Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Doing Government 2.0 The Right Way In Seattle

by March 2nd, 2010

At its site Data.Seattle.Gov the City of Seattle last week took a modest but promising next step into the high-transparency world of what’s called “Government 2.0” by adding dozens of data sets on a wide variety of public assets, as the Seattle PI.com reported. Now just a click away are lists (in some cases including links to related city web pages) of public viewpoints, museums and galleries, schools, farmers’ markets, off-leash dog areas, park and rides, heritage trees, fishing spots, beaches, community centers, public art installations, and so forth. True, this information was already parked at the City’s My Neighborhood Map site, but ongoing additions expected to the city data store herald possibilities for a new form of public engagement that could eventually make obsolete today’s easy gibes about public Seattle’s infatuation with process over product.

Countywide Community Forums: How Do They Work?

by February 25th, 2010

There are different ways to do what’s called “public engagement,” or getting group-produced guidance from constituents, members, or customers. Public-sector constituent engagement can begin with a common factual template and objective data which help participants understand the problem, or opportunity to be addressed. It can also be very helpful to actually quantify the feedback with a survey tool and produce a related final report which can then form a basis for better-informed decisions by leaders. Bias or predetermination must be avoided at all costs in public engagement work because that undermines credibility.

dick spady sktch hspace=One such approach is in King County, Washington, home to a unique public-private program that involves Seattle and King County residents and workers with county government’s decisions on important policy issues. It’s called Countywide Community Forums, and draws participants from among 1,500 current registrants (most of whom sign up online here) to become “citizen councilors.” There’s no charge – ever – to participate and all registration information is kept strictly private. Periodic e-mails let councilors know when a new “round” of deliberations is scheduled; they then register more specifically to either attend or host a gathering of four to twelve people either in their home, a public meeting room or a coffee shop in their area (this option will be new as of Spring 2010).

All materials are provided in CCF’s “Meeting In A Box” packet, and final surveys returned via pre-paid postal packets. Some councilors participate multiple times in a round by attending a small meeting, and then hosting one themselves to draw in new participants.

The CCF Web site features special sections that registered participants use to find a meeting near them. They are also encouraged to recruit new participants from their circles of friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Training sessions for hosts are being added, as are pre-booked public spaces and times for meetings, and partnerships formed with local coffeehouses where hosts can schedule meetings. Part of the aim, based on feedback to CCF from councilors, is to make it even easier and more convenient to set up a meeting.

CCF is underwritten completely by donations from public-spirited individuals, businesses, organizations and foundations. (We encourage and welcome your donation: information here on how to make a fully tax-deductible contribution to CCF via the King County Treasurer). One generous supporter is the Spady family of Seattle. It’s the latest chapter in a long and rich history of community involvement by Dick Spady (portrait above, right), the founder in 1954 of the beloved and iconic Dick’s Drive-Ins restaurants of Seattle.

L.A.’s Online Tool For Budget Advice: Pros And Cons

by February 22nd, 2010

Los Angeles is using a tailored online tool called “L.A. Budget Challenge” to elicit taxpayer input on resolving the city’s daunting fiscal problems. Pete Peterson, Executive Director of Common Sense California, praises the outreach effort but also suggests some improvements. On the upside, Peterson likes that the innovative public engagement process will result in real consideration of the results, which will be distributed at public meetings next month. He also reports the survey instrument is informative, engaging and quick – a combined civics lesson and budget calculator which draws the user into tough choices on where to cut spending and exactly how to raise revenues.

Armed with the “for/against” information and haunted by the Budget Meter, I really got the sense that I was making trade-off decisions at least at a rudimentary level.

Peterson’s criticisms center on what he and other observers have perceived as some degree of baked-in policy bias related to an ongoing emphasis by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on the importance of public-private partnerships (P3s) as a cost-saving tool. It is impossible to balance the budget using the city-provided online engagement tool, Peterson and others note, without saying “yes” to P3 deals that would offload to private sector players some ownership and management responsibilities for the city’s parking meters and parking structures.

The Mayor’s office subsequently responded, Peterson reports, that in fact, not every possible way of balancing the budget was factored into the exercise. While some parameters have to be drawn, more leeway seems better than less. Choices should not be forced.

One other concern, writes Peterson, is that the phrasing of the questions on budget cuts in specific departments may lead many respondents to choose the middle, or “Goldilocks” option in many instances, but more due to a generalized desire to be moderate than for any specific reasons of public policy.

The question of degree is timely. At the state level, notes Washington Post columnist David Broder, the nation’s governors may through the new decade be forced to address their own pressing budget challenges with much tougher steps than some trims here and there, plus layoffs and furloughs. Agencies may have to be consolidated, public assets sold off, and more, his sources relate. Unless consensus can be built around tax hikes, something that in this economic climate will require an extraordinary degree of collaboration between elected officials and the public.

Peterson notes in closing that among city goverments, Los Angeles is not alone in using online tools to attract a more precise type of public input on difficult budget choices. But he concludes:

The real “challenge” for all these projects will be to ensure participation is not biased or wasted.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: Would you like to see your city, county or state government do something similar to the “Los Angeles Budget Challenge,” online? Is this way of encouraging public input on hard budget choices better or worse than the usual public hearings on the topic? And why?

Governments Should Use New Media To Open And Sustain Dialogs

by February 18th, 2010

In an op-ed for daily newspaper “The Age,” Australian M.P. and Federal Minister Of Finance Lindsay Tanner urges governments to keep investing in the capabilities of blogs, wikis, and social media to establish two-way, transparent conversations with their customers.

“Urban Lunch” Events Goal: Increase Creative Class Civic Engagement

by February 18th, 2010

In New West, Sharon Fisher writes about community building efforts unfolding in Boise. One emphasis is on engaging young professionals in making the region an even better and more vibrant place to live.

Events such as the three incarnations of Ignite Boise proved that Idaho’s creative class could put on a show. Now they’re trying to change the world””or, at least, part of it.

A subset of the same Twitterati that attend, perform, and promote Ignite Boise now hold a monthly lunch event on what can best be described as “civic issues.” Thus far they’ve included the Boise Streetcar, the Boise comprehensive plan, and urban renewal legislation.  The presentations are on a layman’s level and the discussions, held in Boise’s business incubator the Watercooler, are casual and far-ranging.

The result could be a recapturing of the sense of civic engagement that some say that Boise, like many other cities, has lost