Online Civic Engagement: The Emerging Trend of Turn-of-the-Year Topics

ARTICLE | Mar 23, 2015

When government agencies seek feedback from their constituents via computers, phones and tablets, then these governments can augment the quantity and diversify the demographics of participants. Online engagement also offers analysis and reporting tools that improve government insights into their communities, and enthuse their constituents. So not surprisingly, government online engagement is increasingly common - especially at the transition of calendar and fiscal years. The advent of a new year is a time of reflection and planning. Accordingly, governments are asking their constituents for online feedback on topics such as goals, budgets, quality of life, and other big-picture topics. This article identifies over 50 leading government agencies that do online civic engagement, and highlights seven examples of this turn-of-the-year trend.

Council Priorities in Palo Alto CA

At the transition of the 2013-2014 calendar year, Palo Alto CA asked it constituents, "What core values do you believe that City Council should use to guide them in their decisions on behalf of the community?" That resulted in 126 people providing feedback - which is equivalent to a public hearing of over six hours (at three minutes per speaker). At the recent 2014-2015 calendar transition, the City again reached-out to its community via the internet to ask, "What are the three priorities you would like to see the City Council adopt in 2015?" That resulted in 185 responses (equivalent to a public hearing of over nine hours). Government leaders along with the community can analyze the feedback by neighborhoods as well as by demographics such as age and gender. They can also analyze the feedback via an interactive word-cloud. That word-cloud (see Figure 1) quickly and qualitatively revealed that housing, traffic, parking, noise and infrastructure were the most commonly referenced priorities. The word-cloud also enabled people to click on words such as "zoning" to see the detailed comments on that priority. Regarding the use of the internet to collect input from the community, citizen feedback included, "I wouldn't otherwise participate in local government, but this is so easy and welcoming, I feel included in the process", “Frictionless way to communicate with city hall”, "Great way to voice opinions in an organized format", “Easy way to get involved in city affairs, fast, direct”.

In the vicinity of Palo Alto, its northern neighbor, Menlo Park also launched a topic on goals for their city council in 2015. In January 2015, the Town of Atherton approved the launch of their online civic engagement. A few miles north on the Peninsula, Pacifica is launching and San Carlos launched about a dozen online topics in the few months leading to the 2015 new year. The three cities south of Palo Alto are using or are poised to launch online civic engagement services: Mountain View, Santa Clara and soon Sunnyvale. Likewise, east of Palo Alto (across the bay) Fremont, San Leandro, San Ramon, Walnut Creek, Danville, Moraga and Alameda are doing online civic engagement, too.

Figure 1:  Interactive Word-Cloud Analysis Tool


City Services in San Luis Obispo CA

As stated in the introduction to the inaugural topic on San Luis Obispo's newly launched online forum, 'Every two years, the City establishes the top priorities to make SLO an even better place to live, work and play'. The City then asked, ‘What are the most important priorities for the City in 2015-2017 and how might the City adjust other service needs to accomplish these priorities?’ From early November 2014 to mid January 2015, 751 people responded – which is equivalent to a public hearing lasting a full workweek (at three minutes per person). Of these respondents, 136 citizens subscribed to SLO’s online forum. The analysis tools quickly revealed that popular priorities included housing, biking, open space, Laguna Lake, and homeless. As of Jan 29, 2015, 17 citizens provided feedback on SLO's online forum in January. All 17 wrote that they liked using the service (see Figure 2).

In late January, SLO launched an online question on e-cigarettes, a topic that Littleton CO and Fremont CA also recently posted on their government online forums.

Figure 2:  User Survey Results


Annual Goals for Lake Oswego OR

Lake Oswego OR is an online civic engagement trailblazer. They've been doing it since 2009 and have posted about 60 topics including questions about budgets, schools, land-use, parks, parking, transportation, and periodically, goals for its city council. In their recent topic on goals for 2015, the City allowed participants to support other participants’ comments. This enabled government staff as well as the public to analyze feedback in a way that made famous. Amazon has a feature that shows, ‘people who bought this book, also bought these books’. Likewise (see Figure 3), you can see that people who supported Rick's feedback also supported the feedback from Robert, Randy and Marylou. Lake Oswego has 687 subscribers and 95% of it users like the City’s online engagement service.

Following its topic on 2015 goals, Lake Oswego launched an online question related to parking, a topic for which many governments have asked for feedback via their online forums including, Decatur GA, Walla Walla WA, Novato CA, San Carlos CA, Vallejo CA, and Gainesville FL (bike parking).

