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Digital Engagement: Challenges and Strategies for Local Governments

Digital technology is quickly integrating into our lives: recent data from the Pew Research Center show that 91% of American adults own a cell phone, among which 58% are smartphones. If you are still questioning the pervasiveness of digital technology, simply watch a 2-year-old toddler unlocking your smartphone or tablet and making it all the way to her favorite game (or your emails). Civic participation in comprehensive planning is no exception to this trend: an increasing number of municipalities and government agencies are using digital community engagement tools to reach broader audiences, make the process innovative and fun, and complement traditional in-person strategies.

At the forefront of this trend is the City of Salt Lake City, which already implemented a wide range of digital engagement tools, including websites, Open City Hall, blogs, SpeakOutSLC, social media, and Textizen. Like many cities using these types of tools, Salt Lake has faced some challenges. Because so many people can participate online, the amount of input can quickly become overwhelming and difficult to analyze. Further, the City wasn’t sure how to evaluate the effectiveness of the tools it was using, especially compared to other outreach methods. To address these challenges, Salt Lake City asked PlaceMatters to research and make recommendations on the following two questions:

  1. How to synthesize (compile and summarize) the input gathered through digital outreach methods into a format that is useful for local government planners and decision-makers?
  2. How to evaluate the effectiveness of digital outreach methods?

Our research involved three steps: first, we interviewed Salt Lake City’s engagement manager and conducted an online survey of approximately 20 selected City staff. Second, we carried out a thorough literature review of previous research on the topics. Finally, we interviewed academics and practitioners, both inside and outside the US, with expertise in public engagement generally and digital outreach in particular.

Based on this research, PlaceMatters made the following recommendations to the City, which any government agency interested in using digital outreach tools should consider:

  1. Confirm the key objectives the City hopes to achieve through the use of digital outreach tools. For example, we identified three objectives for Salt Lake City: “engage a diverse group of stakeholders,” “increase trust in government,” and “enhance citizen knowledge of policy issues.”
  2. Establish a systematic approach to evaluation with minimum standards to be incorporated into all public engagement efforts, and build these into individual and department work plans. Specific categories and methods of evaluation include ease of use, usage, efficiency, and effectiveness.
  3. Establish a central repository of public input. The idea is to store public input collected through diverse methods and across different projects in a centralized location, using a tool that is easy to use and search through.
  4. Dedicate staff and resources for public engagement.
  5. Share practices and evaluation results internally and externally. Building a culture of community engagement and evaluation both within the community and nationwide will lead to continuous improvement in engagement tools and techniques.

The full report is available for viewing or download below. Please contact Marine Siohan ( for any additional questions, feedback or comments.

Digital Outreach in Salt Lake City: Evaluating Effectiveness & Synthesizing Input


Participation by Design: Total Engagement

This post, by guest blogger Nick Bowden, is the fifteenth in a month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. Nick originally published this post on his own The Mix Blog just about a week ago on March 27, 2012. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

One of the most common questions we field from existing and prospective clients is “Once our site is up, how do we get participants?” It’s justifiably the most important question of any engagement effort – online or offline. There seems to be a common misconception among Gov 2.0 companies and public agencies that technology will solve engagement woes. The reality of course is much different. Technology doesn’t solve problems, people do. Technology should facilitate better and deeper engagement, enabling citizens to become contributors to their community, but not be viewed as the sole predictor of success.

Our answer to that question has most certainly changed over the course of the last two years. Two years ago we were admittedly apart of this camp – put up an interactive website and droves of people will instantly become engaged. However, we have learned through experience and data that technology is only one part of the equation of successful (total) engagement. Total engagement comes when technology is combined with two C’s. Content and Context.

First things first, let’s start with technology, because it’s still very important. Technology should allow the government agency a diversity of functionality. Crowdsourcing ideas is an important functional element, but so is functionality that supports prioritization, interactive budgeting, and traditional survey questions. Equally important, the public facing design of the technology plays a key role in success. Together, functionality and design provide the foundation for total engagement.

