February 3, 2012 By Brian Heaton
A new interactive application will soon make “citizen sourcing” all about fun and games for users of some local government websites.
Called “Community Voice,” the platform allows residents to submit ideas and suggestions online to government officials. Citizens create a profile and as they participate in discussions or offer up commentary, they earn points and badges and compete with others to rise up in ranking on a community interaction leader board.
Developed by website designer CivicPlus for its clients, the idea behind the application is to provide an engaging way for residents to get their opinions, questions and concerns voiced to local government leaders. A handful of cities and counties have beta tested the platform, including Stafford County, Va.; Goodyear, Ariz.; and Placentia, Calif.
Stafford County gave the back-end operations of Community Voice a trial run in December 2011. According to Allison Sisson, the county’s webmaster, the county plans to activate it in March for the public. The platform’s simplicity is something she felt would be a big advantage to get the pulse of the community on various topics.
Here’s how it works: The city or county can post about a topic, inviting user conversation. When a person replies, he gets points toward badges or “ribbons” that spotlight the individual as a commenter. Users can also reply to other peoples’ posts, ala Facebook, to enhance the overall discussion on an issue, expanding an official’s knowledge about the community’s point of view on a subject.
Sisson said that Stafford County often has been called a “bedroom community,” as many citizens maintain homes in the county but work in Washington, D.C. She said she believes that Community Voice would be a helpful tool to connect these commuters who don’t have the time to appear at local functions and express their opinions.
“An application like this is great for us because a lot of the time input we get from our citizens are at board meetings during the public comment phase,” Sisson said. “If you’re a commuter in D.C., you don’t necessarily get to the meetings or to Town Hall to give your comments. This is a way to put it out there that they’ll be able to do that.”
Sisson observed at county board meetings that it’s usually the same 20 people showing up to voice their opinions. Community Voice could help change that by allowing those whose time is a bit more restricted to log on using their mobile device and take part in county affairs.
The county had about 450 board items to consider last year. But with the new platform, those same items could be posted well in advance to the Stafford County website, giving people a chance to show what’s most important to them.
Sisson said the county eventually is going to post a variety of topics for public discussion using Community Voice, including public safety, education, economic development and the urban development small area plan.
The application will also be making its public debut in Goodyear, Ariz., during the next few weeks. In an email to Government Technology, the city’s webmaster, Cathy Hozian, said Goodyear wants as much input into as many different topics as possible and that citizens would get good use out of the application once it goes live.
Hozian said that situations such as the recent recruitment of the city’s new police chief, Jerry Geier, would have been an ideal situation to use the application to solicit the thoughts of residents. Ultimately, however, she felt that Goodyear’s use of crowdsourcing to solicit opinions will be geared toward improving transparency.
“The need for this type of forum is to bridge some of the holes in our current ‘feedback' system, which is strictly one-on-one communication,” Hozian said. “This platform will enable us to reach more citizens and to have them build on each other's ideas. This does not necessarily mean that everything they request/suggest will be acted upon, but it does give them a centralized place to voice their ideas and opinions.”
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