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Framework for Online Civic Engagementâ„¢: Using Internet Tools to Build Public Trust in Government


by Mike Cohen, MBA, co-founder and board member of Peak Democracy Inc.

An increasing number of government agencies are using the International Association of Public Participation’s (IAP2) Spectrum of Public Participation as a resource for how governments engage the public in decision processes. Peak Democracy Inc (with inspiration from the Alliance for Innovation) has expanded on the IAP2’s Spectrum by developing the Framework for Online Civic Engagement™. This resource characterizes online civic engagement along eight spectrums. The resulting multi-dimensional relationships are used to identify the best practices for using online civic engagement to build public trust in government; and correspondingly, when to use various online engagement tools – such as social media, web surveys, and online civic engagement platforms. This article describes the Framework for Online Civic Engagement, and includes examples of agencies that inspired the Framework.

1. The Internet, Public Trust, and Government Agencies

The infusion of the internet throughout the publics’ activities is not just about a technology revolution. Instead, it’s about using technology to create a trust revolution. Here are three pervasive examples:

  • Amazon and eBay don’t just provide marketplaces that are online; a key aspect of those online marketplaces is enabling buyers and sellers to build trust with each other.
  • Airbnb and Homeaway aren’t just providers of lodging services that are online; a key attribute of those online lodging services is enabling lodging hosts and guests to build trust with each other.
  • Uber and Lyft aren’t only ride hailing apps; a key characteristic of those online apps is enabling drivers and passengers to build trust with each other.

These successful organizations use internet-based services to build trust and thereby revolutionize society. Similarly, a growing number of government agencies are not only providing communication channels with the public that are online; a critical aspect of those online channels is enabling governments and the public to build trust with each other – and thereby revolutionize government.

2. Government Forums and Public Trust: In-person and Online

To understand how online civic engagement can build public trust in government, it’s useful to start by considering public trust in the context of conventional, in-person government forums. With in-person government forums such as public hearings, the public questions whether the forums will:

  1. Be open, transparent, civil, inviting and convenient;
  2. Mitigate or eliminate undue influence; and
  3. Have an impact on the decisions.

Governments have developed laws and practices that address those concerns. Still, many people don’t attend in-person government forums because they aren’t convenient (due to parenting, working, travel, etc), and aren’t civil or inviting (due to vitriol and bullies, etc). Furthermore, many people are skeptical about whether they can have an impact on decisions, and they are cynical about who will unduly influence decisions (e.g. big campaign donors, etc).

With online government forums, the public has the same three questions. However, in contrast to in-person forums, online government forums can address those questions in ways that enable yet another internet-driven trust revolution. Peak Democracy has assessed the efforts of over 100 government agencies who have used the company’s Open Town Hall™ online civic engagement platform to post over 3,800 online forums and attract over 650,000 online attendees. The results indicate that online civic engagement augments the number of people who participate, diversifies the types of people who participate, as well as improves the quality of, and insights derived from public participation. Equally important, 92% of the public participants like using the online civic engagement service.

3. The Framework for Online Civic Engagement:

The IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation identifies five levels of public impact. Each of the levels has a promise to the public – as shown in Figure 1. When governments keep those promises, they build public trust. Based on Peak Democracy’s experience with using online civic engagement to build public trust in government, we have expanded the IAP2’s Spectrum to the Framework for Online Civic Engagement (FOCE). As depicted in Figure 2, the Framework is comprised of eight spectrums – starting with the IAP2 Spectrum. Figure 3 shows the details of each of the spectrums.

There are numerous multi-dimensional relationships on the FOCE that correspond to a variety of online tool segments and niches. However, in general, the FOCE can be divided into three progressively overlapping use cases. Each is highlighted below.

