New Approach and Statewide Reach: Go Code Colorado Builds a New Way to Do Civic Tech

I ran this interview at EngagingCities last month, talking about Go Code Colorado — a great initiative that combines elements of a hackathon and an entrepreneurship accelerator — and statewide, no less — to develop innovative technology solutions to the state’s information and service needs.

It’s a pretty awesome program, and I’m looking forward to hearing this year’s results in a few weeks.  In the meantime, read this interview and see what you can apply.  You might learn about growing new ideas, building on your very own data to get businesses going, using the information you already have to make your services better, or something else.  Enjoy!

Draft Chapter 2 of upcoming Online Public Engagement Book

I recently finished a pretty-decent draft of Chapter 2 of the Online Public Engagement Book, due out next year from Routledge Press.

In this chapter, I’m trying to address one of the basic problems of public engagement, on- or offline: We don’t all mean the same thing when we use those words (or words that sound a lot like them).  People who live and breathe public engagement often think about different types of public engagement via two frameworks, or taxonomies, that divide public engagement into an ascending system of more meaningful involvement.

But what I’ve found is that (1) most non- academics don’t know those systems, and (2) when most non-academics do encounter those two systems, they seem to find them confusing. And they misinterpret them, which isn’t helping anyone.

In this draft chapter I created a simpler system of types of public engagement, focusing on two factors: what kind of experience the public has, and what kind of problems staff and officials hit in each type.  And there’s only four basic types, which is less than in the other two.  That in itself should count for something, right?  But the purpose,of course, is to make sure that I have a common language with the reader when we start talking about different kinds of online public engagement — and to keep them from having to memorize the minutiae of those more complicated structures first.

So take a look at this and let me know what you think.   I’d particularly like to know if the divisions make sense to you, if the descriptions are off-base, or if anything seems muddled.

Thanks!

 

Chapter 2:  Defining Public Engagement: A four-level approach.

We have available to us about a dozen ways that we could define the basic work of this book: engaging people in the public life and public decision-making of their community.  As I have learned over the years, talking about “public engagement” or “public involvement” or similar terms can become a quagmire, because it often turns out that people do not mean the same things by those terms.

For people working for transportation firms in the US, or for “consultation” specialists in UK Commonwealth countries, public engagement typically means presenting information on an project or draft plan and addressing questions or comments. For planners working on long-range issues, such as a comprehensive plan, typical public engagement actions may include feedback questions, such as “what should this area look like?” or “what is your vision for the future of the neighborhood?” Such questions, while inviting participants to take a more active role in the community decision-making than the largely passive viewer/commenter in the first example, still places the resident in a peripheral role: that of an information source, functionally similar to the demographic data and GIS map layers that the professionals use to develop plans.

In a relatively small number of cases, planners and community advocates have found more robust and more direct means of engaging residents in decision -making around the future of their communities.   Public engagement specialists, often originating from a community development or academic background, have developed a variety of methods, such as World Cafe and the Fishbowl, that are designed to facilitate more meaningful sharing of information among community residents, often as much with the intent of building connectivity and mutual understanding among residents of different backgrounds as for the purpose of making policy decisions.

Finally, a small but growing number of strategies have begun to emerge that place the work of making community decisions directly in the hands of private residents.  Participatory -based budgeting allocates the decision about how to use a portion of a community’s budget to a citizen – based process, and participants work collaboratively through a process that determines what projects or initiatives will be funded in then coming budget cycle.  And in the collection of tactics generally known as tactical urbanism or [other names], residents directly intervene in the physical appearance or function of the community by building and placing street furniture, changing parking spaces or driving lanes to pedestrian use, creating and installing new signs, or making other kinds of physical, typically temporary, changes – sometimes with, and sometimes without, the approval of the local government.  The purposes of tactical urbanist interventions are twofold: they physically demonstrate the potential impact that more permanent features would have on the community’s transportation and quality of life, and they give residents a concrete and immediate opportunity to impact their environs.

The direct impacts of either participatory budgeting or tactical urbanism intiatives tend to be limited – the amount  of budget available for a participatory-based budgeting initiative is usually a fraction of the total budget, and the physical area impacted by a tactical urbanism event is generally limited to a few blocks.  Anecdotal evidence from both types of activity, however, seems to indicate an increased understanding of community needs and an increased sense of agency -of having the power to influence one’s community’s future – among participants.

