In their own words
With an array of new communication technology available — such as e-mail, Web forms and blogs — residents have numerous ways to express their opinions about local politics and participate in their government. They have grown to expect government agencies to offer and accept electronic messages, but many cities and counties lack an effective way to manage electronic communication so it can help councils and boards make decisions.
When governments build electronic communities with residents, they must be structured interactions — not a free-form, “anything goes” type of social network like those on MySpace and YouTube. Residents’ comments must be attributable, based on identity and on-point to governmental issues in the same way that they are in city hall meetings.
However, most local governments receive volumes of unstructured and often-anonymous e-mail messages, overwhelming staffers who must sort through and read them. They often receive virus-plagued data files that threaten computer systems. And, even if they have systems that ensure the safe delivery of messages, agencies cannot easily moderate or report the comments in volume, nor can they easily categorize, characterize and classify them. So, the feedback generally does not serve its intended purpose of engaging residents in local government decisions.
Some local agencies are using Web-based software to help collect and manage electronic comments and generate reports that organize and summarize them. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) has used Web-based software to engage and interact with residents while planning and evaluating transportation projects. On the department’s Web site, residents can find logistics information and plans about state projects and make suggestions or share ideas about them.
Atlanta also has integrated electronic public comments into planning for citywide, multi-jurisdictional projects, such as the Atlanta Beltline, a proposed 22-mile loop railroad around the downtown area. To ensure consistent messages are delivered to residents in each neighborhood, city planners have created a Web site with information about the project and ways for residents to weigh in. The city received input from more than 10,000 residents during the first six weeks of the Web site’s operation. Using Web-based software, planners could organize the comments and create reports to help make decisions.
Electronic messages cannot replace public comment accepted in traditional ways, but they can supplement it. When an agency accepts comments electronically, it should clearly establish the rules just as it would in a public meeting. Online forums should require disclosure of identity, and discussion that is relevant and respectful. Residents should be informed about the local government’s public comment policy, how opinions are used in decisions and whether residents should expect a response. With clear rules of electronic participation and its role in local officials’ decision-making, residents are more likely to participate, knowing that their online voice will make a difference. Whether they receive 100 online comments or 100,000, agencies must collect and manage residents’ electronic opinions while maintaining traditional public comment standards.
The author is co-founder and CEO for Naples, Fla.-based Neighborhood America.