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In Search of Ideas: How Counties and Towns are Trying to Tap Citizens' Smarts

BY Nick Judd | Friday, March 18 2011

Photo: Salady / Flickr

Karen Wilkerson is the city administrator for tiny De Leon, Tex., and her job won't be getting any easier anytime soon.

Like localities across the country, De Leon, a town of 2,433 as of the 2000 U.S. Census, is losing money. Property revenues are declining and jobs are going away. Wilkerson is willing to try anything to get her town back on track, including so-called "ideation" platforms — elaborate online suggestion boxes like Ideascale and Spigit that create a place for citizens or employees to submit, rank, and follow up on ideas that can save money and improve services.

While government officials seeking comment on discrete projects and counties with wealthy suburban towns report success with ideation platforms like these, De Leon joined in as an experiment meant to prove that it can work in smaller towns, too. After several months, the experiment isn't over, and Wilkerson and the vendor she's working with continue to make changes — but it hasn't caught on yet. Here's a look at where ideation seems to be working and some of the challenges faced in setting it up.

Karen Wilkerson is the city administrator for tiny De Leon, Tex., and her job won't be getting any easier anytime soon.

Like localities across the country, De Leon, a town of 2,433 as of the 2000 U.S. Census, is losing money. Property revenues are declining and jobs are going away. Wilkerson is willing to try anything to get her town back on track, including so-called "ideation" platforms — elaborate online suggestion boxes like Ideascale and Spigit that create a place for citizens or employees to submit, rank, and follow up on ideas.

Coming to prominence as an idea for governments in 2009 after the U.S. General Services Administration approved IdeaScale for use by federal agencies, and built on the backs of previous federal-level experiments in citizen participation and crowdsourcing, the vendors who make these platforms are aggressively seeking market share in cities and counties around the country. Years of experimentation in Manor, Tex., led to the belief that because these tools had no infrastructure requirements and were free or cheap, small towns could use them to build community and generate ideas.

But evidence that ideation platforms work well in small cities is weak. Absent Dustin Haisler, the guy who maintained the tool that Manor used and who has since left the town's government, Manor's Spigit pages are now filled with spam comments. Where citizens generated ideas like more animal control and support for a new grocery store — part of offline conversation, too, and one the city has picked up and run with — there have been no new ideas on the site since November.

(Update: In an email, Haisler writes that Manor's Spigit site is locked as it's undergoing a redesign to "a challenge model of open innovation.")

Nobody seems quick to offer examples of other small towns that are using ideation tools with any great success, but Spigit and Ideascale continue to offer their platforms free or at nominal cost in the hopes of doing some civic good and, yes, finding a market. It could well be that they won't have an effect, and, in fact, their thesis that even the smallest and least tech-savvy localities can use their tools is wrong.

De Leon's situation, and its proximity to Manor, made it a perfect laboratory for Haisler, Manor's much-celebrated former chief information officer. Late last year, not long before Haisler's rising fame among the government IT crowd vaulted him to a job with Spigit, Haisler and the blogger Luke Fretwell hosted a conference in Manor for the growing national crowd of technologists trying to leverage connection technologies to change the way local government works. As a kind of proof-of-concept, Haisler and Fretwell persuaded facilitated a whole bunch of software vendors' offering neighboring De Leon free use of their products — partly as a gesture of goodwill to a town that has fallen on hard times, and partly to prove that what Haisler says worked in Manor can indeed work elsewhere in the country. After the event, called GovFresh.Manor was over, DeLeon had a new website, presences on social media, and a host of new software tools.

(Update: "In regards to the De Leon makeover, software vendors were not persuaded to participate; they were excited at helping in supporting from the beginning of the process," Haisler points out in a comment. Also, I should have observed that De Leon is 160 miles from Manor and is neighboring only in Texas terms.)

While parts of that tool suite seem to be catching on, De Leon so far is not the example of wild success that advocates for technology in small-town government had hoped it would be.

It is true that governments in rich suburban areas, with dedicated IT staffing, have been able to use these tools to sustain conversations with their constituents. People running one-off projects to collect public comment on specific areas with clear start and end dates also have success stories. And it seems proven at this point that any large organization, government or no, can use tools like these internally to solicit new ideas.

But when I asked Haisler and Rob Hoehn, a co-founder of Ideascale, if they knew of other places like De Leon that have also had success in using ideation platforms to start conversations with citizens and get them to generate ideas, both seemed to have trouble finding them.

"To be honest, a lot of people sign up and I don't necessarily hear or talk to them until someone like you calls," Hoehn told me.

In several conversations last month, Haisler pointed out that it's hard to define success. Is success the implementation of an idea generated online? There are examples of that here and there, but does just one idea justify the time spent to manage an online community? Any failure could be the fault of the town's existing processes, not any new deployment of a tool. He told me that finding metrics to define success should be a priority. And he told me he was tired of hearing Manor held up as the sole example of success. But he didn't offer other examples of places where Spigit could be described as a game-changing way of interacting with citizens.

Meanwhile, models for online engagement like these continue to evolve; new riffs on the same idea include a White House-endorsed proposal, ExpertNet, and the House Republicans' YouCut initiative. You might say that Quora is a fork on the same concept, with different engineering that reflects lessons already learned about behavior online. But little attention has been paid to how well ideation has actually worked in cities and counties, which have only really started to adopt that type of tool in the last two years. And so, a closer look at De Leon, which has been experimenting with Spigit since September, makes sense.

