Ideas Worth Sharing: Civic Engagement Technologies

In this series, ELGL members share initiatives, policies, and programs that are transforming local government. Sign up here to share your idea. Previous articles include  addressing homelessness in Los AngelesFine Tuning Coppell with the SEED Leadership, A Community Effort in America’s Most Diverse City, and Using Open Data to Engage the Community in Indianapolis

By Nick Mastronardi, Founder of Polco

There’s a lot to love about the growing wave of civic engagement technologies. Dedicated civic engagement platforms, if designed smartly, can offer a better communications solution that traditional means while avoiding the complexity of the vast social media ecosystem. Traditional engagement channels such as town halls, emails, one-on-one meetings, phone calls, traditional polls, and surveys can be cumbersome, expensive, and unproductive. Supplementing these traditional channels with social media often requires a detailed understanding of a half dozen platforms and could also require a professional marketing and communications team, which is an unreasonable expense for most municipalities. A dedicated civic engagement platform can draw the best from both.

At Polco, we’re doing our best to learn from both the new and the old, leveraging knowledge from cities with engaged citizenry and combining those lessons with best practices in social media technologies. And there’s a lot to love. Watching people become more informed, educated citizens who have an easy way to participate in local government is extremely rewarding. And capturing the data and insight from that activity, delivering it to local officials, and watching this new information drive decisions is what we live for.

But our favorite thing about the new wave of civic engagement is how it uncovers perspectives that were likely to have otherwise gone unnoticed. Take, for example, a policy question we recently saw from one of our partner communities. Citizens were asked whether they supported a homeless resource center downtown that, rather than only being available during the evenings and nighttime, would also be available during business hours. Many questions naturally arise from such a proposal – Will it create a disincentive to find work? Will the surrounding area become a nexus for the homeless? What sort of resources should such a center provide? As responses began to roll in on Polco, it seemed that there was overwhelming support for the initiative, but one voice stood out among the crowd.

download-1It was the voice of a woman who had been homeless for three years. The perspective she brought was fascinating. She asked other citizens and respondents to consider:

Do you realize that when you’re homeless you are required to leave the shelter at 8:00 a.m. with all your belongings and not return until 4:00 p.m.?

She explained that getting somewhere to apply for jobs (the library, for example), required a number of intermediate steps, such as buying a bus ticket and riding the bus. She continued:

…the time it takes to get from place to place makes it impossible to achieve all those things and be in line for your shelter at 4:00 p.m. Why not have all the services needed all in one building? It would save a huge amount of time and help people get back to work or on assistance faster which means back in housing quicker.

Her comment was the highest rated among all comments (both for and against the proposal), and the final results showed that respondents were overwhelmingly in favor.

As we continue to uncover new perspectives and watch the evolution of civic engagement, we’re honored to be a part of, what we hope, will be a series of transformative technologies.

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If you are interested in learning more about Polco, contact hello@polco.us.