Beyond Public Hearings: Engaging in the 21st Century

Community engagement can be addressed from many perspectives; a wide range of coverage only strengthens the topic as a key value of inclusive democracy. In the past few months we’ve blogged about how Boston’s gamifying the process and getting youth involved, how engagement needs to be all inclusive, and how governments engage in events like National Day of Civic Hacking. In this post we’ll focus on reaching a wider crowd by meeting people where they are, using a ubiquitous tool of our time – SMS capable cell phones. In particular, we will look at a use case for Textizen: a civic dialogue platform that allows residents to connect with a powerful mix of offline outreach and online engagement, using SMS.

Regional Planning Case Study in the Niagara Region

The One Region Forward (1RF) planning effort in Buffalo NY is a great example of meeting residents where they are to get feedback. The goal of 1RF is to engage the public in creating a Regional Plan for Sustainable Development, a federally recognized document that would give the region priority status for funding opportunities. Led by the University of Buffalo Regional Institute (UBRI) a group of 20 non-profit, public and private institutions, the 1RF consortium created a sequenced public engagement method and offered multiple platforms to be heard.

In this recent Peer Network webinar Darren Cotton (Associate Planner UBRI), Bret Roberts (Research Assistant Professor UBRI), Michelle Lee, and Alex Yule (Co-Founders of Textizen) discussed this engagement process and how the SMS texting platform encourages people — including those who are unable or unlikely to attend traditional planning meetings — to make their voice heard.

Engaging a wide range of residents in developing a Regional Sustainable Development Plan for Erie County and Buffalo County through participatory collaboration required several steps:

  1. Define Sustainability. The 1RF consortium partnered with two local universities to define the overarching objective of the plan. They used PhotoVoice, allowing students to take a picture, write a caption on it, and send it in to be aggregated. They also held a community congress to kick off the project with the public.

  2. Put the definition into practice. The team then developed Scenario Workshops inviting people to envision the region in 40 years. By popular demand the workshops were offered 24 times in diverse locations from church basements to living rooms. Common themes began to emerge: expanding transportation, land use, housing, preservation, and economic development areas.

  3. Diversify the input (outreach required!). Here’s where Textizen comes in. Concerned the responses were still not diverse enough, 1RF launched the Text It Forward campaign using Textizen for a text message Q&A platform. The local transit authority, one of the 20 groups in the consortium, posted questions in bus stops, light rail stops, and on buses, combining the technology with the real space outreach.textitfwdbanner_junesurvey

  4. Train the leaders. UBRI is a small team. In order for them to accomplish a massive amount of outreach, they established the Citizen Planning School to arm existing community leaders with planning tools and techniques. This enabled trusted community figures to become spokespeople for the planning efforts. These “Champions of Change” also engage people at live events from farmers markets to festivals.

  5. Keep it going. In an effort to build ongoing engagement and momentum, a new question from the Scenario Workshops is launched via Text It Forward every month.

Expanding the Application of Texting Services

In order for a large scale participatory planning efforts to work, there must be multiple channels for communication. Textizen-powered SMS surveys are just one component of this effort in the Niagara Region.

Textizen was started during the 2012 CfA Fellowship in Philadelphia, where now-co-founders Michelle Lee and Alex Yule were originally tasked with broadening civic engagement with Philadelphia’s long-term planning efforts. At the time, only 59% of residents had broadband capability while 90% had SMS capable cell phones. Thus, the idea for Textizen was born to reach a wider cross-section of Philadelphia residents.

Today, the app is being used for many purposes beyond planning engagement. With a clientele of governments, nonprofits, and enterprises, Textizen is now being deployed to:

  • Collect information before a live event, enabling the moderator to collect detailed information from everyone in the crowd as opposed to the handful who usually get to the mic.

  • Generate a response before and after something happens, to understand the satisfaction rate of a change made to a process or product offered.

  • Engage people during live events, allowing peoples’ voices to be heard without taking the time for everyone to speak.

With the ability to visualize the aggregated data in real time and in easily digestible formats like this for the 1RF project, Textizen also allows people to be connected to the results, not just the input process. When it’s easier to see how responses are being incorporated into the final results, it can build participants’ trust that their input is being heard.

The hope is that these more transparent process of engagement helps us climb Arnstein’s Ladder of Engagement. You can watch the full discussion for additional detail about Textizen and the results and response to the 1RF program.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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