I’ve been invited to speak briefly tonight with the Northfield City Council at their work session. The agenda item says: “Discuss technical recommendations on citizen input.” It’s all part of the “background information as the Council begins to discuss ways of achieving and working on the goal of improving citizen communication.”
We’ve discussed this issue on LG (here, here, and here) so it’s time to craft something concrete for the Council and staff to react to. Here’s a first draft of what I plan to present to them tonight. Reactions welcomed. (continued)
Northfield City Council Blog (for example, at northfieldcitycouncil.org)
A. Online Open Mic
What follows is a refinement of that, based on subsequent discussion there as well as my observations of one example currently in practice: the Open City Hall of Palo Alto, California, which uses the Open City Hall web service (“for governments”) offered by a company named Peak Democracy. I propose that:
- As the Mayor and City Administrator prepare the agenda for an upcoming Council meeting or work session, they decide the most important items that should be brought to the public’s attention via posting to the Council blog, one blog post for each item.
- A City staff person blogs these items and provides background information, including links to documents on the City web site. (See the Palo Alto high speed rail discussion item as an example.)
- Citizens may then submit one comment per item/blog posts. These comments are written and may include links to other sources, including an audio or video comment that a citizen may have opted to create instead of a written comment.
- Citizens must identify themselves via first and last name, an email address, and a home address. Comments are reviewed by an independent, non-partisan contractor prior to posting. (Submission and privacy guidelines would be created.)
- Citizens are encouraged to read the comments of others before they comment, as they may want to respond with a simple “I agree/disagree with what John Doe wrote,” similar to what can happen at open mic. But no back and forth discussion is allowed.
- If the item lends itself to a straw poll (for example “yes, no, undecided” or “strongly support, somewhat support…” etc) staff can embed a straw poll in the blog post so that citizens who may not want to or have the time to craft a response can still weigh in.
- The Mayor and City Administrator can decide the deadline for comments on each issue. For example, some items might warrant a deadline of 2 hours prior to the start of a Council meeting, whereas others might extend for a month or more.
- Councilors and staff can read the online commentary at their leisure. Some items might be ‘packaged’ into a PDF and made available to Councilors. (All Councilors and staff should know how to use RSS feeds to make it easy to sort and read the comments without having them added to their email inboxes.)
- All comments are part of the public record. While online open mic comments would not be read at the face-to-face (F2F) open mic at a Council meeting, a staff person could summarize the input received, for example, “Thus far we’ve received 13 online comments on this agenda item, with 35 responses to the straw poll: 22 in favor, 10 opposed, and 3 undecided.”
- Each comment will have its own permalink (web address) so that media organizations and area bloggers can link to the comments, thereby spurring further discussion.
B. Blog posts by individual councilors
Councilor Erica Zwiefel has also wondered about “the other side of the issue,” i.e., what other tools might be available to Councilors for them to inform citizens about their ideas and concerns. I’ll only address the online tools.
While there are many advantages for a Councilor to have their own blog like Councilor Betsey Buckheit, others may prefer an option that doesn’t require that level of commitment.
The same blog used for ‘online open mic’ above can be used as a Group Blog in which individual councilors can post on any issue or concern. This would be analogous to the current process which allows an individual councilor to include a written statement in the Council packet which then becomes part of the public record that citizens can read.
Councilors posting to the blog could opt to allow comments from citizens to be attached to their blog post, much like the online open mic process above. Or they could opt to turn off comments and just have the blog post stand on its own.
The above-mentioned company, Peak Democracy, also has an Open Town Hall web service (“for elected officials”) that accomplishes something similar. See the two councilors participating from Trinidad, California as an example.
The Open Town Hall format is very restrictive (councilors apparently can only ask straw poll type questions) and that appears to be one reason why it’s not being used much. I’d advise Northfield Councilors to be more flexible and informal in their blog posts. The Council may want to craft some guidelines for the use of the group blog in order to prevent it from being overused by an individual councilor or for purposes not related to Council business.
C. Blog posts distributed via Twitter
Twitter is a micro-blogging service that’s increasingly being used by federal, state, and local governments to communicate with citizens. For example, Minnetonka City Manager John Gunyou has a sidebar link to the city’s Twitter account.
One of the advantages of using Twitter in conjunction with a City Council blog is that citizens can opt to receive updates via their cell phones. While many citizens don’t use email, especially the under-35 crowd, a large majority of citizens of every age has a cell phone. And with the use of smartphones (iPhone, Google phone, etc.) expected to explode over the next decade, citizens will increasingly expect engage with city hall via their mobile devices.
City Council blog post headlines can be automatically distributed via Twitter, no staff time needed at all.