CB2: Simplicity for City Council

About 3 times per month my City Council in St. Petersburg meets to discuss and vote on local issues. Aside from knowing the name of my district representative, I generally have no idea what he’s voting on or if I should re-elect him. That’s a shame because (forgive the web-speak) he’s dealing with hyper-local issues: as in things that impact me within 30 square blocks. Stuff that really matters to tax payers.

Instead, I yell at the TV when I hear that the new crosswalk on my corner cost $200,000 to build, or bitch that nothing’s being done about the drainage problem when (A) I could have voiced my concern about the cost or (B) I should have read that the drainage problem will in fact be fixed in January.

But hey, A&B are not my fault. One thing we can all agree with in the age of Gov 2.0 is that government-to-citizen communications should be accessible and easily understandable – and the launch of PlainLanguage.gov kind of shows government is starting to get that too.
There area a handful of initiatives going on at the congressional level (like GovTrack) but very few that deal with the NIMBY issues. Conor Sullivan’s Localocracy is probably the best entrepreneurial effort I’ve seen, and I hope his framework takes off. Granicus on the other hand is the 800 lb gorilla that is best-positioned to do something about it, but to date I’ve only seen them help government stream video of their meetings and publish agendas (maybe they can share examples on the engagement side in the comments). It’s not that I can’t make it to the meeting – it’s that I want a simple summary.

How I Would Do It Better
I took my CB2 prototyping to the extreme this weekend and challenged myself to redesign the information presented in St. Petersburg’s City Council (official link), Meeting Agendas (official link), and Meeting Minutes (official link) in a manner that would better communicate what’s going on in my city. Of course an afternoon’s effort didn’t yield perfect results, but I’m very happy with the outcome.
Areas I focused on:
– Simple, clean, pleasing user interface
– Easily learning about upcoming and recent votes
– Connecting the names and faces of my City Council to issues
– Social media integration (share/discuss this issue with friends)
– Pushing the full formal documents to the background
Quick footnotes:
– Most of the links are clickable (maps, videos, etc) but not all
– A weekly email of upcoming and resolved issues would be awesome, but I ran out of time
– Some language was edited for better display. These are mockups

Now that you’ve seen my designs, what do you think? Share your ideas for the next generation of City Council websites in the comments section below.

About Chris Bennett (Jump to Online Resume)

Chris Bennett is a self-proclaimed emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.

What does CB2 Mean? “Chris Bennett’s Crisis Blog.” It was originally CB Squared but the superscript 2 never took, so now we’re rocking the big 2.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply


Looks slick. The hardest part I think is convincing cities that they want more feedback/engagement on city issues. I’ve talked to a few folks and a lot of their leaders have been burnt out by in person meetings where often the dialogue is contentious and not always useful.

There needs to be a tighter rationale around engaging more citizens. Something to extent that more engaged citizens = more likely to use gov’t services, stay in the city, encourage economic development, etc

Jeremy Greene

Chris – Very nice.

To Steve’s point, I think the argument should be that citizen engagement can be more efficient if the right platform for discussion is in place. If I were an elected official, I could see how town hall meetings where tens (or hundreds) of constituents are pushing ideas/suggestions my way could be overwhelming. Having a way to gauge interest (voting ideas up) and sentiment like this could be very helpful to officials.

Chris Bennett

Great comments to which I agree! There are really two pieces at play here though – being informed and being engaged.

Most people who visit a blog on GovLoop are there to read it and become better informed, while only a few will be motivated to comment and engage each other. Even if the engagement/social aspects of my proposed design were removed, it would still be a huge step forward to making what’s going on in my community more transparent.

Posting scanned meeting minutes online and streaming council meetings are 10+ year old technologies. I argue that it’s time to make another leap forward and transform the legalese into a format that the public can follow.

Pam Broviak

I think you have done a great job capturing and presenting relevant information. And also offering it in an attractive and easy to read manner. Based on how I have seen cities publish their agendas, minutes, and vote results, I am guessing you had to input the information and votes by hand somewhere. Or does your city offer this information through feeds? And could someone go to your site someday and set up pages for their city?

