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E-Democracy.org – Project Blog

100,000 Participants – Copying An Idea for Posterity

Written by Steven Clift

As our blog is a useful repository for content that will last for years, here is a copy of our intentionally audacious Knight News Challenge proposal from 2013. Elements of this may turn into future proposals, particularly if you have to a funder who is inspired b them and gets in touch. 🙂  Source.

100,000+ Participants. Local. Inclusive.

Open Government will fail without inclusive outreach that inspires vastly more representative participation. E-Democracy’s BeNeighbors.org initiative is primed for “awesome” by innovating with next generation civic tech to reach 50%+ of households.

 

Introduction

 

Q: How do you design “awesome” open government to engage over 50% of households in a vastly more representative way and not just the 1% who already show up?

A: You:

 

  1. Pick a region and go deep
  2. Get inclusive with unprecedented outreach
  3. Attract people with “open neighborhoods” and government information alerts on high need/demand information, and
  4. Put users in the center as you leverage that participation base to cost-effectively test the best next generation of open source code and concepts with partnerships across the civic technology community.

 

 

The next generation of BeNeighbors.org will engage up to 140,000 participants monthly, or ~50% of households in the Twin Cities urban core. This will be the largest scale, most representative local online civic engagement project to date. Make it work here, then spread the lessons and technology that actually work.

To do this, E-Democracy will undertake a massive partnership effort with local government including libraries, parks, schools, and police; media outlets, including ethnic and neighborhood media; community organizations, including nonprofit organizations serving underrepresented and immigrant communities; places of worship; and neighborhood groups to expand from our base of 16,000+ nearly daily users today in St. Paul and Minneapolis, to reach tens of thousands more.

(Now gratefully in a year two of a three year Knight-funded project specifically focused on St. Paul, this longer News Challenge submission is our audacious “back of a napkin” overview for how we’d blow the roof off open government from our base. It shares a rough open source style glimpse of what we would do if resources were abundant. We invite all readers to join our efforts starting with our online volunteer group call Projects.)

Depending upon the resources marshaled and revenue generated, we can reach well beyond our base of 25% household participation in our strongest areas and expand the neighborhoods served. The options for daily, weekly, and monthly participant experience will be diversified and our connection to government information and data dissemination made more direct.

As a democracy building non-profit with nearly two decades of sustained civic technology experience, it is clear that truly inclusive outreach to lower income, racial and ethnic communities, and interest in intergenerational participation takes an outreach investment beyond what venture market is seeking to cherry pick. The key is to ensure, as E-Democracy does, that spikes in outreach lead to sustained long-term boosts in engagement.

 

Participation in what?

The power of public information, open data, and technology in local democracy and community must come from real, everyday people-centered use at a scale never experienced until now. We can reach that scale with the next generation ofBeNeighbors.org.

This $2+ million project vision, covering at least three years, seeks $1 million dollars from the Knight News Challenge. It should be a challenge grant requiring a match from other funding sources. With most open government projects failing to gain participation traction, this investment in inclusive scale will use proven and tested methods. It will open up opportunities for major innovation in the field that resonate with mass local audiences.

The core project features:

  • 1. 100,000+ Online Participants, Local Critical Mass
  • 2. New Digital Canvass
  • 3. Online Engagement – The Heart of “Awesome”
  • 4. Engagement Tech
  • 5. Engagement Initiative – Lesson Sharing, Convening
1. 100,000+ Online Participants, Local Critical Mass

Across St. Paul and Minneapolis, we seek to engage a majority of households. We will broadly engage and reflect local diversity including racial and ethnic groups, immigrants, income levels, and more. This will be the largest, most representative base of the public interacting online with their community and government in public and civic life in history. It will generate new forms of community leadership and civic participation with generational impact.

Partnerships with community organizations and government (the City of St. Paul is a formal partner in our current initiative) are required. We must go well beyond the parachute-in or build it they will come technology approach,
2. Digital Canvass – The Most Intensive Inclusive Digital Project Outreach Ever

2.A. Mass In-Person, Online Outreach – Building on the success of BeNeighbors.org1.0 in St. Paul with hybrid door-to-door/in-person and online community outreach, we will reach every block in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Controlled access buildings will be approached creatively. (Note that St. Paul and Minneapolis only have a homeownership rate around 50%, so renter outreach must be part of the equation or this open government drive will lead to a reduction in overall representativeness in democratic participation.)
2.B. Sign-Up Thousands – Key steps:

 

  • Sign up residents up for government, elected official, and neighborhood digital alerts and news (crime alerts, snow emergencies, city councilmember news, neighborhood e-newsletter, etc.)
  • Sign up people for crucial two-way online engagement options at distinct levels based on their interests, including: block/building, neighborhood, city-wide and/or region-wide level
  • Share discount broadband and digital literacy information
  • Do this both in-person and online supported by integrated outreach technology tools. (Make outreach tools available  for use in other cities.)

