lalahpolitico hopes that as the city searches for a new finance director to replace the retiring Mr. Morales, that the city would “prefer”, if not “require,” experience with Open Data.
Technology is not a silver bullet. A purchaser always has a learning curve, trying to get the people and technology to work together. And side investment in training and city staff time may be necessary. Maybe it’s necessary to train constituents too – Fairfax County, VA does some. Let’s continue down the path to a more Open Los Altos City Government.
And the Los Altos School District is way behind…