Penn State Project Strives to Increase Participation in Local Government

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and the goal is to create increased citizen involvement in local government.

by Sarah Rafacz, Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.) / February 16, 2017

(TNS) -- A partnership between Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology and the State College borough is working to increase meaningful citizen participation in local government.

The GeoDeliberation Project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, began in 2012 and is in its final year, said principal investigator Guoray Cai.

“Half of (the) work is really about understanding why people don’t participate, why people have trouble with participation, and the other side of the work is how to develop methodology and technology support to kind of compensate for those difficulties and be able to enable more meaningful participation,” said Cai, an associate professor of IST.

One aspect of the project is the Community Issue Review.

The CIR brings together a panel of between 10 and 20 community members — meant to represent the general population — who have stakes in a particular issue, Cai said.

The team uses the taxpayer database to reach out to people through mailings, said Sarah Moore, an undergraduate researcher on the project. The team also reaches out to different organizations, posts fliers downtown and uses social media.

The most recent issue CIR focused on is an inflation-based property tax proposal.

With the help of experts, Cai said, those on the panel are charged with investigating the issue and reporting their findings to the broader public with a Citizens’ Statement.

The Citizens’ Statement is a summary of what the issue is, fundamental challenges, alternatives and the proposal’s positive and negative consequences, he said. The statement is also sent to the borough council members.

The panel met in person on days one and 10 and then worked online in the days in between, Cai said.

Dwight Miller, the borough’s manager of financial services, presented some background information on inflation-based property tax.

It was great to work with Penn State, and it’s a good vehicle to gather input, Miller said.

“Traditional methods of participation seem (like) they’re not gonna scale up to the meaningful participation. The online deliberation is something people see as opportunity for scaling up the participation. However, the conversation ... online tends to be short and shallow kind of discussion,” Cai said.

And that’s why they utilize a hybrid approach to reap the benefits of each type of communication.

“What we’re hoping is to further develop this technology or methodology together so that we can hand (it) over to communities like State College borough,” Cai said. “And they can actually exercise this engagement practice on their own.”

Cai and his team are also working to organize a mass deliberation experiment to see if they can enable broader participation.

He said the goal would be to have 150-200 borough residents participate in the event, which is scheduled to take place in March.

“We hope that this deliberation in the community will lead to a more engaged citizen base and feed into the borough’s council meeting agenda to inform their decision-making,” Moore said.

The CIR process helps to foster more in-depth conversation and provide a platform to engage a larger audience, said Courtney Hayden, former communication coordinator for the borough.

It has increased the depth of participation, and people have started to understand the intricacies of issues, Hayden said.

“We do envision this ... eventually will be a powerful democracy machine that can enable this community to really build in better capacity for participation,” Cai said.

©2017 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.