Base Segment 1: Websites & Social Media

The lower left-hand area of the FOCE defines use cases of online civic engagement that can be supported by websites and social media (e.g. Facebook). As shown in Figure 4, this segment is characterized on the FOCE’s spectrum as follows:

  1. The public’s impact on the topic is to be only informed about it, or simply consulted on it (but the public is not significantly involved with handling the topic).
  2. The topic’s impact on the public is not serious or even substantive (instead the topic is fun, short-term, or whimsical).
  3. The complexity of the topic is limited to a one-time notification or question (not a multi-step decision process).
  4. The interactions are typically limited to government pushing information to the public.
  5. If feedback is solicited, then it’s limited to a single-question poll or an open-ended comment.
  6. There are practically no analysis or reporting requirements – including no expectations of public records reporting or retention.
  7. To the extent that there is any two-way communication, the public participants aren’t authenticated and consequently can be anonymous; also there’s no expectation of privacy (especially with social media).
  8. If feedback from the public is allowed, then the public’s feedback is often handled in ways that could be viewed as a denial of free speech or allowing hate speech.

Lower Segment 2: Web Survey Tools

Expanding the above “base segment” by a step up and to the right on the FOCE defines use cases of online civic engagement that can be supported by web survey tools (e.g. Survey Monkey).  As shown in Figure 5, this segment is characterized on the FOCE’s eight spectrum as follows:

  1. The public’s impact on the topic includes some feedback, but not extensive involvement.
  2. The topic’s impact on the public can be more than just fun, but not too substantive.
  3. The complexity of the topic is typically still limited to one or maybe two public outreach initiatives.
  4. The interactions between the government and public are two-way. However, the public’s feedback is typically not made public; and if it is made public, then it’s typically made public after the feedback periods ends. Consequently, participants can’t deliberate on, or respond to other participants’ feedback.
  5. The feedback is more than just a single question.
  6. Simple analysis and reporting tools are expected, but only for government staff.
  7. Participants aren’t authenticated and there is no monitoring for fraud; consequently participants can easily and secretly manipulate the process to post multiple responses and thereby amplify the influence of their opinions on the survey results.
  8. The public’s feedback is not made public in real-time, and therefore monitoring for civility (e.g. profanity, personal attacks, and advertising) is not needed.

Super Segment 3: Online Civic Engagement Platforms

Moving up and to the right of the above “lower segment” on the FOCE crosses a threshold in which there is a large increase in the challenges of implementing online civic engagement in ways that build trust. The reasons for this spike in public trust challenges are that the topics are serious and complex. Moreover, the interactions with the public are substantive and open for deliberation. Accordingly, this area of the FOCE defines use cases of online engagement that can only be supported by online civic engagement platforms (e.g. Open Town Hall). As shown in Figure 6, this segment is characterized on the FOCE’s eight spectrum as follows:

  1. The public’s impact on the topic can be extensive.
  2. The topic’s impact on the public can be substantive.
  3. The complexity of the topic can comprise multiple stages of public outreach.
  4. The interactions between the government and public are two-way and made public in real-time – enabling participants to deliberate on, as well as respond to other participants’ feedback.
  5. The feedback formats can range from simple questions to insightful mapping (pinning), budgeting, area planning, and annotating documents or images.
  6. The analysis and reporting tools are real-time and interactive, support public records requirements, and analyze for undue influence from, (a) outsiders (who don’t live in the jurisdiction), (b) NIMBY’s, (c) activists, and (d) fraudulent participants (who create false registrations to post multiple comments to unduly influence the forum results).
  7. The participants are authenticated via their email address and street address.
  8. The feedback from the public is made public in real-time, and therefore civility issues (e.g. profanity, personal attacks, and advertising) are monitored and reconciled (in ways that are consistent with free speech and hate speech laws as well as local practices).

In contrast to social media and web survey tools, the most successful online civic engagement platforms build public trust by addressing the three issues identified in Section 2 of this article, in that they enable online civic engagement that: (1) is open, transparent, civil, inviting and convenient; (2) mitigates or eliminates undue influence (from outsiders, NIMBYs, activists, and fraudsters); and (3) is deliberative, insightful and therefore impacts the decision process. These attributes enable online civic engagement platforms to address the entire FOCE landscape – including those use cases that can be covered by social media and web survey tools.

