From Plastic Bags to Bicycles, Austinites are Coming Together Online to Improve their City
When looking for stellar examples of online civic engagement, the results produced by the City of Austin, TX push the city to the top of a very short list, a list that could and should be much bigger. Over the past five years, online government interaction has become the overwhelming preference for citizens, so it should come as no surprise that online civic engagement tools are becoming widely sought after. The trick, as Austin discovered, is to find tools that can cut through the noise of social media and cultivate deep and meaningful citizen collaboration.
With two awards under their belt in 2012, one from City-County Communications & Marketing Association and the other from GovFresh, Austin is setting a great benchmark for successful and meaningful community outreach and engagement online. Their recipe for success is an integrated approach – they have augmented their in-person community hearings with a comprehensive online community engagement portal called SpeakUpAustin! The site, driven by Granicus SpeakUp℠, empowers citizens to share their feedback and actually influence the decision-making process through a unique and unified blend of interactive tools, including crowdsourcing, surveys, commenting, discussions, and forums.
Austin has increased registered users by 110% in the past year, maintained high user traffic totaling over 70,000 hits within six months, and earned a strong return visitor rate of 34.7% throughout 2012.
When talking with Larry Schooler, the city’s Community Engagement Consultant and the newly nominated President of the International Association for Public Participation (IPA2), he shared one of his most note-worthy successes with the SpeakUpAustin site in 2012: facilitating online discussions regarding the city’s controversial Plastic Bag Ban.
When the Austin City Council approved a resolution directing the City Manager to develop a city ordinance providing a comprehensive phase-out of single-use plastic bags offered at retail checkouts within the city limits, Austin launched a public participation campaign to gather feedback to help them draft this ordinance. Their SpeakUpAustin site was designed precisely for this kind of job.
On the site, they created a featured public discussion that provided details about the plastic bag ban ordinance and solicited public input with targeted questions, such as, “To what extent should the ordinance involve a direct ban on plastic bags, a fee for using or distributing plastic bags, and/or a rebate for other kinds of activities (use of reusable bags, etc.)?”
The plastic bag discussion received 245 meaningful responses from a wide range of participants: environmental enthusiasts, local businesses, bag-makers, and residents in and around the Austin metro area. “This city-wide issue had engagement from people who had a stake in the issue. We were able to gather a lot of rich feedback from a diverse sample group, not just the usual suspects,” said Schooler.
The feedback they generated was put to use by city staff in crafting the plastic bag ban ordinance which was later approved in 2012. “The ordinance was carefully crafted in partnership with the stakeholders affected – it is not a blanket ban on all plastic bags. We listened to the feedback and carefully crafted several exemptions,” said Schooler.
This is just one example of feedback generated through the Web and put into action by the City of Austin. Since the launch of SpeakUpAustin! crowdsourcing ideas from the community has been another effective tool to help the city improve its services. So far, they city has more than 2,000 registered users on the site. They have generated more than 800 ideas, received 5280 votes, and 1055 comments. Additionally, more than 50 of these ideas are in action and 23 have been implemented by the city.
“The ideas we generate are catalysts for action,” said Schooler. “We now have a tool to help us learn about the topics that matter most to our citizens. We also have a way to quickly prioritize ideas and put productive plans into action. All of this enables us to actually show our residents that we’re responsive,” Schooler added.
For instance, one resident had the idea to install a bike share hub. Because Austin has a very active biking community, this idea quickly became one of the highest rated in the forum. Since then, the Public Works Department is in the midst of building a plan to implement a bike share program.
Convenience is king, and citizens are now finding online civic engagement so convenient that this new collaboration is redefining how government decision making works. As Schooler offers, “citizens need a meaningful and safe place to engage – a more profound, powerful, and productive way to connect electronically to decision-makers and fellow citizens. SpeakUpAustin enables that to happen. The large commercial social media sites are not enough.”