Online public engagement methods have the potential to facilitate a wide variety of public engagement, from making detailed project information more readily available to enabling crowdsourced decision-making around budget and policy choices. However, any discussion of online public engagement methods will soon run up against the same basic challenge:  when we use that term, what kind of engagement – what kind of participant experience– are we talking about?

We could divide public participation tasks according to one of several existing organization systems, or taxonomies.  The two most commonly used in public engagement theory and practice derive from Sherry R. Arnestein’s 1969 academic paper, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” and the International Association of Public Participation’s Public Participation Spectrum. [Footnote that IAP2’s spectrum is copyrighted]

Although these two taxonomies reflect the same basic idea – that one’s options in selecting public engagement activities range along a spectrum from generally less to more active engagement on the part of the public – they divide and label the classifications differently.  Figure 1 gives a summary comparison of the two systems:

 

[Figure 1: Relative Structure of Arnstein and IAP2 taxonomies]

 

From my perspective, both of these frameworks capture the central issue of recognizing more to less intensive public engagement options, but the number of divisions and the sometimes abstract wording appears to have made it difficult for these insights to find widespread use outside of an academic context.  Practitioners who need to think though these options seem to have some tendency to become tangled in the fine-grained differentiations, and the terminology can both make these distinctions harder to think about and lead to mistaken assumption  that one is doing higher-level engagement that is actually the case.  Among commercial online public engagement platform providers, blog posts claiming that their tool addresses the whole Spectrum appear on a relatively regular basis, even when the tool in questions is designed for feedback, not decision -making.

For these reasons, this book will use the following framework of engagement types, which is detailed enough to demarcate what I think are the most crucial differentiations while at the same time keeping the framework simple enough to use in routine process planning.

The four engagement types we will talk about are:

 

Telling

Asking

Discussing

Deciding

Figure 2 summarizes the engagement types in terms of the roles of citizens, professional staff and elected officials, as well as common key words that may appear in materials about a public engagement event of that type.  More detailed descriptions follow.

 

[Figure 2]

 

Telling

Telling public engagement efforts focus on informing and sharing information.  The primary purpose of the event is to make sure that the information that has been deemed pertinent to the public has been expressed in a public format and has been made available for public consumption.  Common information types shared in a  Telling engagement includes existing conditions, professionals’ criteria for making a decision, design options developed and selected by professionals, and the legislative or administrative approval process.  Information is presented in a lecture or other narrative format, or through a self-guided review of maps and posters at an in person meeting or online.

The public’s options for response, and especially for influencing the outcome of the initiative, is heavily limited when a Telling format is used.  In a conventional meeting format, attendees may (or may not) have the opportunity to ask questions in front of other members of the public, and depending on the question and the authority or knowledge of the presenter, the answers may be factual or vague, direct or obscuring, definitive or noncommittal —  and the attendees may be anywhere from satisfied with to incensed at the quality of the results.  In an open house format, where maps and other information may be available for the attendee to review at her leisure, questions may be asked one-on-one of project staff, which may enable more personal discussion but eliminates the opportunity to publicly challenge the project or its decisions or assumptions.

Perhaps most importantly, Telling public engagement is a largely one-way street.  The emphasis on answering (or avoiding answering) questions carries the implicit assumption that, while the public must have every opportunity to make sure they understand, they are not necessary or active participants in the decision.  If some kind of response is enabled (such as a generic comment form to complete at the end of a presentation), there is no expectation and no structure to enable those comments to influence the decisions

This point about structure requires a small digression.  Professionals leading public participation efforts often tell participants that “we want to know what you think!” and “your voice matters!” and other such truisms, even when the intent of the effort is clearly focused on Telling.  What typically happens to any such comments in a Telling situation falls into one of three categories:

1) The comments are not recorded or incompletely recorded (for example, they were spoken at a public meeting where there was no complete record being made of the comments, or they were spoken in semi-private or in front of a small group at an Open House and were not recorded).  In either case, any chance of that comment influencing  the project’s outcome depends entirely upon whether it was interesting or colorful enough to stick out in the memory of the persons who heard it.  In most such cases, the comments simply vanish into the air.

2) The comments were recorded (via video, transcript or written comments provided by the participants).  The comments are dutifully collated and prepared as a supplemental documentation – a report, an appendix, or a post of the video of the event.  However, there is no requirement on the part of the decision-makers that they review the comments or give them any serious consideration.  As a result, the largely unread supplemental document has no effect except to indicate to a future planning student that the public had little actual say in the project.

