DIY Government

Engaging volunteers delivers big results – if you do it right.

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High occupancy express lanes added a few years ago to a busy stretch of Interstate 85 in Atlanta were designed to reduce driver frustration. But a clunky notification process initially had the opposite effect for some motorists. 

Using a small vehicle-mounted transponder known as a Peach Pass, Georgia charged drivers a sliding fee for access to the new high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes based on the amount of traffic congestion. Vehicles carrying at least three people could use the HOT lanes for free, but drivers had to notify the state that they met the occupancy requirement by phone or via the Web at least 15 minutes before using the lanes.

Although the notification process worked, it was cumbersome to many drivers who wanted a quicker and easier way to alert the system. State officials knew a mobile app made sense, but creating one through normal channels would be neither fast nor inexpensive.

“We had wanted a smartphone app, but didn’t have one ready in time for the launch,” said Chris Tomlinson, deputy executive director and general counsel for the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) (pictured above). “There was too much work just negotiating with vendors and calling third parties, and we were being quoted anywhere from $30,000 to several hundred thousand dollars for the app development.” 

Then one Thursday afternoon, a frustrated driver called customer service because the Peach Pass app he’d downloaded from iTunes wasn’t working properly. “What app?” asked Tomlinson’s team.

Some quick research confirmed the existence of the app, and its creator — one Karl Goodhew, a Georgia resident and software developer. Goodhew’s sister was a regular HOT lane user and had complained to him multiple times about wanting a more flexible way to register her toll status. Using screen scrape technology, Goodhew had mapped relevant fields from the SRTA website to an app he created for the iPhone. 

By the following morning, Goodhew had been located and was invited to lunch by SRTA legal counsel and management. “The app didn’t work 100 percent, but we were just amazed he’d done it so quickly,” Tomlinson said. “We were still stuck getting quotes.”

Goodhew offered to clean up the app and develop a second version for Android. The SRTA agreed to market the app — dubbed Peach Pass GO! Mobile — and handle any complaints or queries from HOT lane motorists. The entire engagement cost the SRTA less than $5,000. 

1.   Not making volunteer management part of someone’s job. Organizations with successful volunteer programs have staff who dedicate time to being the center point for volunteers by recruiting, screening, placing, tracking and appreciating volunteers. A great way to retain volunteers is to be well organized. Staff support is needed to make that happen.

2.    Pitting staff against volunteers. For some staff members, adding volunteers can be threatening. There’s fear that volunteers will take over paid positions or be a burden to work with. Staff members need to be part of the planning and execution of the volunteer program so they view volunteers as helping enhance the great work that is already being done.

3.    Failing to write a duty description. Volunteer positions should be treated like a paid position — with a specific description of what needs to be done, requirements for the volunteers, who they’ll report to, etc. The planning process is critical to a successful outcome and helps all parties clearly understand the volunteer role.

4.    Not providing a valuable experience. Volunteers are bringing more skill and knowledge to the table  and are looking for valuable, meaningful and challenging ways to contribute to their communities.

5.    Thinking volunteers will save the organization money. The time volunteers give has a value that can be calculated into a dollar amount, but they require staff time and other resources to manage. The biggest reward governments get for a relationship with volunteers is ownership from our residents.

-- Leigh Britt.  Britt has worked with Columbia, Mo.’s volunteer program since 2000 and is a certified volunteer administrator. She’s also president of the National Association of Volunteer Programs in Local Government.

“We licensed the code from Karl, with rights to modify and edit the app as we saw fit. He sought recognition more than financial gain. He did us a favor,” Tomlinson said. “We were going to do this anyway, once we got past the roadblocks. By the time he came along, we were still planning a procurement, trying to write specs. We released a fully functional app at a time when we otherwise would have still been reviewing drafts of the RFP.”

Today, the app — both iPhone and Android versions — is managed by American Roads Technologies for the SRTA by a staff of dedicated developers who handle all life cycle maintenance. 

“The experience colored our interactions with customers in a real way,” said Tomlinson. “Even complaints can be real opportunities.”

The creation of Peach Pass GO! is a quirky story that shouldn’t be as unusual as it is. In an era of ever increasing open data, digital media and tech engagement, more and more citizens are creating tools that can be used by governments to make smart IT decisions, create new pathways to innovation and forge cost-effective, community-based partnerships. 