Assuming an agency has adequate technology (preferably MindMixer :)) success is contingent on executing the two C’s. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times, content is king. Creating and presenting compelling content is difficult for lots of government agencies. Why? Typically the most successful content is either controversial emotional or non-technical. Government agencies often times fear the emotional and operate in the technical (by requirement). Helping these entities understand the importance of creating and presenting content that yields interest and maintains simplicity is critically important.

Compelling content can change the trajectory of engagement effort instantly. Combining compelling content with context can take a community to even greater heights. Offering participants contextually relevant opportunities to participate makes engagement personal. Context should be driven by demographics, location, and interest. Asking a citizen for ideas about a new streetscape works. Asking a citizen for ideas about a streetscape in their neighborhood works better. Asking a citizen about ideas for a streetscape in their neighborhood, while they are walking on the street brings engagement to an entirely different level. Context creates ownership. Ownership leads to action. Action solves problems.

In summary:

The engagement technology you choose is important, but it’s only one predictor of success.
Make your content interesting and emotional. Emotion drives interest.
Add context to the conversation. It creates personal ownership.

This post was contributed by Nick Bowden, Co-founder and CEO of MindMixer.

Participation By Design: Collecting Feedback on Draft Planning Documents with “EngagingPlans”

This post, by guest blogger Chris Haller, is the fourth in a month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

A screenshot from the Engaging Plans software tool.

Providing an interactive website that encourages stakeholder input on public policies is a critical aspect of policy development. Historically, these systems have been expensive and time-consuming to set up. In spite of recent advances in the computerization of the public input process, planning officials still have had to rely on pricey custom-designed websites with features that were not always user- or manager-friendly.

One approach, exemplified by a new app designed by Urban Interactive Studio of Denver, is to use a website platform to create a customized website for each urban planning project. The Urban Interactive Studio app enables local planning agencies and planning firms to develop a customized micro-website tailored to specific projects to efficiently facilitate all of the external communication related to any project requiring public input.

The tool, EngagingPlans, is a hosted Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution that starts at a low monthly subscription price. It comes with extensive “out-of-the-box” functionality that can be enhanced with a number of optional modules. EngagingPlans has a smartphone app and can be integrated with social media sites. A user-friendly interface allows for easy content updating and activity monitoring.

EngagingPlans Public Engagement Features

You can think of EngagingPlans as a toolkit to help coordinate nearly any required or recommended element of public and stakeholder communication, including:

  • sending announcements
  • posting information
  • collecting, managing, and responding to public comments
  • managing surveys
  • mapping
  • displaying a project timeline and interactive calendar
  • housing a document library
  • maintaining a newsletter and blog

Renewing Will County, IL

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Will County Illinois Land Use Department had the opportunity to update the County’s zoning and building ordinances with an eye toward encouraging environmentally sustainable practices including energy conservation. They chose to use the EngagingPlans web platform to engage the community and stakeholders in the process.

The website not only is attractive but is extremely robust with a wealth of project information, education material, event information, a project timeline, a contact sign-up feature, links to the project’s newsletters and blogs, and an annotated copy of the draft language under consideration in a format that allows for section by section public comment.

This annotation feature was used to collect public feedback throughout the comment period, supplementing the input from two open meeting workshops. Staff added comments of participants during the meetings, and they found it extremely useful to be able to download all the comments into a spreadsheet format in order to review, compare and process them.

Project coordinator David Dubois noted that, “EngagingPlans’ document annotation feature was a valuable tool to help us solicit and then address public and internal comments. We didn’t see it as a replacement for traditional public input through letters and public comment. But elected officials want us to go the extra mile to gather stakeholder input and this particular feature of EngagingPlans clearly did that.”

The EngagingPlans public engagement platform has been used by numerous municipalities across the country, most recently in Cincinnati; Burlington, Vermont; and Dunwoody, Georgia. It will soon be rolled out for a project by the City of Denver.

Chris Haller heads up Urban Interactive Studio, a technology consulting firm specializing in web and mobile solutions for urban planning agencies and firms. He is also the founder of EngagingCities where he helps urban planners understand and use the Internet and gives practical advice.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: February 2, 2012

Photo by Flickr user kmakice.

