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Palo Alto, Calif's 'Digital Commenter' Gives Citizens a Voice

The Northern California city launched a new tool that brings community meetings to the citizen.

by / September 4, 2015

People want to do the right thing, but not if it makes them late for dinner. Officials at the city of Palo Alto, Calif., realized that traditional in-person civic engagement methods, like community meetings, wouldn’t reach the number of people they wanted. So on July 24, the city launched a new tool called the Digital Commenter -- a tool that helps the city to reach a wider circle of opinionated citizens as the community finalizes its 2030 Comprehensive Plan.

The Digital Commenter, created through a partnership with PlaceWorks and Peak Democracy, added new functionality to the city’s Open City Hall platform. Through the Digital Commenter, citizens can comment on each element of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Each element is open to the public for comment for two weeks, after which time the city will collect the comments and turn them into a report for consideration by the Citizens Advisory Committee.

So far, the tool has blown away the city’s in-person civic engagement numbers, said Lon Peterson, communications manager for the city manager’s office.

“When we got feedback on the original comp plan last time, people came, maybe 50 to 100 people, and they chimed in on the plan, and that was throughout multiple sessions,” Peterson said. “Since we’ve done it digitally … the first element has 350 comments and the other one, the transportation element, already has 175. We’ve far eclipsed the amount of engagement by using digital tools, and especially enhancing those tools to get down to allow a more granular way to comment on something.”

The city paid a one-time fee of $32,000 for Peak Democracy to develop the tool, and has been paying PlaceWorks $3,300 per month to conceptualize the tool and add content, according to the city.

Palo Alto’s citizens expect engagement through modern tools, and the Digital Commenter is how the city is doing that now, Peterson said.

“It’s very important to engage residents beyond the standard 7 to 9 p.m. meeting in the middle of the week,” he said. “It’s not a long-term sustainable way to get community input. Don’t get me wrong. If you have food, you can get people to come out, but I think more people chime in if they can do it at their convenience online when it’s suitable to their environment and their busy lives.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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