We will move tens of thousands of people into government information and project “what’s new” and personalized “what’s important to me” alert services. The most democratizing aspect of open government is timely notification and access to information when the public can act on it before it is too late. 

Create a simple “send to all” monthly email newsletter/social media alert with announcements about open government/community engagement opportunities. This simple channel for open government news will be essential to move thousands of people into online experiments. The death knell of “e-participation” is the lack of participants. Most projects fundamentally under-budget and under-plan for outreach. If you are not thinking about how to reach or break through with “one person at a time” whether online or in-person, your project will fail.
2.C. Multi-Lingual Inclusive Outreach Team and Volunteers – Seek to reach the FULL community by hiring a multi-lingual outreach team and developing community service options (exploring AmeriCorps, etc.), as well as youth summer employment opportunities to bolster the crucial work of volunteers.

In the summer of 2012, our 9 member part-time team working ~15 hours a week spoke seven languages. They fully recruited 3,000 Neighbors Forum participants in-person in less than three months (adding open government alert options like crime alerts, park and library event notices, elected official newsletters, and neighborhood association newsletters would expand opt-ins as well by giving people more choices).

If open government is to reach its potential, it needs to work in communities that are rich in ethnic and racial diversity (St. Paul is 46% people of color, Minneapolis is 40%) and work to embrace immigrants and refugees – citizen and non-citizen alike. To cross the 100,000+ participant mark in this proposal and have that be representative and reflective of the actual population, at least one third will need to be recruited more or less in-person out in the community. That’s how you build “awesome.” This can only be done with creative and deep partnerships with organizations already on the ground. It can be done and “digital canvass” might well become a community canvass with integrated digital aspects.
2.D. Creative Outreach with Fundraising – Raise funds from participants and supporters in areas where we already reach the critical mass of 10% of households participating in online neighbor-to-neighbor connecting.

It is our view, in addition to online donations and public radio style sponsorship from local businesses and participants, that in-person events (like community meals at participating restaurants, etc.) need to be bolstered by a form of fundraising effectively used by dozens of community action efforts in the Twin Cities – canvassing. Donating at your door to better connect your very block and neighborhood is far more local than most of those causes. If effective, this method will cover the cost of outreach in our middle and upper middle income urban neighborhoods.

If the open government/open communities cause can’t articulate itself in a compelling way at the doorstep to gather “free” sign-ups and convince 10% of those households signing up to donate, civic technology will simply further empower those who have a voice already.
3. Online Engagement – The Heart of “Awesome”

To reach a majority of households or in our view the “awesome” threshold in the Challenge brief, we must take an open communities approach and mix in more private community engagement at the block and building level. Crucially, we must be expressly public at the neighborhood-wide (~5,000+ population areas) so the benefits to open government and citizen interaction with government are meaningful and empowering.

Resident-only, virtual gated communities covering more than a few hundred households must be avoided at all cost or the results will be divided communities (by income and race) and closed governance. Private, selective membership is preferred on a block or two, or within the same building, and should for example include the children of an elderly neighbor who is not online or the small business owner on the corner with eyes and ear on the street all day long. Our approach is distinctly different than major .com approaches that do not allow people in nearby neighborhoods to connect to share ideas for community improvement, nor do they allow civil servants who serve an area to participate unless they also live there. Our approach must be careful not to divide communities this way.
3.A. Geographic – Multipurpose Local Online Public Spaces

 

We proposed a strategic mix of online with integrated in-person opportunities to connect. We can build on one-way information dissemination from government and engaged and interactive communities with “their” governments. These two-way online spaces, where the public can generate new public opinion are the most effective ways we’ve seen online to bring data and information to local people in a way that promotes government transparency, accountability, and crucially civic action.

 

Blocks and Buildings – Through a massive network of volunteer “Community Sparks,” resident community communication connectors on each block and in every major building will generate an opt-in digital era neighbor directory.

A range of social media tools and experiments can bring the “telephone tree” into the interactive era (clear reciprocal privacy and sharing controls will be required). We can foster in-person connecting and reach those less online via telephone/mobile as well as connect people across languages and cultures.

