OpenGov had a lot of tools to help government work better with itself. Now it wants to bring citizens further into the process.
If a city’s staff can put together a budget with input from multiple departments, with feedback from citizens, complete with performance metrics and data visualization, OpenGov will have gotten what it wants.
And so OpenGov has acquired another government-serving tech company, Peak Democracy of Berkeley, Calif.
OpenGov built its reputation upon a wave of open data hype, but lately it has been trying to move beyond that. It’s expanded its offerings from a couple of products to eight in a matter of two years. Those products include the company’s root focus — open data — as well as performance metrics, budget-building and collaboration tools.
But most of that was internally focused. The company was, in effect, setting up a portfolio of functionality designed to help government work better with itself. Peak Democracy’s function has always been to help government work better with the citizens it serves.
Peak Democracy is older than OpenGov, but smaller. Robert Vogel and Mike Cohen started it a full decade ago, in 2007, and the whole time they have offered cities a way to collect citizen feedback with an emphasis on informed opinions, diverse perspectives and civil discussion. The crew’s core product is called Open Town Hall. They have 110 local government customers, mostly cities.
Zac Bookman, OpenGov’s chief executive officer, thinks that civic engagement can be worked into virtually every product his company offers.
“Our mission is broad, and it’s to power more effective and accountable government, and their product set fits into each of our three product lines, and as you look into the products, you think, ‘Wow, how could it not be enhanced and differentiated with the Open Town Hall product?’” he said.
The company is talking a lot about the potential of civic engagement when it comes to budgeting in particular. They aren’t quite dipping their feet into the experimental notion of “participatory budgeting” — where citizens get a decisive say in what goes into the budget — but they’re searching for something akin to it.
Expectations are key to that process, said Vogel. If citizens go into the process knowing the city will listen to them, but that they aren’t directly setting the budget themselves, it could give government workers a way to better incorporate its constituents’ priorities into the spending.
“A city can say, ‘Look, we hear you. And we’re not making it up, it’s right here on the website, here’s what you said, and here’s how we used it to influence the budgeting process,’” Vogel said. “It’s very transparent.”
The idea is to create a complete ecosystem of products that opens communication channels between city and citizen throughout the process: A citizen can give feedback throughout the budget-building process, the city can incorporate that and then show them how their ideas were worked in, then it can create performance goals and measure how well its spending is accomplishing its desired results. Citizens can inform themselves with data as they participate in the process.
It all fits in pretty well with what Sara Dechter, comprehensive planning manager at the city of Flagstaff, Ariz., wants to do. Her city has been using both Peak Democracy and OpenGov for a couple years each, and she’s been looking for ways to use both for the same purposes: Informing citizens about what the city is doing and getting them engaged with the process.
In her line of work, that’s a challenge. She works in a part of governance — planning for the city’s future — where public information either comes out so often citizens stop paying attention or so infrequently that citizens have a hard time staying engaged with it. Before she started her job, she said, her department managed to get citizens involved in the process and giving feedback until a big project was completed.
“It all fizzled away as soon as that project was done,” Dechter said.
That’s why she wanted to start using Peak Democracy. By offering a static website where citizens can comment on ongoing issues, the city could draw citizens in during the in-between moments and ask for feedback before a city has already committed to doing something. In a way, it draws the city into some of the standards that have become common in the technology industry — get user feedback when a thing is being built, not after.
“We want to create a feedback loop that’s much more iterative and valuable,” she said.
That’s important for a city like Flagstaff. It’s not a big city, and Dechter’s department is herself and a half-position’s worth of work. Maybe an intern. It’s not easy to follow what the big cities are doing with data and technology.
“Really small teams need really smart platforms to help us get things done and help us aspire to do a lot better,” she said.
And they do help in some concrete ways, she said. For example, the city used Open Town Hall on a recent affordable housing project where neighbors were gathering up opposition to a development near them. That’s a cycle cities across the country see again and again. It even has a nickname: Not in My Back Yard, or NIMBY.
But the conversation changes when you bring in people from across the city to talk about an affordable housing development, and not just the people who will live next to it.
“What could have been just a NIMBY issue became a much more valuable conversation about where our affordable housing is going to be,” Dechter said.
Though nothing has changed with either product yet — the companies have integration work ahead of them — Dechter said she’s interested to see how they can support each other. For her part, she has confidence in both companies’ abilities to help customers like her.
“These are two of the best companies we’ve been working with in terms of customer service,” Dechter said. “They’re there to help us troubleshoot, they’re there to help us think about the problems. It’s more than just technical support.”
OpenGov didn’t disclose terms of the acquisition, but Bookman said the company will bring in the entire Peak Democracy team. Both Peak Democracy co-founders will stay on to help with integration, sales and marketing, product work and customer success.
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