Online civic engagement can yield powerful results, but the maker of a platform and two of its clients caution agencies that technology is no substitute for planning and utilization.
The chief executive officer of an Australian civic engagement platform described his U.S. business as “building fast” in the 18 months since he relocated to the country, but he and two municipal users of its online solutions warned other agencies to focus narrowly on the problems they would solve before making any such investment — and to fully utilize whatever they buy.
Bang the Table, founded in 2007, opened a U.S. headquarters in Boulder, Colo., in the spring of 2016. It has roughly 27 U.S. clients, 57 in Canada, around a dozen in New Zealand and 200 in Australia. Most are governments and local authorities.
The company’s work centers on two software solutions — a participatory budgeting tool called Budget Allocator; and its civic participation platform, EngagementHQ, which has eight tools ranging from surveys and mapping to ideas and discussion areas.
Over nine years, its mission of helping people shape the municipal decisions that affect their lives has never wavered, said CEO Matthew Crozier, who came from a career in government that left him frustrated at an inability to connect with “a broad cross-section of the community.”
“I saw government organizations make bad decisions based on the small groups that would turn up to be engaged. So we thought we could change that. What we’re finding as we go around — that need is there to engage more people. But also, to engage them properly,” Crozier said.
Online civic engagement is capable of expanding an agency’s audience a hundredfold, Crozier said. But the concept is only as good as the campaign it powers, and municipalities that fail to clearly define the issues they’re trying to resolve, or that don’t fully exploit the solution they purchase, may see their results suffer accordingly.
“We see the most success in online engagement when people strip down the big strategy to the issues that are the component parts. The earlier in the process you talk to the community, and the more clearly you define the issues, the better result you get,” Crozier said.
Two of its U.S. clients have had varying experiences in online civic engagement — and one is actively weighing its options — but neither are leaving that space any time soon.
CLEARING A HIGH BAR IN AUSTIN
Austin, Texas’, tech-focused state capital has high standards for engagement strategies, its Chief Communications Director Doug Matthews said. The agency was Bang the Table’s first U.S. client about five to six years ago. While it found value in the relationship, it moved on to another vendor with a specialty in private-sector focus-grouping and idea generation — and local support.
The resulting product, Speak Up Austin, the city’s community engagement portal, aims to educate residents about upcoming projects and meetings, survey their opinions and let them create, share and vote on ideas.
During the intervening years, companies like MindMixer, Peak Democracy and others have entered the online civic engagement space, Matthews pointed out, all offering similar feature sets and “a lot of commonality between them.”
After its first go-around with Bang the Table, Austin is again eyeing a pilot project with the company to go with a parallel pilot of Cityzen's PublicInput.
The goal with any solution, the communications director said, is to amplify the agency’s ability to involve the community in decision-making.
“It’s not a replacement for all of the other things that we do," Matthews said. "But in order to extend to the most potential audiences, you’ve got to have something in that digital space.”
The city has facilitated 80 discussions since 2012 through Speak Up Austin, on everything from affordable housing to mobile food recycling. But, concerned about its current provider’s levels of product diversification and availability, it is embarking on two year-long pilots — one with Bang the Table, the other with North Carolina-based PublicInput — to vet other solutions.
“It may be that we find there is a preferred ‘mothership’ of sorts for all of our engagement activities. But it may be just as possible that it proves out that we do need a selection of tools based on the need as opposed to one tool that fulfills all the needs,” Matthews said. “And I don’t know the answer to that question.”
BETTER PREPARED IN BOULDER
Boulder, a city of more than 100,000, was among the first of 32 cohorts chosen to participate in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, helping municipalities be more resilient to physical, social and economic challenges.
Following recent wildfire and flood disasters, the city’s resilience strategy seeks to create a culture of risk awareness, help citizens prepare for future events, better understand the changes taking place around it and embed resilience into its own operations.
Resilient Boulder, its corresponding department, launched the website Resilient Together late last year as a partnership with Boulder County powered by EngagementHQ, said Greg Guibert, the city’s chief resilience officer.
After a year-long exploration, Boulder will likely renew its involvement for a three-year contract “in the next couple of months,” Guibert said.
“It’s hit all our proof-points this year. We feel pretty confident about it and we’re looking to make a longer-term commitment,” Guibert said.
Among its notable dialogues, the city’s urban forestry division of its Parks and Recreation Department used the platform to hear from residents about an infestation of the Emerald Ash Borer beetle that could eliminate 15-20 percent of its urban forest and 20-30 percent of its tree canopy.
The city learned what types of trees residents would like to see replace dying ash trees, and was educated in turn about where infected trees exist on private land.
Officials also used the platform to provide more than 80 rain barrels and installation guidance to mobile home park residents; and to assess low-income properties for issues including water drainage, sewer blockage and wildfire preparedness.
“It’s citizens and community members talking to each other, but also talking to us and providing feedback and direction on our programming rather than a central communications strategy or messaging," Guibert said. This was definitely a missing piece in our programming."