"As far as the website and the Facebook and the tweets, that's working great," city administrator Wilkerson told me recently. She's been posting to Twitter every other day or so and has amassed 20 followers; on Facebook, where she also posts frequently, there are 119 fans and no recent comments.

SeeClickFix, a platform for reporting problems and tracking whether they get fixed, has been great, she said. Since implementing it six months ago, Wilkerson has reported that issues from potholes to barking dogs to broken streetlights have been addressed.

But "De Leon Labs" — a town-focused platform using Spigit — remains largely empty, save for Wilkerson's efforts to seed it, the comments of one or two citizens, and a new sprinkling of spammers.

"It's not doing much and I've racked my brains trying to get something," Wilkerson told me. "We've run ads in the paper, I've put it on Facebook."

Everything in Moderation
While De Leon's town administrator is struggling, in Oakland County, Michigan, county officials are excited. Jim Taylor, the county's director of e-government services, flipped the switch on a public IdeaScale instance three weeks ago and is happy with the results so far. His project manager for the site, Sandy Jurek, says she has seen more than 100 ideas so far.

The cities and counties that are starting the most conversations with ideation are the ones that are able to put staff time towards moderating it and publicizing it.

One of the newest adoptees of online ideation is Oakland County, Michigan, home to several wealthy suburbs of Detroit. Oakland County has a long history of e-government services, a centralized IT department that provides services for all the agencies, cities and towns in its borders, and a budgeting process that allows agency heads to collectively decide how county IT staff should be spending time and resources.

In April 2010, Oakland County's e-government director Jim Taylor asked students completing a capstone project at Michigan State University in East Lansing to research crowdsourcing for government. After reviewing their research, which mentioned IdeaScale, Taylor later decided that it would be worth trying out internally. The county opened up a site for county employees to offer suggestions on how to save money in the face of a $1.2 billion state million county IT budget deficit.

"We came up with about three-quarters of a million dollars from just the employees alone in cost reductions [and] savings," Taylor told me. "We thought, great, this works well internally. I looked to see how do we do this externally, and that was the onus of this crowdsourcing project."

The attention the site has received so far takes time to cultivate, Sandy Jurek, the project manager for the site, told me. She says that she shares moderation duties with representatives from each of several county agencies who each monitor topics on the site relevant to their areas of expertise. When a question pops up related to an agency that doesn't have a dedicated moderator or isn't responding, she follows up.

The county also did a little social engineering on the site by omitting categories relevant to more problematic topic areas, like public safety, to make this pilot project easier to manage.

The result is a consistent back-and-forth between people inside and outside of government. The county is reviewing a change to a web interface for accessing property information, and happens to already be working on a concert pavilion in a public park — the subject of another suggestion. There's another idea on the site for the county to form a water system independent from Detroit's utility, which the county currently uses. County officials are visibly listening, and the IdeaScale platform — in a feature that Spigit also has — differentiates between ideas that are getting a lot of attention, ones that have support, ones that are being considered and ones that are slated for adoption.

This all works because the ideation platform is just one tool used as part of a broad and longstanding cooperation inside county government, Jurek told me.

"We have had a long-established relationship with those elected officials and departments," she said. "This really is just another tool ... it's not like this is the first time we're having a conversation with them."

Idle Hands
In De Leon, which has five police officers when it is fully staffed and where the city administrator, Wilkerson, considers a loss of $5,000 from the tax rolls to be a devastating blow, there is no IT infrastructure to consolidate. Part of the appeal of the "Gov 2.0 Makeover" De Leon received is that it was an opportunity to start fresh with lightweight, inexpensive — or free — tools, figure out what works, and drop what doesn't.

Haisler says the problem with Spigit in De Leon is about education. After just a few months, people in town aren't yet accustomed to the way an online forum like De Leon Labs, as the town's Spigit site is called, works. It's a little unfamiliar in general, too: Upvotes are called "Spigs," and downvotes are "scraps," for example. Other instances of the software use metrics like "innovation watts," the definition of which is not immediately clear. Haisler says he's working with Wilkerson to change their instance of Spigit so that it more clearly directs users towards individual issues, in the hope that that will then appeal to the people who are talking about civic issues in real life.

"You're essentially just taking a conversation that's already taking place and you're putting it online," Haisler said.

The conversation is certainly there — Wilkerson said that the town is particularly focused on cleaning up vacant lots and abandoned properties, an idea that has been posted to De Leon's Spigit site, and town council meetings "can get pretty packed" — but De Leon's residents as a whole don't seem to make too much use of Facebook when it comes to connecting with their government. Wilkerson says she and the citizens she serves are still figuring out how to use the Internet, broadly, to connect with one another, let alone a purpose-specific platform.

In February, though, Wilkerson saw a spark in De Leon's online community. During a stretch of rough weather, residents flocked to Facebook to find out about service outages.

"Mainly it was just, they had questions about their trash service, is there water, is there leaks," she said.

"I picked up more during the ice storm," she said. "People were bored."

De Leon Labs didn't show a similar uptick, but Wilkerson says she figures people will come in time, after they get the hang of communicating with her online. More inclement weather — perhaps a Texas thunderstorm or two — might help.

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