Politics

The Missing Link

Wikis, blogs and other interactive tools are making it easier to find out what people really think of their government and its services.
by | March 2006
 

You don't usually need a convention center to hold a civic meeting. But last November in Washington, D.C., 2,000 people filled a large room in the cavernous hall for a give-and-take with the mayor and city officials. They stayed all day, giving him a piece of their minds.

If the usual city hall gadflies were there, they were not easy to spot. Local activists who thought they would have a forum for pushing their issues were disappointed. This meeting was held specifically to find out the thoughts, ideas and opinions of the average citizen. And it was possible because technology was able to gather those ideas, distill them and flash them on large screens, allowing participants to vote with keypads on their absolute top priorities.

San Francisco, localities in Maine and in some other regions around the country are using technology to run town hall meetings in a similar way and with a similar objective: extracting the opinions of citizens in a comprehensive fashion. "A regular town hall meeting provides a forum for a person to make a speech," says Jennifer Petrucione, spokeswoman for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. "The electronic town hall meeting demands an exchange of ideas without individuals standing up and giving emphatic statements of their opinions. People can share their thoughts on policy with an immediacy and depth not possible at the typical town meeting."

This may not have been what technology geeks had in mind when they programmed software for interactive government. But it is what has evolved as governments seek to expand their dialogue with their citizens. In addition to the electronic town meetings, blogs, wikis and public comment software also enhance the discourse between public officials and the people they serve.

BLOG ON

The whole business of making it easier for citizens to contact governments and for governments to relay good information to citizens has always been a creaky process. These new technologies are smoothing things out a little and allowing governments to override some of the usual ways of communicating with the public. For a while, many thought e-mail was the electronic route to a dialogue, but e-mail is generally a conversation between two people. Officials can get a better view of a cross-section of their jurisdictions through the new electronic methods of interaction.

Blogs have risen in popularity around the world touching on virtually every topic one can imagine. State and local agencies are starting to jump into the game. Carole Brown, who's at the Chicago Transit Agency, started a blog last spring when she felt frustrated by negative newspaper reports on what was happening at the CTA. The agency, faced with a shortage of money, had to cut its budget and reduce services. When Brown read letters to the editor of the newspaper, she realized that readers, angry at the CTA, didn't understand the complex public transportation funding formula. For instance, only 50 percent of the funding for CTA comes from the farebox. The rest comes from public sources. That aid has gone down every year and is split among three transportation systems--transit, suburban buses and light rail. And although ridership on CTA is 80 percent of the ridership for the entire regional transit system, the agency does not get 80 percent of the funding. That aspect was muted in the press, which talked mostly about which routes were being cut and how riders would get to work. It didn't much get into why the cuts were happening.

"It wasn't a mismanagement issue," Brown says. "We couldn't just tighten our belts." So Brown blogged away, offering details that riders weren't getting from their newspapers. "It's a way to tell them exactly what's going on without the filter of the press," she says.

That may be how her blog started, but today it serves many purposes, from straightening out misconceptions that riders get from other sources to allowing the agency to communicate early and often with transit riders. "My blog is an incredible tool," says Brown. "We're using it to focus on issues most important to our riders, and they have no problem telling us what those are."

The Portland, Oregon, water bureau also started up a blog, which took an unusual course. When several of its employees went to New Orleans to help out in the post-Katrina disaster, a blog became the means for employees to keep up with what was going on with family and friends and to share their experiences with everyone. The hit count on the site was "meteoric," says Trisha Knoll, a spokeswoman for the bureau. Traffic slowed once the workers returned. Still, water bureau employees continue to use the blog a lot. There were 31,000 internal hits in the three months starting October 1, and the bureau has only 500 employees.

In December, the bureau began promoting the blog to outsiders, as a way to improve communications with the public. Notices about the blog's existence were tucked into winter water bills. Officials are hoping the site will become a popular means for outreach. Meanwhile, the blog came in handy during a particularly wet December and January. The Portland area got 22 inches of rain in a four-week period. Employees kept watch on the sediment washing into the water and used the blog to tell readers what they needed to know about the runoff and what actions the agency was taking.

The blog has been less useful in helping water officials learn about the agency's customers. But the department also has a comment tool on its Web site, and that's another way of learning what's on people's minds. Customers check in from time to time, registering complaints. Whether it's through the blog, the comment site or the more traditional means--telephone, mail, meetings, community outreach events--the bureau's goal is to have as many ways possible for customers and citizens to reach employees.

