Faced with gathering community input for the 225-acre Philip S. Miller Park, officials in Castle Rock, Colo., decided to supplement their in-person meetings using an online platform.

Community Voice is an online citizen sourcing module developed by CivicPlus, the Web firm of choice for Castle Rock since 2009.

“The idea behind the module is allowing that open feedback avenue for towns like Castle Rock to reach out to citizens in the avenues that they most frequent,” said Michael Ashford, marketing director for CivicPlus.

Tools like this are helping to redefine what it means to engage with government in the modern age. Increasingly public-sector agencies are using online tools to maximize the amount of citizen input that factors into policy decisions like park planning.

Karen McGrath serves as community relations creative services supervisor in Castle Rock. She explained to Government Technology that online engagement is an option that fits the needs of busy citizens.

“Our goal is to have a very open, transparent relationship with our residents. I think what works the best is when we give people numerous ways to connect,” McGrath explained. “Community Voice, as an online social media platform, was very successful. It is easy for us to utilize as administrators and easy for users to voice their comments quickly.”

In Castle Rock, officials worked with an outside consultant to develop a listing of park amenities that residents could approve or disapprove, by selecting “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” icons. Comments could also be added via the platform. Residents were asked to weigh in on many possible features, including tennis courts, a nature center and a cultural arts venue.

This format was duplicated on the physical worksheets handed out to attendees of public meetings. These dual input-gathering processes made it simple to condense and present all feedback to the Town Council when it convened in March 2012 to consider options for the park’s first phase. Construction on the first phase is set to begin in 2013, with completion expected in 2014.

Officials explained that residents of the 50,000-strong town, situated between Denver and Colorado Springs, are already actively engaged with the government’s social media efforts on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Using online “citizen sourcing” was a natural extension of those activities.

“We had specific ideas that we wanted the public to react to, and they could add their own ideas. We really wanted feedback on certain potential amenities and so that's why we used it in the way that we did,” said Castle Rock management analyst Kristin Accola.

Feedback for the park master plan was solicited for about a month. During the same period, city staff conducted two in-person meetings to gather feedback. In the end, there were almost as many residents who chose to share their opinions online as the number who came to community meetings.

Castle Rock staff members intend to continue to utilize the online platform as feedback is needed on future phases of park planning. The entire process is expected to span as many as 15 years, depending on the availability of funds. According to McGrath, future projects in other areas of the city, including roadways and water initiatives, will also gather citizen input online in this manner.

“We need to have every option that we can have out there for residents to be able to communicate with us,” she concluded.

Noelle Knell, Assistant Web Editor Noelle Knell  |  Managing Editor

Government Technology managing editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience, writing about public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she graduated from the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and @GovTechNoelle on Twitter.