Friday, July 8, 2016

A New Kind of Civic Engagement

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant 

Tuesday I was reading an article on the planetizen blog detailing the three most common community engagement mistakes. None of the mistakes were particularly surprising: 
1. Expecting too much time, 
2. Expecting too much empathy for specific objectives, 
3. Expecting too much specialized knowledge. 

Nevertheless, it is always good to be reminded that community participants—even those who want to participate and make a point to do so—have limited time, don’t always think the objectives being considered deal with the issues they care about, and are typically not familiar with the jargon of our urban planning/economic development world nor with our methods. 

In order to get the most out of civic engagement, we would do well to keep these three common mistakes in mind and to do our best to avoid making them.

Enter web-based civic engagement. Getting community buy-in is hugely important for successful initiatives, but public meetings are not always convenient for community members. Not only are public meetings not always convenient, but the format of a public meeting means that it must focus on specific objectives, at the risk of ignoring input about community issues not obviously related to the objective at hand. In addition, public meetings must be pitched at a level of explanation that will engage those with little to no economic development knowledge and, at the same time, not bore those with higher levels of specialized knowledge. 

Web-based civic engagement gives us tools to overcome some of the challenges of public meetings that can lead to the common community engagement mistakes.

First of all, online participation is much more convenient. Community members can participate whenever they can find time and from wherever they are. This provides an opportunity to get input from a wider cross-section of the community. In addition, web-based engagement offers the ability to share a lot more research, to make that research available to the public to peruse at their leisure, to translate that research into specific community impacts and do so in accessible language for those without specialized economic development knowledge, and to make a case for how particular objectives and initiatives link up with issues community members put on the front burner.

Like a public meeting, web-based engagement can be set up in such a way as to foster public conversation among community members and between community members and economic developers. Comments can be addressed. Questions can be answered. And, the ability to access this information anywhere and anytime can lead to more transparency, which can help with buy-in.

So, is the future of civic engagement online? Partly? Certainly engagement comes in many forms and for so many things physical presence and committed engagement are hugely important, but web-based engagement can help to supplement in-person engagement. 

Online surveys are one type of web-based engagement, with which we are all by now most likely familiar. I know we at Market Street absolutely rely on them to help us get a picture of the strengths and challenges community members see. 

But, surveys are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a list of 50 web-based tools for civic engagement compiled by

1. coUrbanize: List project information for development proposals and gather online feedback.

2. Cityzen: Gathers feedback by integrating polling and social media sites.

3. Community Remarks: Map-based tool for facilitating dialogue and collecting feedback.

4. Crowdbrite: Organizes comments for online brainstorming sessions and workshops.

5. EngagementHQ: Provides information and gathers feedback for decision-making.

6. MetroQuest: Incorporates scenario planning and visualizations for informing the public and collecting feedback.

7. SeeClickFix: For reporting and responding to neighborhood issues.

8. Neighborland: Forum that encourages community discussion and action at the neighborhood level.

9. PublicStuff: Communication system for reporting and resolving community concerns.

10. MindMixer: Ideation platform for community projects. 

11. NextDoor: Private social network and forum for neighborhoods.

12. Adopt-a-Hydrant: Allows citizens to help maintain public infrastructure. 

13. CivicInsight: Platform for sharing progress on development of blighted properties.

14. i-Neighbors: Free community website and discussion forum. 

15. Recovers: Engages the public in disaster preparedness and recovery.

16. EngagingPlans: Information sharing and feedback forum for productive participation.

17. Street Bump: Crowdsourcing application to improve public streets.

18. Crowdfunding platform to promote local investment in improvement projects.

19. TellUs Toolkit: Map-based tools for engagement and decision-making.

20. Budget Simulator: Tool for educating about budget priorities and collecting feedback.

21. CrowdHall: Interactive town halls meetings.

22. Citizinvestor: Crowdfunding and civic engagement platform for local government projects.

23. Open Town Hall: Online public comment forum for government.

24. Shareabouts: Flexible tool for gathering public input on a map.

25. Poll Everywhere: Collects audience responses in real time, live, or via the web.

26. Tidepools: Collaborative mobile mapping platform for gathering and sharing hyperlocal information.

27. Community PlanIt: Online game that makes planning playful, while collecting insight on community decisions. 

28. Open311: System for connecting citizens to government for reporting non-emergency issues.

29. DialogueApp: Promotes dialogue to solve policy challenges with citizen input.

30. Loomio: Online tool for collaborative decision-making.

31. PlaceSpeak: Location-based community consultation platform.

32. Citizen Budget: Involves residents in budgeting.

33. e-Deliberation: Collaborative platform for large group decision-making.

34. CrowdGauge: Open-source framework for building educational online games related to public priority setting.

35. Citizen Space: Manage, publicize, and archive all public feedback activity.

36. Zilino: Host deliberative online forums and facilitated participatory meetings.

37. WeJit: Collaborative online decision-making, brainstorming, debating, prioritizing, and more. 

38. Ethelo Decisions: Framework for engagement, conflict resolution, and collective determination.

39. Community Almanac: Contribute and collect stories about your community. 

40. GitHub: Connecting government employees with the public to collaborate on code, data, and policy.

41. VividMaps: Engages citizens to map and promote local community assets.

42. OSCity: Search, visualize, and combine data to gain insight on spatial planning. (EU only.)

43. Civic Commons: Promoting conversations and connections that have the power to become informed, productive, collective civic action.

44. Crowdmap: Collaborative mapping.

45. Codigital: Get input on important issues.

46. All Our Ideas: Collect and prioritize ideas through a democratic, transparent, and efficient process.

47. Neighborhow: Create useful how-to guides for the community.

48. OurCommonPlace: A community web-platform for connecting neighbors.

49. Front Porch Forum: A free community forum, helping neighbors connect.

50. PrioritySpend: Prioritization tool based on valuing ideas and possible actions.