The value of crowd- and group-based thinking has drawn some attention lately. The New York Times ran a guest editorial (“The Rise of Groupthink“) arguing that people are more creative when they are able to work in solitude rather than in groups, a theme covered by the New Yorker as well (you can read the summary but the full article is behind a paywall). There’s quite a bit of thoughtful commentary on the subject, including posts on the National Charrette Institute blog and Fast Company’s Co.Design blog.

Involve explores a related theme, suggesting the value of crowdsourcing may be more about generating ideas and enthusiasm than generating consensus.

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation offers some great tips for designing a successful online collaboration or deliberation process.

Engaging Cities summarizes the highlights of an online discussion (on Cyburbia) about increasing public participation in rural communities.

Intellitics writes about a new IBM report called “A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation.

Digital Urban posts a characteristically cool Twitter data visualization.

Ascentum reports on German Chancellor Merkel’s web-based national engagement effort, “Dialogue about Germany’s Future.

Museum 2.0 explores the challenges of designing interactive activities that work for both adults and kids.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: January 18, 2012

OpenIdeo is poised to announce the winner of their “restoring vibrancy to cities” crowdsourced challenge, winnowing down an initial list of 331 concepts to a short list of 20 finalists and now to a single winner.

YPulse reports on Sesame Street’s new augmented reality app unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show last week.

Civic Commons launched the Civic Commons Marketplace to help government folks find the best online engagement tools for their own community’s needs (h/t to EngagingCities for the heads up).

Continue reading

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: January 5, 2012

TechCrunch reports on a seriously cool new augmented reality application: instant translation of foreign-language text. It’s not hard to imagine how useful a tool like this might be for community decision-making efforts in mixed language communities.

Cooltown Studios describes Popularise, an unusual private sector approach to crowdsourcing development plans. I’m not convinced the “long tail” metaphor makes sense here, and it’s not clear how the developers will actually use the crowd-supplied preferences given all the other considerations that the developers have to take into account, but it’s an intriguing idea.

Museum 2.0 has a great list of lessons learned over the last year about designing for participation (and links to another great list on The Museum of the Future blog).

Gov 2.0 Watch points us to a fascinating online, multiplayer city-building game called “Crowdsourced Moscow 2012.” Although we haven’t had a chance to play the game, a few things stand out in the promo video: players adopt one of several roles, each with specific interests and strengths; making tradeoffs is embedded in the gameplay; background information relevant to the various choices players must make is part of the game experience; and the game is intended to help participants imagine a wide range of possible futures.

As Intellitics reports, the New York Times launched another crowdsourced budget cutting project, this time focusing on the planned $450 billion in Pentagon spending cuts over the next decade. The problem, common to budget calculators, is that it’s very difficult to determine the real impacts of any of the choices. While those impacts are often the subject of fierce debate (e.g., just how valuable is the V-22 Osprey or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter), without this context it’s not clear how well participants understand the trade-offs between the options they are presented with.

Intellitics also reports on a new study exploring online deliberation design. The study evaluates a range of design considerations and the empirical evidence on their utility and effectiveness.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: December 8, 2011

The unlikely winner of the 2012 TED award: City 2.0. This marks the first time the award is going to an idea instead of an individual.

Intellitics explores an element of the White House e-participation effort, “best practices and metrics for public participation.”

Intellitics also mentions a “Social Cities of Tomorrow” conference focusing on ‘flattening’ civic engagement to be in neither “local bottom-up fashion, nor in institutionalised top-down fashion, but in peer-to-peer distributed ways.” We don’t really know what this means, but we’re game for exploring different paradigms for structuring civic participation in community decision-making.

EngagingCities mentions the same conference and asks some of the same questions and thinks through how some models for mobile apps might make sense in a civic participation context. One example: combining the SeeClickFix type of citizen reporting tool with a crowdsourcing and engagement model enabling people to collaborate and vote on each other’s ideas.

