Participation versus Engagement: What could SpeakUp Austin be good for?

Tonight, some folks and I have a meeting with Matthew Hall, community manager at Granicus, the company that develops the software behind SpeakUpAustin, as well as Larry Schooler, the man who manages Austin’s installation.  I have earlier had some rather scathing comments about the role this software plays in preventing effective discussion, both on this blog and in a focus group led by a grad student at UNM investigating the site’s effectiveness.  I’m not the only one; the entirety of the focus group had rather sharply negative opinions about it.  I’m gathering my opinions here for the discussion tonight; I apologize if they’re a little scattered and I didn’t have time to organize them.

The basic criticism of the site at the focus group was that we didn’t know what it was for, or what happened, if anything, after an idea was submitted.  The model of participation seemed to be effectively a one-way street leading into a giant cloud of government, where the ideas would get lost along its way toward anybody who could do anything about it.

For better or worse, governance in Austin is complicated.  There are 61 Boards and Commissions listed on Austin’s webpage and that doesn’t seem to include (at least some) subcommittees like the Bicycle Advisory Committee.  Any given idea might need to be vetted by multiple Boards.  Some ideas can be implemented by staff, some require City Council action, many should be vetted by Boards and Commissions prior to reaching City Council.  Many ideas require intergovernmental cooperation with Capital Metro, Travis County, ACC, AISD, or other local government structures.  Trying to set up a single webpage to do an endrun around this governance is worse than doing nothing, because it leaves users with the false belief that all it takes to make change is leave an idea on a website.  It would be a fantastic goal for government to become responsive to give ideas, but pretending that it is so doesn’t make it so.

Instead, Speak Up Austin should position itself not as an alternative to the complications of government, but as a navigator.   It should partner with the existing governance structures–and importantly, not just staff agencies–to feed them ideas.  If the idea is something that 311 already handles, alert the person leaving the idea to that, mark it as handled, and stop letting users vote on it.  If the idea should be put before a board, tell the user when the next board meeting is and to bring it there.  If the quantity of ideas is too great for a given board, commission, agency, or other structure, limit the number of ideas to the top 2 (or 3, or 10, etc.) vote-getters per month and mark the rest as expired.  Importantly, if an idea doesn’t have a partner structure to which it can be fed: alert the idea-leaver and tell them they have to make their own way in figuring out how it’s implemented.

A placebo change site will not only fail to get people involved, it will prevent getting people involved and sour them from the whole process.

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Participation versus Engagement: What could SpeakUp Austin be good for?

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