3) The comments were fully recorded and reviewed by the decision-makers, but they do not know what to do with it.  In some cases, the Telling public engagement has been done at such a late point in the process that making any significant changes as a result of an issue identified by the public would require significant cost and negative publicity.  In other cases, the decision-makers may have no guidance for weighing the value of the public’s comments against the interests of other groups, such as a developer, political leaders, etc.

 

At the core of this conundrum is the fact that the process itself did not allow for the possibility of the public’s comments having the potential to shed significant insight onto issues relating to the project.  This is why I have termed this type of public engagement Telling: even if there is some ostensible comment opportunity, those comments are an afterthought, not of significant importance to the process and not the purpose of the effort. Telling public engagement, at its core, is a one-way process, with officials doing the speaking and the public taking the passive role of a listener.

 

Asking

Asking public engagement turns the direction of the flow of Information to the reverse.  In an Asking inititiative, the organization leading the project is asking for the public’s ideas, wishes, desires or recommendations.  Surveys, both in-person and online, may be used to gauge the public’s opinion, and brainstorming-type activities may be held to generate lots of new ideas, potentially also getting public feedback on those ideas at the same time.  Public participants may be asked to identify their vision for the future of their communities, to compile a list of wished-for improvements, to mark maps to indicate where they think certain land uses should go, etc.  Asking events are often described by participants as exciting and fun.

While the public is largely passive in a Telling public engagement activity, Asking activities usually involve silence from public officials and staff, once they have opened the initiative.  Background information may or may not be provided; if it is, it may be rudimental and understanding of it isn’t required from participants.  Little guidance or direction is given to the public:  statements of wishes from residents are treated the same whether they are realistic within the physical and legal realities or not.

As a result, Asking public engagement often creates diverging results.  On one hand, participants often feel at the time of the engagement that they have done something enjoyable and exciting– they may feel energized, enthusiastic, and optimistic about the future of their community.  However, participants may become discouraged later when they realize that their ideas were not incorporated into the plan, or when their vision fails to come to pass.  This can lead to growing cynicism about public engagement, often manifested in statements like “all that public stuff is just for show” or “they didn’t really care what we wanted.” This can also make future public engagement harder, as people may be less willing to participate or support future efforts.

From the staff and official perspective, this breakdown may manifest in one of two ways. In some cases, staff may find that many of the items on the public’s “wish list” are not feasible under current or expected future conditions — laws will not permit it, required conditions are beyond the control of the agency, market economics will not work and public funding on the scale that would be needed isn’t available.  In such cases, the public desires that were elicited through the Asking activity are quietly ignored, or consigned to a document appendix and not referenced in the rest of the plan or project.  In other cases, a plan or project document may consist of little more than a list of the public’s desires, with no mention of the fact that the “vision” may not be achievable and little information on why that may be, or the conditions that would be necessary to act on it.

In either case, the results are the same:  the final plan or project does not achieve the  public’s desires as articulated during the Asking event, and this silence is interpreted by the public as an indicator of the irrelevance of the Asking-style public feedback event.

 

Discussing

Discussing public engagement activities create a two-way exchange of information and ideas between members of the public and officials, staff or others who have some form of official capacity (such as developers or nonprofit staff).  Often conducted using smaller groups of participants than the typical Telling or Asking event, Discussing activities include more exchange of information between public and official participants, and one of the primary goals of the public engagement initiative is to build a more comprehensive and more nuanced understanding of the variety of perspectives and priorities that different people in the community may hold regarding the issue. Mutual understanding and respect for different perspectives often ranks as one of the highest priorities of these initiatives.  A number of the strategies used by public dialogue and deliberation professionals, including World Cafe, Fishbowl and others, are designed to foster Discussing-style public engagement.

While Discussing public engagement can certainly lead to greater understanding among differing perspectives, these strategies can present some challenges.  One crucial issue is that Discussing efforts may require more time, and the number of persons who can logistically participate is often limited to a small subset of all potential participants.  Perhaps more importantly, from the perspective of professionals and officials who are trying to inform a plan or public policy decision, Discussing-style public engagement can generate a wide variety of insights and ideas, but not necessarily a strong sense of direction or priorities.  Without a concerted effort to identify a shared desired direction among participants, potentially by adding an additional activity to the Discussion, planners and other officials may find that the public engagement has left them swamped in information and nuance, but that they have no clearer sense of public direction than before.