The largest percentage of households will be interested in this extremely local level of group connecting – upwards of 80% where a “Community Spark” brings people together. We will explore integrated “electronic block club tools,” but we’ve found that different blocks have different preferences from cc: email groups to Facebook Groups for how to connect. More important is a map-accessible directory of the blocks that covered and those where we need a “spark” to get going.

These block level connections will be leveraged to promote in-person connecting from the well known National Night Out to Martin Luther King weekend Sunday Suppers to other “neighbor day” opportunities to connect neighbors in-person to build trust and social and civic bonds.

Connecting this civically inspired engine into open government and open communities is the linchpin for mass participation. There is nothing we’ve seen that interests more people in “civic life” online than connecting with their nearest neighbors. Nothing. It is the bridge between private life social networking and connections with diverse people who, due to proximity, have a civic common interest that breaks the pattern of more isolated “like minds” online and in social life in general.

 

Neighborhoods – Our inclusive online “Neighbors Forums” are the cornerstone of our current activity and outreach. We carefully design these fundamentally interactive online spaces to be open and part of local civic life that is a real part of open government. This is unusual and strategically by design. If we limit these vibrant online spaces with closed approaches or make them resident-only (banning local elected officials who represent us, but live in the neighborhood next door or the crime prevention officer, school principal, local religious leader, etc.) we eliminate the crucial foundation for open government – open communities in public life that attract more than the 1% of the most political households who are dominating with politics online.

Two-way exchange in public, using real names, civility, and volunteer neighbor-led facilitation about all things community means that ~15% of content about local government on our forums now has a real audience. Our Neighbors Forums make it possible for local elected officials to engage their actual local voters online.

Our secret sauce: people join to find their lost cat and stay for the serendipity of democratically inspired community and civic life exchange. Do not underestimate the attraction of “belonging” to your neighborhood as long as most of the content is about broader “community life” and that free couch on the corner. Everyone gets to belong as “citizens,” not just disconnected clients of government. We can talk about the improvements we want at our local library or school and they will hear us. We can propose local community actions and work together to make things happen.

In practice, we view the BeNeighbors.org as a “Got Milk?” campaign for neighbor connecting online and openly link to online spaces outside of our network, and would explore ways to integrate them into our in-person outreach. Rather than promote a one-size-fits-all communities approach, creating an open directory and map combined with a promotional campaign will be highly transferable to other communities. It could become the next Sunshine Week or a national outreach engine.

 

Citywide Online Townhalls – Our St. Paul and Minneapolis Issues Forums, with about 15 years of experience, are like the first Facebook Pages on local politics. They have a special history and have brought many people into local politics. Even the current Mayor of Minneapolis, RT Rybak announced his candidacy on the forum before he announced it in-person.

Our view is that expressly political online spaces, whether they are on Facebook, Twitter hashtags, etc. will attract about 1% of households. That’s only a small start.

Our classic “Issues Forums” are open with vigorous debate and our use of real names and essential civility rules keep them from being completed destroyed by the loudest partisans. (Years of effort would be destroyed in days without our volunteer-based facilitation and civility rules in place.)

These spaces are essential as a release valve for where to route topics that are fundamentally citywide in nature. We embrace small “p” politics in our Neighbors Forums, but kick the more divisive city politics topics up to a space designed to handle the heat.

This nuanced approach allows us to push back on calls to censor and ban local political topics from neighborhood exchanges. (Some independent online neighborhood spaces do not allow even very local political issues to be discussed and are therefore cut off from open government.)

3.B. Solutions and Listening

 

It is our experience that community problem-solving and action best happens on top of a foundation of highly relevant hyper-local engagement. Many community decision-makers and expert leaders have attempted to skip the mass community engagement level and jump straight to the ideal of community problem solving filled with inspiring expert jargon and good marketing … and then they attract few participants and deliver limited on-the-ground results.

 

With our foundation of participants, we will review the best tools, technologies and approaches from across the civic technology world. We will partner with organizations seeking to cost-effectively test their ideas and apps with the largest existing local base of online civic participants (both in terms of a percentage of the population and the representativeness of those gathered). If 100,000+ engagement seems too audacious, our inclusive base of soon-to-be 10,000 participants in St. Paul alone (over half of those signing up on paper who have answered our survey are people of color) is already primed as a national test-bed for next generation civic technology today.