EngagingCities posted another blog on The Planning Van, a mobile community outreach program around urban planning and land use in southern California.

Museum 2.0 made us think, as usual, with a post on pop-up museums. Predictably, it got us thinking on ways to use adapt the pop-up museum model for community decision-making processes (much as a post on inquiry-based learning did back in October, another worthwhile post that I don’t think we ever linked to). More on that later.

And Digital Urban has a couple of helpful posts, one on a 3-D visualization tool for architects and urban planners called Lumion (that offers a free version!) and another on a beta of a map mashup tool called GEMMA.

Finally, Jason posted on the PlaceMatters blog about his recent open source planning tools meeting in Salt Lake City.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: November 22, 2011

We love online technology here at PlaceMatters, but it doesn't replace offline, in-person engagement.

EngagingCities does a nice job making the case for the importance of merging online and offline engagement strategies.

inCommon links to an op-ed arguing that transparency and information, while essential, do not alone constitute public engagement. We’d argue, for similar reasons, that there’s more to accountability than just transparency.

James Fee, on his Spatially Adjusted, blog gushes on SketchUp and its new “Making Things Real” project. We share his enthusiasm . . . we find SketchUp to be a a powerful tool for visualizing land use and design options (that happens to be free, with thanks to Google).

All Points Blog reports that Flickr added “geofencing,” which creates a privacy option based on the location of a photo. Photos geotagged as being taken with geographic areas designated by users are only shared with specific, pre-selected people. Although this particular tool may not be very useful from a civic participation perspective, it is suggestive of functionality that Flickr might eventually add that could be.

Digital Urban reviewed Instant City Generator for Cinema 4D.

Digital Urban also posted a visualization of “urban complexity” data in London. We always enjoy the videos Digital Urban digs up, including this one. What we found most interesting about this one: the way the visualization highlights the corridors and satellite urban hubs around the central city.

Our friends at the National Charrette Institute posted a list of charrette-oriented resources on their blog.

Some food for thought on Gigaom: the continued evolution of QR codes and the emergence of NFC (near field communication) technology. This post focuses on the offerings of one specific startup called Social Passport, but it offers a sense of the potential for these technologies (especially NFC) in community decision-making, especially projects that involve community members actually out in the community through asset mapping, walkshops, or other participatory activities.

We stumbled across this dated but enjoyable video of Bobby McFerrin leading an “audience participation jam.” It’s an impressive call-and-response participation model that results in some very cool music. We aren’t sure you’d want to structure an entire community participation process on this model, but we can imagine some ways that this could work for pieces of a process.

Snurblog provides a useful overview of crowdsourcing in public participation processes.

PlaceMatters‘ Ken Snyder offers his take on the emerging field of geodesign on Planetizen (and reposted on the PlaceMatters blog).

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: April 26, 2011

Photo by Engaging Cities.

Engaging Cities had two great posts. One was by guest blogger Claudia Paraschiv on “El Carrito,” a mobile community participation cart used in Barcelona, Spain. The idea is clever enough on its own, but the cart then itself contains the tools for some great public engagement techniques, like the “Neighborhood Detective” game for kids.

And Jennifer-Evans Cowley has a great pecha kucha presentation on the diverse and impressive apps that communities are developing around the country.

Jennifer also was a guest blogger on the Cubit Planning blog Plannovation about the use of social media in planning, and she dives into the data on how APA 2011 participants actually used Twitter during the conference, including the impressive buzzwordification (my word) of phrases like skyboxification (Michael Sandel’s word), blight porn, and gray tsunami.

Another Cubit Planning guest blogger, Chris Haller, wrote about bridging the online/offline divide in public involvement during planning processes.

The Dirt explores visualizing brownfield and Superfund data in ways that help community members understand the challenges and explore options. Engagement is half the challenge, but once you’ve got folks plugged in you still have to provide tools for making sense of the issues, the alternatives, and the trade-offs.