Another contrast with social media and web survey tools is that the most successful online civic engagement platforms are coupled with expert support teams who can help government staff skillfully engage the public online (and in-person, too).

Trail Blazing Practitioners of Online Civic Engagement that Builds Public Trust

Many government agencies are implementing online civic engagement in ways that build public trust. Two trail-blazing examples are San Luis Obsipo, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Each is highlighted below.

San Luis Obsipo (SLO) is a 2017 winner of the Davenport Institute’s Platinum Level Public Engage Award. Underlying SLO’s success is a city document published in 2015 titled, “Public Engagement and Noticing Manual." The manual is available here: slocity.org/home/showdocument?id=7369. This manual leverages the IAP2’s public engagement spectrum and it was one of the inspirations for the Framework for Online Civic Engagement. An example of the structure provided in SLO’s manual is shown in Figure 7. SLO’s online civic engagement service is available here: slocity.org/opencityhall, and recent citizen satisfaction survey responses with SLO’s online engagement service are shown in Figure 8.

On April 8, 2008, The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper published an audit report that excoriated Salt Lake City’s (SLC) planning division as, ‘a nonsupportive, micromanaged den of dysfunction plague by cynicism, chronic turnover and politicians masquerading as planners’. In 2010, SLC launched its online civic engagement platform. On March 28, 2012, the CityWeekly newspaper recognized SLC’s government with the Best of Utah 2012 Award in the category of e-government. Here’s what the CityWeekly wrote, ‘the web wizards at City Hall are serious about getting the public engaged in every planning and zoning meeting, city council meeting, public open house, workshop and public hearing possible. That’s why SLC has been going high tech with its forums and using Open City Hall as a means of posting discussions on critical city issues ranging from e-billboards to the City’s good landlords program.’ SLC’s public engagement guide was first published in 2012, and an update will be available in June 2016. The City’s online civic engagement service is available here: slcgov.com/opencityhall, and recent citizen satisfaction survey responses with SLC’s online engagement service are shown in Figure 9. SLC’s best practices have been another source of inspiration for the Framework for Online Civic Engagement.

About Peak Democracy

To learn more about the Framework for Online Civic Engagement, and how to use the Framework to build public trust for your government agency, contact Peak Democracy at info@peakdemocracy.com. Peak Democracy is a non-partisan company founded in 2007 with the vision that online civic engagement will become pervasive across all government agencies (it's just a matter of time). We believe that online civic engagement can dramatically improve a government's interactions with its community – but only if the online engagement is done well; and that’s our mission: provide online civic engagement in ways that build public trust in government.

Mike Cohen, MBA, is a co-founder and board member of Peak Democracy Inc. The company’s flagship product, Open Town Hall, is the leading online civic engagement platform that increases public participation in ways that build public trust in government. Peak Democracy has collaborated with hundreds of government agencies to power over 3,700 online forums that have attracted over 650,000 online attendees. These government collaborations have enabled Mike to develop an expertise in the best practices of how online civic engagement can be used to increase public trust in government. You can contact Mike at mike@peakdemocracy.com

Figure 1:
IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation

 

Figure 2:

Spectrums of the Framework for Online Civic Engagement

Figure 3:
Details of the Framework for Online Civic Engagement

Figure 4:

Base segment covered by
social media

Figure 5:

Low segment covered by
web survey tools

Figure 6:

Super segment covered by
online civic engagement platforms

Figure 7:

Example of structure provided in
San Luis Obispo’s Public Engagement and Noticing Manual 

Figure 8:
Recent citizen satisfaction survey responses for
San Luis Obispo’s Open Town Hall online civic engagement services

 

Figure 9:
Recent citizen satisfaction survey responses for
Salt Lake City’s Open Town Hall online civic engagement services

 

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Jurisdictions

Peak Democracy, Inc.; Trinidad, CA