 

Some speculative areas we would explore include:
Community Solution Forums – We propose a new tier of regional online communities of practice for community members working to address the similar challenges in their own neighborhood (from fighting graffiti and promoting neighborhood arts, citizens as doers can help each other out with lessons and experience). Some will be hosted and crafted by us and others will be created in partnership with organizations and people using Facebook Groups, LinkedIn, etc.. This is all about convening people to take action or provide peer support on local issues involving residents.

 

Community Survey Platform – We are extremely impressed with the Public Insight Network efforts of Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media. How might we extend that approach to government and community directly? It is our sense that the market failure of open government is not a shortage of voices, but a shortage of listening, understanding, tolerance, and representative diversity.

We want to explore how members at all of levels of our network could be introduced to surveys from local community organizations, neighborhoods, government agencies, and vetted questions from direct public participation. This is where our overall network-wide e-mail newsletter is essential. A key feature will be invitations (sometimes they will be selective based on demographics) to answer questions from groups making local decisions followed by opportunities for structured dialogue within specific time frames.

If you have 100,000+ participants you need highly structured opportunities to tabulate public input online. The radical idea here is that lots of civic groups would have low cost access to the network and the public itself can play a role in deciding what questions gets asked.

 

Multilingual Online Engagement Spaces – With 17.5% of St. Paul residents foreign born and over 100 languages spoken at home by local families with children in local schools, it is clear to us that to fully work with major local ethnic communities there needs to be something more “in it for them.” Relevancy in open government cannot mean designed in reality for post-graduate, wealthier, wired to the max homeowners (the easiest audience for open government to reach) … now join us – tokenism will be the result

To operationalize this, it means embracing very diverse project staffing, and partnerships involving real funding have to be established. A possible option built on trust and authentic and deep connections, will be to add diverse community-led online spaces in native languages or possibly hybrid spaces, for example, “Hmonglish” as our Hmong staff have called it. Our view is that these ideas must come from these communities themselves and they may well prefer to adapt our lessons and work through existing cultural and ethnic organizations using tools they control completely.

3.C. Representatives
With government partners we see opportunities to test, link, and promote, emerging tools with our critical mass audience. Taking workable ideas to a national scale will benefit from our local testbed.

Some very preliminary ideas:
Elected Official Toolkit, DemocracyMap – The service infrastructure level of unitary local government has administrative priorities that are not based on representative democracy or open political processes at their core. Unlike state legislature’s with their own IT infrastructure, most city councils, county boards, school boards, etc. are served by the executive.

Whether bringing the Open States new local tools deep or bolstering the use of GovDelivery with elected officials for simple email news alerts, it is our view that representatives need better public tools in governance to best represent their constituents (listen to, communicate with, engage, inform, advocate for, etc.).

Using social media privatized in the campaign infrastructure and not as part of official governance is a problem. Further pseudo-public/private connections by elected officials with the constituents who are their “friends” on Facebook are in reality the open government for a select few.

We will be looking for technology for engagement partners with tools that will digitally empower local elected official to better represent the public’s needs with the open government future. Among those tools are DemocracyMap which empower both the public and elected officials by making those behind the curtain of local representative government obscurity far more accessible online.

 

Creative Commons Voter Guide and Interactive Ballot – As the creator of the world’s first election information website in 1994, E-Democracy rode the hype-wave of election-related enthusiasm over many years only to see it dashed by the rocks of political pragmatism the minute our votes are given up and our leaders have secured their power. However despite the hype, more informed voting in local elections through civic technology remains an untapped opportunity.

We will seek partners who have tools that can be used to collaborate with neighborhood newspapers, ethnic press, public radio, and regional media to create a cost-effective sharing ecology for online voter guide content in local elections.
3.D. Links – Open St. Paul, Petitions, Advocacy

 

By designing an engine for mass open government/community participation we can direct people to effective opportunities for participation outside of our own network, be it hosted directly by government (like Open St. Paul an “online public hearing room” powered by Peak Democracy on the City of St. Paul website) or opportunities for “like minds” to connect for local advocacy.

It is our experience that there is not a market failure in tools or opportunities for people to organize in order to convince government to take an action or not take an action. For example, people who want dog parks will use whatever advocacy tools necessary. However, by embracing our role as the neutral promoter, we can move far more people into these opportunities to advocate.

Our “Community Solutions” feature suggest that community collaboration and direct use of online tools for solving community challenges are different from tools designed to make noise in order for someone else to solve the problem for you. We all want governments to solve our public problems for us with fewer resources, but that is not the revolution of co-production and collaboration we need to generate with the next generation of civic technology.