The electronic methods add the advantage of being available 24/7 to customers. "You get home from work, you think about something, and you can go and act on it, and do it with electronic media," Knoll says.

Blogs can have their downsides, as the Washington Post discovered recently. So many irate bloggers hounded the ombudsman over something she wrote that the blog was taken offline temporarily. So far, Portland has seen nothing like that.

But governments do face more hurdles in setting up blogs than individuals and corporations. Jurisdictions have to consider disclaimer language, as well as what their state retention requirements are for keeping electronic files.

THE SOFT TOUCH

If blogs don't make a non-techie's head spin, then wikis will. Wiki is an online collaborative software that allows users to contribute information and correct or add to online content. Changes to content do not go through a government employee running a Web site.

For instance, in the aftermath of a hurricane, a site running wiki software ideally would allow people in the affected area to check in, see the status of the situation and learn what has been done to solve problems or what kind of help they can offer to assist those in need. People who have trucks could offer them to ferry supplies to hard-to- reach areas or rescue people in areas where cars can't go. Residents who need help could give details about their situation and the kind of assistance they need--providing they're able to get online. Health care agencies could offer supplies and list their ad hoc locations; people with knowledge about evacuation route problems could give details. "In any kind of disaster, there's a need to respond and coordinate," says Mills Davis, managing director of Project 10X, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. "There are a lot of people in a lot of places with good suggestions and no mechanisms for bringing them together."

E-mail is an inferior choice in a disaster situation. E-mails have to be sent, forwarded and continually passed along to the right people and e-mail addresses have to be known. Wikis, on the other hand, mobilize and bring together a "mini-governance structure" so people can reach agreement and work together.

Another type of software is helping the South Florida Water Management District get input from Floridians on its Everglades restoration projects. Stakeholders and other interested parties can go to a Web site and review documents, provide comment and never appear at a public meeting. The comments are compiled and reports are generated for managers, who might modify the design of the project depending on what they learn.

Sometimes stakeholders don't like a design feature. Or some people just want more detail about one facet of the project. Or they don't understand something or they merely wish to complain that they don't want their tax dollars going to a particular project. "It's really revolutionized our public outreach process," says Rhonda Haag, outreach manager. "Water management is always looking for ways to increase public participation, to make it easier and more efficient. This substantially changes the way we do business with the public."

At the San Francisco and Washington town hall meetings, city officials get that input by putting groups of eight or 10 people at a table with one laptop computer and a trained facilitator. As they give their opinions on issues, someone types them up and forwards them to a team of people that gathers and distills the ideas by theme. Concepts that crop up over and over are then flashed on large overhead screens. Eventually those are whittled down to a handful of top priorities by the participants who vote on them by keypad.

San Francisco plans to hold its second electronic town hall meeting this year, changing from the three smaller neighborhood meetings it held last year to one large city meeting. Last year, the city was trying to deal with eight important issues, ranging from homelessness and housing to public safety and health care.

Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration had plenty of information about what the lobbyists and professional advocates wanted. What the mayor hoped to find out was what the rest of the city wanted. "The average resident is not typically asked to come or doesn't have time or an entree to attend a three-hour meeting with the mayor to offer opinions," says Newsom spokeswoman Petrucione. Last year, residents were asked to come to a town hall meeting to offer opinions. And the mayor was there to listen.

The District of Columbia has been holding these citizen summits every two years since 1999. More than 10,000 people have come together over that time to help tackle important questions. Prior to the day of the meeting, they are given a participant guide. It's filled with background data on the issues at hand so that participants arrive informed. This time around, the mayor and his staff wanted to know citizens' priorities on four specific issues: jobs and employment, rebuilding the library system, supporting the growth and development of youth, and housing and economic development. The mayor planned to use the results to shape policy and budget priorities. More than 800 pages of data were collected, providing a snapshot of public opinion.

City officials found something rather striking. The strongest theme of the day turned out to be governance. Residents in different groups at different tables called for the government to work on policy in a more coordinated way and across multiple agencies. Services, they said, were fragmented. They wanted initiatives, programs and agencies to connect to one another as well as to communities.

That's not the type of thing that usually bubbles up at public hearings. But in the small groups, and with the electronic information gathering, officials learned an important item on the minds of the participating residents, all of whom had a chance to speak up.

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