 

Deciding

Deciding public engagement extends the two-way dialogue to employ both public and officials in collaborative decision-making.  This may include priority-setting regarding guiding principles, collective choice of specific projects to be included in the program or budget, insight into the best strategies or community partners to assist in implementing a chosen strategy or others.  The key difference between a Discussing and a Deciding public engagement  effort is that the Deciding work generates a clear, well-informed and defensible guide to next steps, allocation of resources and other public decisions that has been directed and to a great extent generated by members of the public.

Deciding public engagement clearly has some advantages, both in terms of political defensibility and in terms of the potential to make use of the insights and knowledge of the public, in addition to that of planners and officials.  It does, however, present some significant challenges, especially if process leaders cut corners in the name of time or money.  If the participation is anything less than fully inclusive and representative, the results could be attacked as skewed toward certain special interests.  If the participants are not fully informed about the pertinent issues, the decisions they make could be off-base in terms of what the community actually needs.  Effective Deciding will require sophisticated process planning and facilitation, both to maintain fairly distributed involvement and to manage common collaborative decision-making pitfalls, such as groupthink.

 

While it could be argued that public engagement initiatives that involve the public more actively are more valuable or more “right” than those that confine the public to a more passive role, all four types of public engagement have appropriate uses.  While active community input on the priorities that will govern a public infrastructure project may be highly appropriate, placing decision-making around the size of drainage pipes in the hands of the public is neither feasible nor likely a very good idea.

As we will see, the current state of online public engagement includes a strong complement of tools and platforms that provide robust opportunities for Telling and Asking types of online public engagement.  Just as Discussing and Deciding strategies are arguably not used in real life public engagement as often as they could be, online strategies for these more active engagement strategies also represent a small proportion of the tools currently available.  This is probably due to a combination of perceived market demand and the fact that many online public engagement tools depend heavily on text inputs, which do not always lend themselves well to discussion or large group decision-making.  As we will see, however, tools suited to these kinds of public engagement are beginning to develop.

 

 

Welcome to Crowdsourcing Wisdom!

I’m delighted to announce that the book

Crowdsourcing Wisdom

a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better 

(and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come)

is done, published, ready and waiting for you!

This book is the culmination of over 20 years of my work with cities, regions, governments, nonprofits and developers all over the country.  It gives you a clear, no-nonsense run down on why it is exactly that our public meetings so often end up feeling so miserable — for everyone involved.  It then gives you a step-by-step process for designing and conducting public meetings that actually generate wisdom, and it concludes with tactics for managing confrontational public meeting situations in a way that’s fair to everyone involved.

If you’ve been doing public engagement for years, I think you’ll find this book both useful and refreshing.  If you’ve never run a public meeting before, you’ll find that this book gives you a set of tools for doing that better — tools you probably didn’t even know you had!  book cover

And if you’re frustrated with how your community does public engagement, or you’re looking for a way to start overcoming the build-up of frustration and apathy that’s preventing your town from finding new solutions to your tough issues, this book will give you the first steps of a new way forward.

Pretty good deal for a few bucks.

You can find this book, and other Wise Fool Press publications, in any format you want:

If you like print, you can order copies from Lulu.com right here

If you use a Kindle, you can buy it for Kindle right here

And if you want a PDF or an EPub file (the kind used by Apple products and NOOK), you can get those right here.

 

And learn more about the book and upcoming trainings, samples and other good stuff at www.crowdsourcingwisdombook.com

Of course, reading a book about how to do something isn’t anywhere near the same as trying it out yourself.  I’ll be giving workshops on how to Crowdsource Wisdom in different places over the next few months. If you’d like a workshop for your organization, staff, conference or upcoming meeting, send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com. In-person and online video training is available.

Meet and Mentor with EngagingCities Managing Editor (um, that’s me) at SXSWi

I posted this at EngagingCities yesterday.  Right now I have slots available in Austin, so if you’re going, come visit me!

___

Are you or someone you know trying to start a civic technology business?  A social enterprise?  Interested in exploring how you might be able to leverage tech to move the needle on big issues? Or just a technology/policy wonk?

Also, are you or they going to South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi)?

