Social cities: Governments seek residents’ views online

Are you a big Jackson Browne fan? Is Los Lobos maybe more your speed?

City of Loveland officials want to know what acts you’d like to see play the downtown Rialto Theater – and how much you’re willing to pay to watch concerts there. It’s like a music menu of sorts – but the officials aren’t holding a public hearing on the matter or mailing out surveys.

As are more and more cities, Loveland is turning to an online civic-engagement platform to gather input from residents on a wide variety of issues ranging from city budgeting practices to safety and transportation to entertainment options. In an increasingly tech-savvy world, the intent is to reach and give voice to a broader mix of people than just those who have time to show up at public meetings. The platforms are more focused than informal conversations on social media tend to be.

“It’s just a much easier and more comfortable way for a lot of people to get involved,” said Tom Hacker, public information officer for Loveland and the person spearheading the city’s new outreach efforts. “I think every local government feels like more can be done to get more citizens involved in policy issues.”

Loveland began using Open Town Hall, a product of Berkeley, Calif.-based Peak Democracy Inc., earlier this year in conjunction with its priority-based budget planning. Now, the city is planning to branch out and use it for other things such as the upcoming Rialto Theater survey.

Like some of its competitors, Open Town Hall allows municipalities to host customized platforms on their own websites and create queries of various types. Cities can post surveys, ask residents to prioritize lists or divvy up budgets. For its priority budgeting process, Loveland posed seven questions, seeking essay-form answers.

This week, the city opened up a topic on its Open Town Hall portal – called Open City Hall on the Loveland website – where people can participate in Loveland’s annual Quality of Life Survey. The city generally mails the survey to 3,000 random residents and usually gets about a third to respond, a fairly high percentage for such a survey. City officials have noticed that they tend to receive more responses from older citizens.

The city again mailed the survey out this year, but it will also allow any resident to weigh in online. People in the 25-to-34 age demographic, officials from various cities point out, aren’t as apt to show up at public meetings or return mailed surveys.

“It gives us kind of an insight into what a different segment of the community might want to have or want to say,” Loveland city manager Bill Cahill said.

Reaching out to citizens online is nothing new for cities. Loveland itself has about a dozen Facebook pages for various departments in addition to other social media accounts.

But the online civic engagement platforms are meant to mimic the structure and decorum of events such as a city council meeting. Peak Democracy can screen comments for profanity and off-topic posts, and users must sign up with their names, addresses and verifiable email addresses. Cities can decide topic-by-topic whether posts have names attached to them publicly or can be shown anonymously.

Loveland had 400 people view its priority budgeting questionnaire. Eighty-nine responded with what Hacker said was the equivalent of about three and a half hours of public testimony – and they did it from the comfort of their couches.

Peak Democracy, founded in 2007, has clients all over the nation. In Colorado, Littleton, Aspen, Durango and the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments all use the company’s tool. The cost – which for Loveland is about $8,000 per year – varies depending on population, objectives of the city and other factors.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s better” than other ways of reaching citizens, said Rob Hines, Peak Democracy director of public engagement. “I would say that it’s becoming a central part of engagement. Citizens do a lot online. What we’re offering is another way among numerous channels.”

Boulder and Fort Collins have been using a similar platform called MindMixer for a couple of years now, as has Louisville. Boulder’s portal is at InspireBoulder.com, while Fort Collins hosts its forum at IdeaLab.fcgov.com.

Fort Collins is querying citizens about what items they think should go into the city’s 150th anniversary living time capsule. City spokesman David Young said it’s been a learning process for the city to figure out which topics work on MindMixer and which don’t catch on. Overall, the city has seen solid results and recently renewed its contract.

Young said feedback that is gathered can be seen by anyone who visits Fort Collins’ site. MindMixer and the city also produce metrics from the data that are used in reports to city leadership.

“It doesn’t just live on the website,” Young said. “It’s something we take and use and implement when we make decisions.”

Often, Boulder, which pays $8,000 to $10,000 per year for MindMixer, uses the platform to spur discussion on major topics before they’re aired at public meetings. City spokesman Mike Banuelos said that when the city solicited ideas for its Civic Area Master Plan in January 2013, the topic garnered 7,000 visitors and more than 300 comments within 10 days.

That’s the kind of potential that has Loveland officials excited.

“This is really a quest for improvement and for making government more accessible and transparent to the citizenry,” Cahill said.

Joshua Lindenstein can be reached at 303-630-1943, 970-416-7343 or jlindenstein@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joshlindenstein.


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