Beyond The Town Hall: Online Tools For Engaging the Public

Moderated by Larry Schooler

 

Governments around the world are starting to see the power of the public to influence and improve their policies and initiatives.  But how can the public meaningfully engage in policy discussions if they can’t physically show up at city hall, the state capitol, the White House, or another seat of power?  The online space holds enormous opportunities for meaningfully engaging large populations in critical discussions on controversial topics affecting their communities, their states, and their countries, but those tools come with risks and challenges of their own.    

Join Larry Schooler for an active weeklong discussion of ways to use online technology for engaging the public in resolving community and broader public conflicts; tools that work; strategies that make sense; and challenges to overcome.

 

Moderator Bio:

Larry Schooler oversees community engagement, public input, and conflict resolution projects for the City of Austin, Texas. He is also the President-elect for the U.S. affiliate of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) and an adjunct lecturer at Southern Methodist University.

Larry mediates disputes on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense and is a Fellow at the Center for Public Policy Dispute Resolution at the University of Texas. He serves as a member of the board of Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT). He is active with Mediators Beyond Borders and the Association for Conflict Resolution. In the past, he has volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Safeplace, and the Anti-Defamation League.

Larry holds a master's degree in conflict analysis and resolution and a bachelor's degree in history. He is the author of a manual entitled "The 'Public' in Public Policy: Keys to a Successful Community Meeting" and a forthcoming book on the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States and related projects elsewhere. In his former career, Larry was an award-winning reporter for NPR stations across the country and as a freelance reporter for National Public Radio, Voice of America, and magazines.

Larry is married to commercial real estate broker Jolie Schooler, the founder of the Green Knot real estate networking group and an active leader in Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW). He is also the father to Sammy Schooler, born in August, 2011. In his nonexistent spare time, he trains for marathons.

 

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Great topic Larry. I think the term Online Dispute Resolution focuses too much on "Dispute" sometimes, leaving out the important work of public engagement. I guess you could say that all politics is a form of conflict resolution, seeking to provide a "check and balance" system to prevent any one group from overpowering others, but that is a stretch. 

Anyway, I think Public Engagement work should be clearly in the ODR field. 

One really nice example of the range of this work is this report from the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

 

Agree 100%, Bill!  Matt Leighninger is a friend and colleague with whom I am collaborating on a book chapter on this very subject, based on the research you cite! 

What are some of your favorite examples from his research or elsewhere?

Thanks to Bill for getting the ball rolling.  Here are some other questions to continue our conversation:

1)      What do you see as the most important opportunities created by online tools for public policy disputes?

2)      What concerns you the most about applying online tools to public policy disputes?

Larry, 

I should have guessed that you and Matt are colleagues. You hang with good people! I'll have to ponder the "good research" question a bit and maybe post later. I'm completely jazzed by the "gov 2.0" movement and the open data work that is going on, and the expansion of Code for America, but it seems many of these initiatives are more about sharing data, rather than engaging publics in decision-making directly. 

Larry Schooler said:

Agree 100%, Bill!  Matt Leighninger is a friend and colleague with whom I am collaborating on a book chapter on this very subject, based on the research you cite! 

What are some of your favorite examples from his research or elsewhere?

Larry, the work you are doing is great, and the success stories of your use of technology in Austin are becoming legendary.  I'd like to ask about what didn't work.  Have you had any dead ends or approaches that, after the fact, you thought did not work so well for citizen engagement, etc.?

1) I think Google Hangouts are a great new technology to allow people to engage while also allowing the audience to participate as well.  Plus it's free!  I am trying to incorporate it here in NYC with a few projects.

2) I think concerns are that it should compliment- not replace- face to face/in-person interactions.

Larry Schooler said:

Thanks to Bill for getting the ball rolling.  Here are some other questions to continue our conversation:

1)      What do you see as the most important opportunities created by online tools for public policy disputes?

2)      What concerns you the most about applying online tools to public policy disputes?

Dan, that's a great question.  We had an experience where we asked the public to choose from a few options for renaming a city department.  The platform we were using did not allow us (at our account level) to pre-moderate responses and/or to authenticate that we had real users.  As a result, the site was spammed with vile posts from a blog that derailed the conversation.  We were still able to get good input on the three choices that we intended for the public to review, but it made us realize how important it is to configure a tool like that very carefully. 

I also want us to go further with online tools for participatory budgeting and other tradeoffs with limited resources.  The one foray we've made into that was good in that it forced hard choices about what to fund and what not to fund, but we needed to be more explicit to the user about why there was a limit on spending, and how this input would be utilized.  That's an area I think holds great promise for online deliberation. 

Daniel Rainey said:

Larry, the work you are doing is great, and the success stories of your use of technology in Austin are becoming legendary.  I'd like to ask about what didn't work.  Have you had any dead ends or approaches that, after the fact, you thought did not work so well for citizen engagement, etc.?

Jeff, great post!  Agree very much with #2, although I think it's important for us to consider cases where online tools are the only ways for some to participate, particularly in conversations that stretch across larger areas like states or even congressional/legislative districts.  While we shouldn't stop holding the face-to-face encounters, we have to figure out ways to "level the playing field" for folks who view online as the only way in. 

Re #1, tell us a little more about how the Google hangouts work in this context--sounds very promising!



Jeff Thompson said:

1) I think Google Hangouts are a great new technology to allow people to engage while also allowing the audience to participate as well.  Plus it's free!  I am trying to incorporate it here in NYC with a few projects.

2) I think concerns are that it should compliment- not replace- face to face/in-person interactions.

Larry Schooler said:

Thanks to Bill for getting the ball rolling.  Here are some other questions to continue our conversation:

1)      What do you see as the most important opportunities created by online tools for public policy disputes?