If you said yes, join EngagingCities’ Managing Editor Della Rucker for a Mentor Session on Saturday, March 13.  These sessions are informal one-on-one discussions designed to give you a valuable connection and some quick insight on a business or idea you’re working on – no matter what stage you’re at.

Mentor sessions do require RSVPs. and you have to be attending SXSWi.  If you are, you can sign up for Della’s mentoring session here.

If you’re not attending the conference but you will be in town and want to chat, just tag her on Twitter –  @dellarucker.

I’ve done lots of mentoring, but never a SXSW event before.  I’m hoping to meet many of our readers and get to spend some thinking time with you!

The Elephant in the Room: Why do Online Public Engagement -or any civic tech? (from Granicus)

This piece from Michael Ashford at Granicus is a little more high-level than I usually run at this site – I usually put less technical, more deep-thought work at EngagingCities – but I thought this piece was both very important, and perhaps gives some insight into the thinking behind one of the larger firms on the OPEE.  And it’s crucial stuff to be thinking about.  Read the whole thing here, but think hard about the real reasons why you’re doing online public engagement — or any of the other newfangled stuff.

In the final few pages of the book, Goldsmith and Crawford write: “Above all, we think it is important that these new developments be understood as tools, not as ends in themselves. … We must not embrace the use of digital tools for its own sake.”

Finally, someone had addressed the elephant in the room.

For all the upward movement in the civic technology space – the Knight Foundation reports that from 2008 to 2012 the civic tech field grew at an annual rate of 23 percent – many of these companies have struggled to gain a foothold.

Many chalk it up to government’s unwillingness to change, or its workers’ aversion to technology, or the complex intricacies of the procurement process.

But are those the real reasons?

If you take a holistic look at the civic tech space, much of the emphasis is about putting enough pressure on government to bend to the public’s demand for technology, focusing so much on changing the citizen experience first, with little forethought given to how internal government process will need to change or adapt to support a new technology.

Too often, governments adopt technology to appease pressure rather than with an open-armed embrace. Thus, much of the civic tech space is ignored, seen as  “nice-to-have” or as a checkbox on a list – as ends, rather than tools, as Goldsmith and Crawford warn against.

3 Best Practices for Text-Based Civic Engagement (from Textizen)

Textizen continues to be a particularly interesting online public engagement tool because it’s the only one that relies on SMS (texting) technology — which  means that it’s accessible to both smart phone and non-smart phone users, and thus accesible to a much wider population than a platform that only works on a computer or a tablet or a smart phone.  That’s crucial in working with many populations, including the economically disadvantaged.

This post from Textizen is not new, but it’s a great summary of both good practices for engagement design and the unique specifics of civic engagement through texting.  A great read.

——–

1. Start Backwards: Define Your Goal
When kicking off a campaign, start with the ultimate goal and work backwards.

Are you focused on gauging the impact of near-term local development projects, or long-term master plan adoption? Preparing for school budget cuts, or trying to raise participation in programs? Or are you most interested in collecting demographics to better understand a particular audience?

What types of data, information, or engagement would be most useful for influencing decision-makers?

Examples: ranking of service preferences, support or opposition for a proposal, broad generation of ideas, contact information to bring people to in-person events.

Once your goals are clear, and you’ve identified the types of data you’ll need, all that’s left is getting people hooked and asking a few followup questions.

2. Get Participants Hooked with the Right Opening Question
The first question plays a huge role in the success of your survey. Once people text in to your campaign, completion rates are usually quite high: 90% for 3-question surveys, and 50-70% for 5-8 question surveys. But only if the first question is compelling!

Here are a few ideas for how to get people’s attention:

  • Get people interested or emotional: take advantage of both topic and phrasing. Topics such as a new minimum wage or proposed rapid transit line may have broad appeal.
  • Using imaginitive language, making it clear that respondents can truly make an impact, and presenting visually descriptive options will further encourage people to respond.
  • Start with a simple question. Make it as easy as possible for people to get started. A yes/no or multiple choice question makes it faster for people to respond. You can ask for more detail in follow-up questions.

Example Questions:

  • Does this [picture] look like a good idea? Text Yes or No
  • How is the city doing on transparency? Give us a letter grade from A-F.
  • Business Owners! Which of these 3 changes would make it easier for your business to grow?

3. Aim for the Sweet Spot: 5-8 Questions

Textizen supports surveys of any length, but 5-8 question surveys hit a sweet spot for most campaigns. They provide plenty of room to collect enough data and demographics to make informed decisions, while respecting peoples’ time and keeping response rates high.