The partnership between the SRTA and citizen Karl Goodhew may have been unlikely, but city and state governments around the country are realizing the benefit of such arrangements during the economic downturn, and are taking steps to encourage and promote citizen engagement in tech projects, where appropriate.

Mary Lynn Perry, volunteer coordinator of Sacramento, Calif., has recruited and managed volunteers for the city for about 10 years. Her reach covers all departments and programs associated with the city, as well as nonprofits, such as the Sacramento Zoo, that fall under the capital city’s jurisdiction. 

Sacramento has long recognized the benefit of an organized, official volunteer program, which it runs under the general budget of human resources. In an IT capacity, volunteers are regularly brought in to assist with an ongoing GIS program, in IT support/help desk roles and with special projects, such as software code development and website design.

A weakened economy, said Perry, is a boost for volunteer programs. “Things are improving, but there are still a lot of unemployed people,” she said. “Graduates just out of college can struggle to find work in their field of study, often due to a mismatch between their actual work experience and their degree focus. Volunteer work can help bridge that gap. Then there are the workers who have found themselves without regular employment, but want to keep their skills relevant, and the retiring baby boomers with a solid workforce history and current skills who want to contribute. There is a very strong talent pool out there right now, and it’s a good time to try utilizing volunteers, if you aren’t already.”

Perry advises starting by closely examining your needs. Volunteers should be used to supplement staff, not to replace them. Figure out tasks that can be turned over, then write a thorough job description. 

“Traditional volunteer recruitment works best when assigning well defined tasks relating to projects that people believe in,” agreed Lea Deesing, former IT director for San Bernardino, Calif., and current associate vice chancellor of information services for the Riverside Community College District.

But Deesing, founder of Save Four Paws, a volunteer-based group that uses social media to help animal shelters spread the word about lost or adoptable pets, said the rise of crowdsourcing means some tasks can be less defined. “When we use volunteers to help save shelter animals through Save Four Paws, they spread the word via social media,” she said. “We really don’t need to ask them to do this, and we certainly don’t need to tell them how to do it. They already know how to use social media to advocate initiatives they care about, so we don’t have to train them. It’s an ideal model.”

Maryalice Crofton, executive director of the Maine Commission for Community Service, added that professionals like those sought for IT projects will expect realistic time frames and guidelines. The way tasks are approached from the beginning can impact success as well. For instance, does using the term “pro bono” instead of “volunteer” change attitudes?

“Be very clear about what you want a volunteer to do, as well as what training you will provide and what you will do if the product or outcome doesn’t meet expectations,” Crofton said. “Some of it is about your specificity. Some is about where you look.”

The commission has in the past engaged in a successful two-year collaboration with an online teaching expert, who trained commission employees to conduct effective webinar presentations. “She was quite good at it, and it’s a great example of managing the needs of a state agency with the skills and interests of a potential volunteer. New to Maine, [the volunteer] wanted a way to plug into her community. She was coming from a major metropolitan area to a very rural state, and volunteering gave her a chance to get connected,” Crofton said.


Technical, civic-minded citizens can help create the tools to facilitate citizen interaction with government agencies, and have already done so by way of grass-roots-style application development efforts. “Many mobile field reporting applications were originally created by third parties, without the involvement of government agencies,” said Deesing. “These applications were being used by the masses long before government agencies sponsored them. That sponsorship came later, once agencies realized these tools were not going to go away. It was critical for agencies to become proactive in this area, so they could integrate these reporting tools with their back-end systems.”

Philadelphia is home to a real, thriving, early stage tech community, said the city’s Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid. Tech-savvy individuals and startups are constantly looking for demand to develop apps, demand that the government can provide. Ebeid’s team hosts, sponsors and attends hackathons and tech meetups to rally and inspire the tech community and help the city government solve problems.

Tech-forward from the top down, the city’s government looks to continually create ways to engage with citizens through innovative IT. The local tech community has helped the government develop apps for funding, planting trees and for texting. In a city where 41 percent of the population does not have access to the Internet, texting is a resource that is heavily leveraged.

