Every city, county and state these days is faced with hard decisions about budget cuts and reorganization — and even harsher feedback from residents after the cuts are made. Oakland County, Mich., has found a way to use technology to spark that citizen-to-government communication during the decision-making process. County officials launched an online public forum so residents can be an integral part of making tough budget decisions. 

The website, http://oakgov.ideascale.com, gives citizens the opportunity to respond to questions, make suggestions and post comments. Citizens can also rank the county’s proposals by voting for the ideas they like best on every issue, from technology to parks and recreation.

“Since we are using social media in so many different ways here, we thought … what is the next wave of how we engage our citizens in the process?” said Phil Bertolini, Oakland County’s deputy county executive and CIO. “In a focus group, you put 20 people in a room, you ask the idea and you get 20 opinions. If you use crowdsourcing, you put out an idea and you get thousands of opinions. More minds and more ideas make for a better product.”

Crowdsourcing is the process of leveraging the knowledge of a large group of people in order to render a viable solution.

The county’s e-government team invested $35,000 in a technology called IdeaScale, which organizes residents’ feedback to a posted question into various agency categories associated with whatever discussion is occurring, similar to how people can comment on an online news story. IdeaScale is available for private and public organizations. Oakland County has a government license that waives the product’s monthly fee.

The county’s e-government team will manage the program on a day-to-day basis, but each department will have its own managerial rights to relevant discussions.

To help with development, the county recruited four IT management students from Michigan State University, who used the experience as their capstone project for graduation. The students put 370 hours into the project, which would have equaled about $19,000 of work time, said Bertolini.

Bertolini said he plans on first posing questions relating to county priorities like parks and recreation, economic development and implementing green initiatives. 

One challenge he foresees is weeding through hundreds of comments to dig down to the constructive feedback, “where people actually have ideas, thoughts and problem solutions,” he said. And that might be more of a challenge for a diverse area like Oakland County, with urban, suburban and rural sections, and therefore, people with differing opinions.

“From a county perspective, [the concept] is very unique,” he said.

Lauren Katims Nadeau  |  Contributing Writer