2)      What concerns you the most about applying online tools to public policy disputes?

Larry asks us about concerns with applying these tools to public policy disputes in particular, but  I have a thought if we can broaden this some and explore public policy concerns that don't rise to the level of a formal dispute. 

The problem is the level of "seriousness" of the discussion, and the uneven mobilization of participant groups. The example that struck me was one reported in Dan Rainey and Ethan Katsh's chapter on ODR and Government from the new edited volume  Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice. They relay the story of the Obama administration creating a public briefing book, where the public could use online tools to weigh in on the issues the new administration should focus on. Here's the quote, noting that you don't always get the kind of info you were hoping for:

They received 44,000 proposals and 1.4 million votes for those proposals. The results were quietly published, but they were embarrassing not so much to the administration as to us .... In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientologys tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer. 

This sounds a bit like the story Larry just related about getting "spam" in a public deliberation, but in this case, I'm sure there are many americans genuinely concerned about the issues that actually made the top of the agenda, despite their self-serving or narrow focus. 

So, I guess part of the question is how much to vet or control for participation, and how to do so effectively without resorting to clinically sterile random population samples. 


Larry Schooler said:

2)      What concerns you the most about applying online tools to public policy disputes?

Bill, that's a great case study. 

Seems to me like the Administration may (and I don't know much about how they did this) have missed an opportunity to frame the question(s) to the public in a way that would yield results that would be more likely implemented.  So, if the White House knew which issues it would probably want to focus on but wasn't sure where to start, it could have put out a list of its own issues and asked the public to weigh in on what deserves priority. 

I think the work they've done with WeThePeople.Org is admirable, in that it requires a threshold of signatures/votes on an item suggested by the public before the White House acts on or responds to it. 



Bill Warters said:

Larry asks us about concerns with applying these tools to public policy disputes in particular, but  I have a thought if we can broaden this some and explore public policy concerns that don't rise to the level of a formal dispute. 

The problem is the level of "seriousness" of the discussion, and the uneven mobilization of participant groups. The example that struck me was one reported in Dan Rainey and Ethan Katsh's chapter on ODR and Government from the new edited volume  Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice. They relay the story of the Obama administration creating a public briefing book, where the public could use online tools to weigh in on the issues the new administration should focus on. Here's the quote, noting that you don't always get the kind of info you were hoping for:

They received 44,000 proposals and 1.4 million votes for those proposals. The results were quietly published, but they were embarrassing not so much to the administration as to us .... In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientologys tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer. 

This sounds a bit like the story Larry just related about getting "spam" in a public deliberation, but in this case, I'm sure there are many americans genuinely concerned about the issues that actually made the top of the agenda, despite their self-serving or narrow focus. 

So, I guess part of the question is how much to vet or control for participation, and how to do so effectively without resorting to clinically sterile random population samples. 


Larry Schooler said:

2)      What concerns you the most about applying online tools to public policy disputes?

Larry, it is very encouraging read about this creative use of technology (despite the glitches)--for soliciting public input on public spending and budgets. 

Other related questions--for Larry and others:

1. What types of challenges arise with such opportunities for exponentially increasing public input (ie: highjacking of the process by organized political parties, spamming as mentioned, etc.)

2. Have people seen tangible benefits from the increased input (both in increasing democratic involvement and in enhanced outcomes)?

3.  Has anyone found that who participates changes once technology offers additional avenues for input (ie: more elderly? youth? people of color? businesspeople? etc.)



Larry Schooler said:

Dan, that's a great question.  We had an experience where we asked the public to choose from a few options for renaming a city department.  The platform we were using did not allow us (at our account level) to pre-moderate responses and/or to authenticate that we had real users.  As a result, the site was spammed with vile posts from a blog that derailed the conversation.  We were still able to get good input on the three choices that we intended for the public to review, but it made us realize how important it is to configure a tool like that very carefully. 

I also want us to go further with online tools for participatory budgeting and other tradeoffs with limited resources.  The one foray we've made into that was good in that it forced hard choices about what to fund and what not to fund, but we needed to be more explicit to the user about why there was a limit on spending, and how this input would be utilized.  That's an area I think holds great promise for online deliberation. 

Daniel Rainey said:

Larry, the work you are doing is great, and the success stories of your use of technology in Austin are becoming legendary.  I'd like to ask about what didn't work.  Have you had any dead ends or approaches that, after the fact, you thought did not work so well for citizen engagement, etc.?


Leah raises some good questions. The second one makes me think about different goals for engagement. Beth Noveck, in a chapter in the book Wikigovernment, articulates some of the different goals, and I think she makes a good case for more collaboration in govenment, and less just listening to citizen voices and then having the bureaucrats decide after consultation.

Here's a piece from Beth's chapter that I quoted to my students in class a few weeks go:

Deliberation requires an agenda for orderly discussion. Collaboration requires breaking down a problem into component parts that can be parceled out and assigned to members of the public and officials.

Deliberation either debates problems on an abstract level before the implementation of the solution or discusses the solution after it has already been decided upon. Collaboration occurs throughout the decision-making process. It creates a multiplicity of opportunities and outlets for engagement to strengthen a culture of participation and the quality of decision-making in government itself. (Noveck p.91)

Leah Wing said:

Larry, it is very encouraging read about this creative use of technology (despite the glitches)--for soliciting public input on public spending and budgets. 

Other related questions--for Larry and others:

1. What types of challenges arise with such opportunities for exponentially increasing public input (ie: highjacking of the process by organized political parties, spamming as mentioned, etc.)

2. Have people seen tangible benefits from the increased input (both in increasing democratic involvement and in enhanced outcomes)?

3.  Has anyone found that who participates changes once technology offers additional avenues for input (ie: more elderly? youth? people of color? businesspeople? etc.)

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