In a time where transparency and open government are increasingly developing and evolving, there is a gap between the abundance of news the public can access and how constituents can provide feedback on such information.
Cities that conduct in-person town hall meetings often hear from groups that do not represent the totality of the community.
“Communities often have the same five to 10 people that come to the meetings,” said Jennifer Gomez, city clerk for Hanford, Calif. “I want to get beyond those same people every time.
Hanford decision-makers recently decided to integrate Civic Voice, a cloud-based platform designed to help government agencies engage citizens online. Created by Accela, a provider for civic engagement software, Civic Voice allows constituents to engage local government through a portal that is branded to appear similar to the city’s website.
“We will be able to be more responsive to their needs and concerns because they will have a way to direct it through Civic Voice rather than waiting to come to a council meeting,” Gomez said. “A lot of people are not comfortable coming up to the microphone. People can express their concerns and submit something online. This opens up the world for populations, such as the elderly, who may not be able to attend meetings. And the younger generations that are tech savvy can get on their computer or smartphone and participate that way. The more people involved, the better the community will be. We are not eliminating one method of communication. We are adding.”
Hanford officials approved the solution at its most recent city council meeting and anticipate launching the solution in a couple of months. At that time, citizens will be able to offer feedback on planned and ongoing projects through forums and discussions; find projects and initiatives through online search capabilities; and crowdsource ideas by creating, sharing and commenting on government and citizen-generated ideas.
“We want to give additional channels for citizens that are really convenient so they can give their feedback on important topics,” said Daryl Blowes, general manager for Accela’s legislative management.
As California manages water conservation in light of its current drought, Gomez said Civic Voice will be useful in allowing citizens to ask questions and voice concerns about water ordinances and restrictions that require clarification.
“A lot of people do not know what is going on,” said Gomez. “Traditionally people rely on newspapers for what is going on locally. But if the newspaper is not doing an article on it, then they are not being informed.”
Civic Voice will let Hanford and other city governments track public opinion and share responses with officials through a dashboard. Decision-makers can set threshold levels for specific types of activities and filter checks for particular content. When activities, projects or specific content is trending, staff can be alerted. Then, personnel can route content to the officials responsible for topics to ensure appropriate response.
“We are focusing on how can we help a city get something done and get back to the citizens,” Blowes said. “We are building out more tools on the back end.”
For example, Blowes said, if online petition is created via Civic Voice and the petition was to generate a certain number of signatures, it could trigger a particular workflow process for the city. That process may then include other solutions that are a part of the Civic Platform.
“The Civic Voice is going to become a channel within the Civic Platform,” Blowes said. “Government has little things scattered in silos and makes it difficult to manage.”
Accela's pricing varies depending on a jurisdiction's population. Civic Voice ranges from a couple hundred dollars per month to $1,000 to $2,000 per month, depending on the size of the city or county.