4. Engagement Tech

We envision a tight collaboration with the civic technology community. We have embraced the emergent local Code for America Brigade, Open Twin Cities, as their non-profit fiscal agent and seek to work with national and international innovators in this space. To do so, we must build on the work of our in-house open source technology development and establish a mix of paid and volunteer coding partnerships.

As most civic tech projects under budget outreach, many good ideas remain untested or never quite tested enough to then attract the next round of development (funded, volunteer, bootstrapped, etc.) and die on the vine. We must bolster our in-house capacity to interface with groups like the Sunlight Foundation, mySociety, Open Plans, Code for America (does not imply endorsement) and exciting new entrants to work with them to enhance their technology for use with our mass audience.
We need:

  • Better design for engagement – Being the “it’s ugly, but it just works” Craigslist of online participation is not competitive with increasing user expectations.
  • Better Facebook and Twitter integration – This includes integrated app, but one must avoid the whims of social media companies who change their policies and connections, particularly when they feel you are impinging on their core services. (You can’t “just use Facebook” 100% and expect to have enough ownership over the technology, process and user experience to achieve civic goals.)
  • To foster volunteer civic technology engagement – We’d like to see Open Twin Cities become the ultimate CfA Brigade and add efforts to tap coding and social media talent from the Twin Cities’ many Fortune 500 companies like Target, Best Buy, 3M, General Mills, and more.
  • Partnership tools for sponsorship revenue sharing – Partner with local media including neighborhood and ethnic press and share public broadcasting style sponsorship revenue based on members joining via their outlet’s outreach and ongoing participation. Emerging .com neighbor connecting models are parasitic with local media and seek to extract local advertising revenue out of local communities. What good is online neighbor connecting to open government if the main vehicle for summarizing local government news for neighborhoods is put out of business?
  • Proximity connecting and other experiments – We are interested in open source tools for connecting nearest neighbors dynamically. We seek explore VOIP Drupal and similar tools for connections to telephone, sms, and more for use right down at the block level.
  • Fundraising “CoMobon Tools” – Or a hybrid community small business money bomb, a flash mob and Groupon-like tool to gather scores of participants based on location or interests to share a meal, build trust via in-person connections, and send ~20% of the tab to support the network. This is an idea we want to test.

5. Engagement Initiative – Lesson Sharing, Convening 

A cornerstone of our current programming is national and global lesson sharing where we convene online engagement and open government practitioners and experts. Through Democracies Online, the Digital Inclusion Network, Locals Online, and the CityCamp Exchange we gather online civic leaders around the world in simple online communities of practice. However, in this era of social media exhaustion and torrents of updates, there is a need for value-added, more deliberate lesson sharing and skill building.
We seek to:

  • Launch a major education and training program – We will generate, gather, aggregate, synthesize and share lessons. With extensive connections to community foundations via our participation in the CFLeads community engagement panel and the Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar, we are in the process of proposing an e-course with site visits to share knowledge on inclusive community engagement online. This proposed effort will be ripe for expansion.

It is our view, that building knowledge and lesson sharing is central to our current efforts. We are honored to have secured the resources that we have and unless we share openly and widely, we will not be achieving our mission nor benefiting the wider civic technology community as we seek to improve the local worlds around us.

  • Establish major research and evaluation components – If the Twin Cities is truly going to share value as global test bed for next generation citizen-driven open government and online civic engagement it needs a robust and well staffed research and evaluation initiative. It needs to partner with independent researchers and open itself up every step of the way.
  • Create an “Exchange” for value-added in-depth exchange – As travel is extremely expensive, we seek to create technology enhanced experiences online for trusted connections among practitioners in open government, online civic engagement, and more. With the Democracies Online network going back to 1998 and today exchanges on Twitter at #opengov #edem #demopart and other places, something is missing and remains untapped … in-depth exchange that fosters collaboration across the technology, practitioner/good government, expert, and research communities. Work today is increasingly becoming siloed with technologists unintentionally become self-referential due to the resources and attention they have earned.

What is your project? [1 sentence max]

Audacious plan to inclusively engage over 100,000 households in open government/communities through E-Democracy’s BeNeighbors.org effort starting in the Twin Cities.

Where are you located?

St. Paul/Minnesota/United States

How did you hear about the contest?

  1. In-person event in my area
  2. Email from Knight Foundation
  3. Knight Foundation website
  4. OpenGov group or listserve
  5. Twitter

 

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BeNeighbors outreach to Somali communityEffective tech - St . Paul sign-up sheetVolunteer neighborhood online forum manager

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