“The best role a government can play is the role of convener, enabler or supporter. And data is the actual match-maker between supply and demand,” said Ebeid. “Resist the temptation to follow old processes or very old systems. Take the time to understand community sentiment. Focus heavily on open environment, open API and open data. Encourage everyone to be involved in the solution. And, most important, don’t be afraid to say what we’ve done in the past isn’t working. That isn’t failure; it’s courageous.”

What’s the dollar value of using volunteers in your agency? Created by volunteer advocacy organization Points of Light, the Economic Impact of Volunteers Calculator does just that. The tool estimates the appropriate wage rate for volunteer time based on the value of tasks according to market conditions as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor. The calculator includes a broad array of jobs — ranging from actuaries to zoologists — and lists the hourly rate and benefit for each. Add the two hourly figures together and multiply that by the number of volunteer hours to determine the value of volunteers’ time.

Sol Villarreal, community engagement coordinator for Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, said it’s important to be radically transparent in order to break down barriers between communities not traditionally involved in government. 

McGinn’s office has made a concentrated effort to engage with the Seattle tech scene, particularly through events such as hackathons, and has looked to well established models already in use in cities like Chicago and New York to plan effective events. 

In April, Seattle, King County and Washington state hosted Startup Weekend GOV at the Seattle City Hall, an intense 54-hour event that focused on building credible Web and mobile applications. The weekend brought together software developers, graphic designers and business people to build apps and develop a commercial case around them, crunch government data sets, improve public safety and work alongside local government officials. 

The Evergreen Apps Challenge was launched at Startup Weekend GOV and wrapped up on Oct. 1. The challenge was a cooperative effort among the state of Washington, King County and Seattle to encourage economic development and job growth by encouraging local entrepreneurs to build mobile software applications that could help people create useful experiences from government data. More than $75,000 in prizes were awarded for the best apps in a number of categories, including a $20,000 grand prize.

“App contests are a great way to amplify work already under way,” said Villarreal. “These events have been very successful for us. Primarily handled by our IT department, we help to promote them. We source event sponsorship and prizes from various companies, so there is not a huge financial outlay to the city government.”

Best Overall App and Best State App prizes at the Evergreen Apps Challenge were awarded to the Living Voters Guide, first released in 2010 by Travis Kriplean and a team from Seattle CityClub and several departments of the University of Washington (Computer Science and Engineering, Political Science, Communications and Human-Centered Design).

Kriplean, a graduate of University of Washington, is now launching a startup based on the voter guide technology. “The Living Voters Guide operates on a simple but powerful model. It is new technology that engages citizens in constructive dialog on ballot measures and political issues. Governments are a great example of organizations best suited to use this kind of technology,” he explained. With a background in computer science and social science, Kriplean said government is not his primary focus. However, “it just so happens that government is at the center of so many critical issues.” Wise words that should serve as a motivator to other city and state governments looking to extend their resources. 

“There should be more collaboration between government and the people it serves. A lot of it comes down to leadership and finding people in positions of power willing to collaborate and try something new. The barrier isn’t so much about metropolis versus rural or small versus big. It’s being able to identify the people in positions of power within the government who are willing to engage,” he said. 

Indeed, hackathons and other events that use open data sourced from governments can be powerful. They can “remove the veil of how government works,” said data mapper Chris Whong. “The more engaged a city’s government is with its local tech scene, the more willing its citizens will be to give back.”

When it comes to citizen engagement, and the utilization of volunteers for technical purposes, sustainability should be at the heart of every project or job. Rapid innovation, while positive and invigorating, must also be sustainable and fruitful. 

Nonprofits are a good place to look for inspiration and examples. While governments will certainly have different restrictions and accountabilities, there is much that can be learned. Starting small, such as using volunteers in an intern capacity, allows you to set firm restrictions and have a built-in safety valve — there are set time limits, expectations and structural requirements, as well as clear models to follow.

“Engaging citizens as volunteers allows a government to build bridges with the people it serves,” said Maine’s Crofton. “Governments have an incentive for people to be able to see up close and personal how they work.”

Main photo of Chris Tomlinson, deputy executive director and general counsel, Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority, by Stan Kaady

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Jess Meyer Maria has written for online and print publications across the United States, New Zealand and Australia.