 

Hungry for more?
Find these tips along with plenty of our other findings, examples, templates, and more in our Best Practices guide, now available to all Textizen subscribers.

 

Whups: Correction (and not, and question, and…) about Open Source and Philly

Last month, right before signing off for the Chaos Fest that is the holidays around here, I posted an article about two of the platforms featured on this site, and how they had worked together on a project in a way that I thought embodied a good example of how more firms should be doing this.  My friend Frank Hebbert, who is the Director of Civic Works at OpenPlans, however, found what I had written to be off the mark importantly enough to write an articulate and well reasoned response... on the Friday afternoon before Christmas.  When someone cares enough about getting the fact straight, when you’ve said something nice about them, and it’s end of the year zooey time… you have to admire that and take it seriously.

You can read Frank’s response here.  Basically, his point is that I over-stated the importance of the fact that the code used for the two apps in the Philly bikeshare project were open source — not only did he correct me that Textizen is not open source anymore (it was in its Code for America development days, but not anymore), but he asserted that it was the availability of open data, not the code itself, that made the collaboration work, as well as the “maturity” (his word) of the firms themselves.  And Michelle Lee, the CEO and co-founder of Textizen, agreed with his assessment.

So, factually, I put two and two together and got six.  And I want to publically acknowledge that.  But there’s a deeper point, and I think a crucial point, that I was trying to get at in that first post — perhaps less to do with open source code, and more to do with an open source worldview.  And I think that’s still crucial to unpack and talk about.

I wrote the following as a response to Frank the day after his post hit, but I decided to sit on it until after the holidays so that we could continue the conversation with more than the three brain cells I can summon on December 23-27.  My hope is that we can have a dialogue about these issues within this industry — on this site, on Frank’s Open Source Planning blog, wherever.  It’s a crucial question that we have to figure out if online public engagement is actually going to meet its potential to empower communities to make better decisions.

_____
Frank –
I’m thrilled that you thought enough about the issue and about my attempts to understand it to respond – especially since you apparently did so on a late
Friday during the chaos season of the year! Sorry I took so long to respond – I wanted to make sure that I was thinking it through carefully, and also
working around a little chaos, too.

I think I understand your point, and I didn’t know that Textizen had gone off open source, so that was news to me. I knew when I was writing that piece that I was on a little bit of thin ice, since I certainly was looking at the project from the outside (pretty far outside, at that), and certainly couldn’t personally see how the interface between the two platforms worked.

I’m going to try to articulate why I went out on that thin ice a little better, because my motivation for doing that was an issue that I think is starting to
become a problem for online public engagement, from what I see playing out. And then I’m going to ask a question – of you particularly, but also of everyone
else who wants to be part of the discussion.
The thing that struck me about the Philly BikeShare project was that this was the first time that I had seen two online public engagement platforms directly collaborate – make something that worked seamlessly, incorporating two separate platforms with two separate companies. Maybe that’s
happened somewhere else and I missed it. But what struck me what how…well, impossible that had been when I had tried something like that a couple
of years ago.
In 2011-2012, I had a consulting contract to manage public engagement for one of the Sustainable Cities challenge grants. The client wanted to do a pretty
high-visibility online public engagement platform, and they had one provider that they particularly wanted to work with. To do everything that they wanted to do, however, we needed more than that platform was designed to do. So as a result, I brought in another platform to provide those additional services, and I told both companies that we needed an online presence that looked and functioned like one site. The first site was a proprietary application, while the second was more module-based, and built on an open source platform.
After much discussion, we learned that the first platform could make hardly any changes in the direction of creating a seamless platform. The best they could do was to skin the site to match the project’s design characteristics (the second platform then designed its interface to mimic the first one). But that’s as far as the integration went. We had no way to incorporate information from one platform into another. We couldn’t port an issue raised in a survey on the open source site to the other’s commenting platform, we had to manually post the same background information on both sites (and attempt to keep them both updated so that you didn’t get one version on this side and one on the other). We were basically running two separate online public engagement platforms and trying to physically manage them into relation with each other. It was so labor-intensive that it never worked like it should have.
When I saw that OpenPlans and Textizen had managed this kind of interface (again, without seeing the actual code – and I am very admittedly not a coder, although I am trying to learn), I inferred that the fact that the code of your two products was *not*protected by a thick layer of secrecy and lawyers may have meant that you were able to make adjustments to get them to work together better than if you had just run them separately. Sounds like I put two and two together and got six. Which, any time you’re commenting on someone else’s work, you might very well do.
But here’s why I took that risk – and in stating this, I am going to quibble a leeeetle with one of your statements toward the end of your response:

Right now, the world of online public engagement tools is in the later stages of this sort of Cambrian explosion of apps, platforms, etc.  Most of them only do one or two things. They might do them well or not so well. But they only do one or two things. The more mature ones have learned to admit their limitations and own their niche.