Andrew Krzmarzick

Chris – a question and a remark:

Q: Have you shared this with the council member to get his insights?

Remark: I really like where you’re going here. The only way Gov 2.0 will evolve is if we are thinking on the hyper-local level. I keep coming back to my parents. They could care less about many of the other tools, but if you could give them an easy way to voice their opinions on something happening in their neighborhood – and advertise a web-based option via traditional means (city newsletter, direct mail, post card, email, etc.) – you’d generate more citizen involvement….and less yelling at TVs 😉

P.S. I immediately knew the Easter egg was NIMBY 😉

Chris Bennett

Pam: The council agenda and minutes were online but it did require cutting/pasting/typing to put these mockups together. The agenda was easy enough, but the minutes were scanned PDFs which required OCR and editing to put together. If there were feeds available, something like I proposed would not be very difficult to automate. Without feeds, it would probably require a days effort to enter full upcoming agenda issues and another day after the meeting to enter the votes.

Andy: I’ll be sharing with my city council next week – wanted some GovLoop comments like yours first. Thanks for the nice remark! Again, while I think more channels to voice an opinion are great, the bigger gap in my opinion is presenting the information in an easy to follow format. Navigating 6 levels deep on a clunky document management system only to find a scanned in PDF of formal meeting minutes doesn’t help the average person learn how their officials are voting.

Pam Broviak

This is my main concern with opengov/gov20: Open government is not sustainable with the current methods and procedures we now use to produce documents and information. While what you have done is excellent, to sustain it, as you said, cities need to find a method of easily producing this information that allows you to easily pull the data. Most of us just don’t have that set up.

For this particular use, what I envision is needed is a type of software city clerks can use to create or transform a traditional agenda and minutes document or information into a series of feeds tagged in a manner identifying what info the feed contains. Then sites like yours could use those tags to figure out where to place them on the page. Now if only we could find someone to program that! 🙂

Ari Herzog

Hi Chris, I’m a city councilor in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I inform and solicit feedback from my constituents through both a blog and an email newsletter. You can access both via ari4newburyport.com. I don’t know how St Pete’s city clerk’s office operates, but if anything like here, they are likely overworked and understaffed which begs the question whether the office has the time to do anything that involves extra steps.

If you can create a template for items to be filled-in (or if you’re willing to do the work for free or discounted cost) then that is one solution to consider. The other option is to create a wiki similar to OpenCongress and determine who will fill in the information.

Chris Bennett

Pam: The software for that isn’t terribly difficult. The challenge I think is getting someone to pay for it. This is why companies who already have relationships with them are probably best positioned to do it, like VideoMinutes and Granicus. Thanks again for the comments!

Ari: Great site – thanks for sharing! I like how you use Scribd to embed the documents right in your site. Makes them a little more accessible. Is there a particular reason why they’re in PDF as opposed to Word or RTF?

Bruce Chezem

You’ve done a great job thinking through the challenges, opportunities, and solutions and wrapping them together in a meaningful presentation.

We ( Community Site Design Group ) have been going down a similar path with a custom module we created for our eMuni Content Management System Drupal distribution. Since we are a Drupal shop, our Granicus-like solution must reside in a Drupal based web site. You can get an idea of how it works if you visit the city of Brisbane, California’s new website http://www.brisbaneca.org You can see the interface is very much like Granicus with the exception of a floating text marker which follows the video.

I’d like to play around with adding some of the features you’ve illustrated into our module like the Facebook and Twitter integration.

We’re behind on our self imposed deadline of releasing our distribution, but you can find out more about eMuni Content Management System and our meeting/video/agenda module by visiting our web site at http://www.communitysitedesign.com

Chris Bennett

Thank you, Bruce. I checked out the Brisbane site and like how you have everything organized. Feel free to contact me directly should you need any feedback on future CSDG features or ideas.