Figure 3:  Connected Statements Analysis Tool


Fiscal Budgets in Eau Claire WI

At the turn of the 2013-2014 calendar year, Eau Claire WI asked its community for online feedback regarding their 2014 budget. City staff used the online analysis and reporting tools to create an impressive presentation to council. Now, at the current turn of the 2014-2015 calendar year, the City is again asking its community for feedback on priorities of its Program of Services Budget. In addition to asking for comments, the City’s 2014 and 2015 budget topics enabled participants to indicate how they would allocate $500 across the City’s 14 programs and services. Using real-time analysis tools, the community and government can easily see that the top three priorities are police, fire/rescue, and streets (see Figure 4). Interestingly, these top three priorities are consistent across the online feedback in each of the City’s five districts – as well as across age groups and gender. The analysis tools reveal quite a consensus! A few months prior to this topic, the City brainstormed with its community for ideas on, “how to create a better Eau Claire by utilizing the 2015 budget process”.

Baltimore MD has also successfully used this online budget allocation tool for its 2014 and 2015 budgets. For its 2014-2015 budget, El Cerrito CA used this online tool and included this detailed budget presentation – demonstrating that online civic engagement is a great way to educate the community as well as collect feedback. Additionally, the following governments have used this online budget-allocation tool: Virginia Beach VA, West Palm Beach FL, Washoe County NV, San Ramon CA, Portland OR, Delray Beach FL, and the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.

Figure 4:  Budget Allocation Analysis Tool



Quick and Extended Feedback in Douglas County NV

Douglas County NV has sought feedback via the internet for its annual budget at the turn of the 2013, 2014, and recent 2015 calendar years. In addition to asking for feedback, the County gives its constituents a choice of completing a quick (less than five minute) budget exercise, or an extended (about 15 minute) budget exercise (see Figure 5). Recent user feedback on this approach included, “Great tool for voicing our concerns and opinions”, “I appreciate the opportunity to think about the things that make this such a nice place to live”, “A great way to encourage feedback from the citizens of the County”, and “Very user friendly with great instructions and responsive data entry”.

Durham NC and Salinas CA also offered quick and extended version of this online budget allocation tool. Moreover, in collaboration with the Center for Priority Based Budgeting, Salinas included a beautifully presented framework for their budget (see Figure 6).

Figure 5:  Quick and Extended Options


Figure 6:  Overview of Priority-Based Budget

Outcome Priorities for Alexandria VA

Starting in Oct 2014, Alexandria VA went online to ask its constituents, “What outcomes do you want to see the city focus on for its 2016 fiscal year?” In addition to soliciting online comments, the City enabled users to prioritize 17 budget outcomes using a drag-and-drop style user interface. The City received responses from 663 people – which is equivalent to over four, eight-hour days of public comment (at three minutes per person). City staff then synthesized the feedback into a one-page outcome statement (see Figure 7) that was posted on the online forum and emailed to subscribers.

The following governments have also used this online priority-list exercise for feedback on budgets and goals: Walnut Creek CA, Bozeman MT, Littleton CO, State College PA, San Leandro CA,  Indian Wells CA, Olathe KS, Germantown TN, Arlington County VA, Scott County MN, and Humboldt County CA.

Many of other cities have gone online to ask for feedback on annual budgets including: Salt Lake City UT, Salt Lake County UT, Tempe AZ, Norfolk VA, and also Vallejo CA brainstormed on budget ideas and subsequent prioritization.

Figure 7:  Outcome Statement





Quality of Life in Loveland CO

Every year the City of Loveland CO, “invites citizens to share their opinions about quality of life in Loveland and the services that are designed to enhance it”. In 2014 the City posted their annual survey on their online forum. The survey contained 32 questions and received 394 survey responses – equivalent to almost 20 hours of public comment (at three minutes per person). The Loveland community as well as government staff are able to analyze, report and print individual survey responses and a summary of the overall results (see Figure 8). That transparency can help build consensus and increase public trust in government.

Figure 8:  Survey Summary






Online civic engagement is a powerful approach for governments to reach-out to their communities in ways that augment participation, increase insights, and enthuse citizens. Moreover, this trend is especially popular at the turn of calendar and fiscal years – when governments are planning goals, setting budgets, and assessing citizen satisfaction.

About the author

Mike Cohen is a co-founder of Peak Democracy Inc -- a trailblazing provider of online civic engagement services that increase public trust in government. Peak Democracy has worked with over 100 government agencies to power about 2,000 online forums that have attracted over 250,000 online attendees. Through that work, Mike has developed an expertise in the best practices of how online civic engagement can be used to increase public trust in government.

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