Seeking greater citizen engagement by taking town hall feedback to the cloud

Boosting engagement by taking town hall feedback to the cloud

When officials in Hanford, Calif., hold city council or town hall meetings, the same five to 10 residents usually show up to offer their input on agenda items.

“It might be schedule or maybe it’s lack of interest,” said City Clerk Jennifer Gomez, but “we’re just not getting the information to them.”

To change that, the city is setting up Accela Civic Voice, a new cloud-based solution that could help its 55,000-plus residents become much more engaged. In the coming weeks, the San Ramon, Calif.-based company will establish a portal that rebrands the city’s website and enables users to click a date, view an agenda and get details on items. Additionally, users can register to post comments on those items or suggest additional ones.

Plus, Civic Voice gives city staff a way to get citizen feedback before they take an item to council for approval, Gomez said. “If you take it to council, that’s when everyone starts speaking up, saying, ‘Hey, what about this issue or what about that?’ And if we haven’t considered that… we have to start all over again.”

Civic Voice is essentially a way for governments to issue requests for information on any topic and for city residents to crowdsource solutions to problems using the forums and discussions feature. For instance, Gomez said, if the city were to get an infusion of federal funds, it could post a notification via Civic Voice and ask for feedback on what the city should do with the money.

“I like the idea of another tool for people being able to communicate, whether it be the public communicating with the city or the city communicating with the people,” she said. “The more opportunities, I think, the better.”

Plus, any of Hanford’s seven departments can use the solution. The Public Works Department could issue notices about planned construction, for instance.

The portal that Accela creates is web-based and responsive for use on mobile devices including smartphones and tablets. No existing technology is required to make Civic Voice work. “We just turn it on and cities get going,” said Daryl Blowes, general manager of Accela’s Legislative Management Solutions.

The solution includes a ZIP-code filter for narrowing and broadening responses as needed and built-in “bad word” checks to block offensive content. Additionally, officials can set deadlines for comment periods.

On the back end, the solution routes information to the relevant departments or staff members, as set up by the city. Government users can also set activity threshold levels so that once a topic gets a certain number of mentions, the appropriate city worker gets an alert about it.

“It’s got an open API so that other developers can use that data or information and connect other products into it,” Blowes added.

Civic Voice is part of the company’s larger Civic Platform, which has features such as digital boardrooms that display meeting content and voting results in real time, civic streaming for live and on-demand video of public meetings and tools for putting board and commission governance in the cloud. Another feature -- agenda and minutes management -- is what drew Gomez to Accela in the first place. When she mentioned the engagement function to council members, they were sold, she said.

The bottom line, Blowes said, is that although town hall meetings have been engaging the electorate for hundreds of years, they’re no longer enough.

The younger generation expects to contribute and participate in government via digital tools. Conversations are already happening on the Internet and on social media sites, Blowes said, so this is really an opportunity for Hanford to be proactive and channel those conversations into a place where they can leverage citizen engagement instead of “having their citizens complaining on Facebook about their mayor.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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