I think a lot about online public engagement because I’ve done the on-the-ground type for so many years, and even when you do it excellently, I know
what the limitations are. And one of the things that I have learned over many years is that planners and other public officials tend to think about public engagement far, far too simplistically. You did a survey? You asked for a bunch of ideas and let people vote for them? You held an open house at the community center? Good for you!!!! You’re done!!!! Go make your plan in your back work room… and maybe trot it out for all those folks to see when you’re basically done. They had their “input,” that’s good enough.

And then we wonder why we have so many angry people at those final public meetings. Or why they wonder whether that whole survey-filling-out, voting-on-ideas is worth the time it takes to bother. And why, then, it’s so very hard to get them to do it at all.
What I desperately want to see, in online public engagement and in offline public engagement, is a shift from doing a public engagement activity once in a while, when you have to, to a relationship-building process that pulls people into the decisions of their community all the way through. One that meaningfully involves the regular people who know a community in a way that the professionals can’t (your accident mapping project being a great example of that), and makes them part of the whole process, so that they have ownership of the whole process – and as a result, so that the plan that comes out of it has people who will advocate for it, work for it, play an active role in helping make it happen. Throwing the occasional survey or ideation platform at them just doesn’t get that job done, any more than the occasional open house or “Vision Session” does.
I know what that kind of deeply engaged process looks like in person, and I have seen for myself how incredibly powerful and effective it is. I don’t yet fully know how to do it on line. But I strongly suspect, given the landscape of firm
s and applications that have developed, that what we’re going to need is the ability to do exactly what OpenPlans and Textizen did – combine and
recombine the larger tool kit of all the online engagement strategies to best fit a specific situation, community, plan, point in that relationship-building process. And be able to make sense of the information gained without spreadsheet
gymnastics.

Maybe what I should have referenced wasn’t open code per se – as you rightly asserted, most local government departments probably aren’t well-served
to use what little capacity they have to manhandle a fork of a Github repository. And quick-start, SaaS – type apps have certainly made online participation possible in a way that having to build your own website from scratch never would have.

But what I think is critical – and broadly lacking in the field– is what you might call the spirit of the open source approach – the belief that my app or platform won’t just operate alone, but that it needs to be able to be part of something bigger, capable of combining, integrating, with others. Some non-open source providers, such as Delib, already have “modules” that can be readily combined based on the needs of a project, but instead of being limited to using two or three of these apps in concert, communities need to be able to combine a whole range of platforms – and do it without having to spend time and money they don’t have on awkward code patches or manual data manipulation.

I think that’s an important next wave of this business, and I suspect that it’s as
much a business and psychology problem as a technical challenge. The mega-impact of open code, open data, open anything is, of course that it turns the old business models of proprietary, restricted, protected, on its head.

So perhaps what I was really writing about was something along the lines of open code spirit, rather than open code in the technical sense that you all
know so much better than I do. That’s what I felt was the important lesson, the much-needed-example, that OpenPlans and Textizen laid out in the Philly
Bikeshare story. Regardless of how it was coded, you two sought to work together, to integrate as much as possible for the good of the project and the community that it serves.

My question to you, and to everyone else who is reading this, is, how do
we increase the power, the impact and the flexibility of online public engagement? Is there a way to enable all these platforms to work together more effectively? If it’s not an open code matter (which I understand isn’t the answer), then what needs to be done?

How do we get to the point where I can set up a process involving multiple online engagement platforms simultaneously or over time, moving the information gained in other activities from one to the next seamlessly, leading people from an activity on one platform to the next step on the other, integrating the results across platforms to help decision makers get a clear, not fractured, picture of what the community is trying to tell them?

That’s what I really want to know.

Frank, Michelle, and the rest of you at OpenPlans and Textizen: even though I got it wrong, I still say, good job, guys.  And thanks for continuing my own education.