Noah Raford describes an online scenario planning process using SenseMaker Suite to create the scenarios and auto-aggregation tools to analyze the narratives submitted by participants. It’s more of proof-of-concept than a fully fleshed-out approach, but seems to have some promise.

Intellitics describes the idea of “microparticipation” in online community engagement.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation describes a demo of a software tool called EngagEnterprise, designed to aid in stakeholder management. It’s not a project management tool, they explain, but one that helps keep track of who all the stakeholders are and their relationships between each other and the project. It’s a “self-serve information dispensary and an online bulletin board.”

National Charrette Institute writes about the Better Block project, “a demonstration tool that acts as a living charrette,” enabling communities to work on, provide feedback to, and iterate complete streets project in real-time.

The PlaceMatters blog features an interview with Rob Matthews of the Decision Commons and a very cool video on the future of glass and displays.

What did we miss?

A new crop of online idea creation tools

Ideas for Seattle, using UserVoice has a tab for ideas that have been adopted and/or completed

In Jacob’s April 4th Blog Roundup, he lists the recently published Tools for Online Idea Generation: A Comparison of Technology Platforms for Public Managers by folks at the Collaborative Project. I spent some time looking at the tools to see if any stood out.  Recognizing I only got to test about of a third of these tools, my evaluation is only cursory.  From what I was able to see on example sites and promotional materials, however, Spigit and UserVoice seem like the most creative and user friendly (but also on the higher end of the cost spectrum).

Tools include:

  • Bubble IdeasProduct marketed to businesses, allowing users to submit, comment, and vote on ideas with positive and negative ratings.  I could imagine using their Geo Location tool in innovative ways.
  • Crowd WiseInstead of voting for favorite ideas, participants rate each idea from best to worst (they may love some options, be able to live with others and find a few completely unacceptable). The system for tallying votes helps identify which option has the broadest support.
  • Delib’s Dialogue: Pretty much the following functionality: Set up a proposition; have people add their ideas; rate, tag and comment on them to build consensus.
  • Google Moderator: Another post, tag, and rate site.Allows you to filter ideas by popularity or newness.  Some of the discussions are overwhelmingly huge, like Egypt 2.0 with 40K ideas and 1.4M votes.  What’s missing? A sense of how ideas submitted can actually lead to action.
  • IdeaScale: Was cutting edge when Obama’s transition team utilized it but pretty much submit, agree/disagree, comment.
  • Microsoft Town Hall: Useful to have a tool that focuses on questions, however, would be better if you could also rate the answers as well.  Tried to submit a question and the site froze when I hit submit.  I appears this tools in not ready for prime time use.
  • PubliVate: Another site that offers a post, view, comment, and vote on ideas in response to a question platform.  They set up a timeline that gives the author opportunities to improve the idea along the way.
  • Salesforce Ideas: Focuses more on service response systems integrating multiple channels of communication from email to calls and social media.  Good if you already use Salesforce for audience in mind.  The chatter function, and the idea-exchange provide platforms for an office to collaborate internally on challenges/solutions and for customers to submit suggestions.
  • Spigit: The most expensive of all the tools and perhaps rightly so given its sophistication and creative applications.  While seems particularly well suited for large businesses to encourage innovation, some interesting examples of public agencies using this tool to reach out to the public (check out theSpending Challenge conducted in the UK).People get points and become power users over time with 360 degree review for ideas and innovation.
  • UserVoiceCool tool with some great examples of communities utilizing this application for idea generation. Ideas for Seattle is a great example site. Not the first time we’ve seen legalizing marijuana be a top vote getter along side with some more thoughtful and creative ideas.  I like the way UserVoice makes it possible to limit the number each user gets (10 in Seattle’s case) so participants are forced to allocate votes wisely.  System does a great job at listing categorized ideas for easy browsing.  Also like the tabs for hot, new, accepted, and completed.

Great to see new online idea creation tools coming available to communities.  One criteria to think about when evaluating these tools and their potential use in community planning is whether or not they integrate well with public meetings.  Can they be used during group discussions as well as by individuals online.  A public meeting with round table discussions can be a great way to collect initial ideas and kick start the conversations.