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Online Civic Engagement: Hey, Folks, It's Harder Than It Looks

BY Sam Roudman | Friday, January 11 2013

Budding interest, mixed results in city-backed online volunteer organizing. Photo: Eric Kliff

City officials enticed by the oft-repeated promise of the web for increased citizen participation, beware — if you build it they won't necessarily come.

In November 2010, the nonprofit group CEOs for Cities launched a simple but innovative project in Chicago called "Give a Minute." Initially funded with a $100,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant and $235,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the idea was ambitious. It was described in Knight materials as a platform that "changes the fundamental nature of the relationship between citizens and their local governments by engaging them in decision making and service delivery." Its designers, the New York-based firm Local Projects, hoped to accomplish this by delivering a social network-style website — since renamed Change By Us — that promised that city officials would listen and respond to the ideas of volunteers and neighborhood activists who wanted to improve their city.

Two years later, users, city officials, and project designers describe Change By Us in interviews as a platform to connect existing nonprofits with small grants and a few extra volunteers — helpful, novel, but not earth-shattering. It is a template for cities who might be looking for a way to engage with existing nonprofits and community activists. And for anyone who wants to use technology to make civic life more accessible and engaging, Change By Us' struggles so far offer useful dispatches from the front lines.

Destined for four cities, Change By Us launched in three, including New York City. It is truly active in only two of those. While community projects have signed on to Change by Us — some of them because doing so was a requirement to qualify for a small grant program — few, if any, projects stay active on the site for long. After its initial $335,000 in funding, Change By Us was awarded another two-year, $590,000 infusion from the Knight Foundation, $250,000 of which is guaranteed, and the remainder of which is contingent upon the project delivering on a slew of promises.

Project leaders and city officials are still looking for the best way to use Change By Us.

"I like that people are talking, that they’re sharing ideas, but I need them to go from the computer to feet on the ground," says Nazli Parvizi, commissioner of the New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Community Affairs Unit.

When Change By Us launched in New York in 2011, it had the support of Stephen Goldsmith, then deputy mayor for operations. Goldsmith left the administration under the cloud of a domestic violence charge. Although he was later found innocent, he was out of City Hall — leaving Change By Us behind. Now, a community manager under Parvizi's supervision responds to people who log on to the site. Citizen's Committee for New York City offers small grants to neighborhood improvement projects, a proviso of one program being that the project leaders set up a Change By Us page. But Change By Us doesn't have a single owner within city bureaucracy, Parvizi said.

"It doesn’t have a natural home," Parvizi said. "It’s a collaboration between a couple city agencies."

Collaboration has always been part of Change By Us' plan. When it was "Give a Minute," the key idea was that technology would facilitate a back-and-forth between citizens and city leaders. By its November 2010 launch, it was already destined for New York, N.Y., Memphis, Tenn., and San Jose, Calif.

This promising idea quickly gained steam. In his 2011 State of the City address, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg set the stage for Change By Us to launch in his city. Goldsmith, Department of Environment Protection Commissioner Cas Holloway, who later took over for Goldsmith as deputy mayor, and a number of other luminaries were expected to be part of the project.

"In the year ahead, we’ll launch online forums where every City employee — and every New Yorker — can post ideas that he or she thinks will improve services or save the City money. Others will be able to comment on those proposals, and then we’ll implement the best ones," Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised in his 2011 State of the City address. "This kind of open call for ideas — or ‘crowdsourcing,’ as it’s called — has helped cutting-edge companies like Facebook and Netflix improve services and save money. And with more than 8.4 million people in our crowd, imagine what we can come up with."

Fellow Knight Foundation grantee Code for America, the nonprofit that hopes to imbue city halls with Silicon Valley culture and skills, adopted bringing the platform to Philadelphia and Seattle as two of its goals for 2011. Local Projects pledged to open up the project's source code, so others could adapt it to their purposes.

Some of that momentum seems to have disappeared between the start of 2011 and the end of 2012. Of the 369 project pages now posted on Change by Us in New York, 309 have ten or fewer members — a scant portion of Mayor Bloomberg's 8.4 million crowd. The platform launched in Philadelphia to the delight of city officials, but Jake Barton, principal at Local Projects, admits the platform in Phoenix, Ariz., has not attracted the support it needed. After initial discussions about Change By Us in 2011, Seattle city officials declined to participate.

In New York, many of the Change by Us projects with the highest number of members joined the site as a condition of a separate grant competition.

“We applied for a grant through Citizens Committee," says Lily Kesselman from Brook Park Chickens, a project to build a chicken coop in Brook Park in the Bronx. "Part of the grant was to develop a profile on Change by Us.”

"The biggest benefit [to Change By Us] is that the other organizers can find out about our events,” Kesselman says. The group went on to win a $700 grant.

As part of a separate grant program in conjunction with the New York City Parks Department's Million Trees NYC initiative, Change by Us awarded 10 mini-grants between $300 and $1000 to a number of projects, provided they document their work, like this turtle pond in the M’Finday Kalunga Community Garden. Overall, they awarded $37,650 in grants to 19 projects.

"Right now, it seems like the grants are driving traffic to the site," Parvizi says.

Parvizi didn't seem convinced there was a reason for users to keep coming back to Change By Us.

In some cases, she wonders, "could you have done this through Facebook?"

Like many experimental social networks, engagement is the platform's most difficult challenge. Change by Us has no upcoming events posted in any of its cities. A’yen Tran, who runs engagement at Local Projects, says this is a product of Change by Us’ focus on garden and urban agriculture initiatives.

“A lot of those green projects scale back in the winter,” she says.

Another contributing factor is that the Mayor's Community Affairs Unit, which helps manage Change by Us, pulled its community manager off the project in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

"In the last two months it was Sandy time," says Parvizi. After posting a list of relief resources to the site, she moved the community manager working on Change By Us to work on disaster recovery.

As for the small scale of the projects that do appear on the site, Barton, of Local Projects, says that's part of the idea.

"Change by Us is trying to garner lots and lots of small groups all growing in the same direction," he says. "If you could have dozens of 30-person compost groups through the city, you could make a huge impact."

Change by Us is concentrated on the "new, up-and-coming not for profit," he says, and is focusing on the "long-tail effect of the Internet" — that is, rather than one or two projects that are interesting to anyone, it can play host to lots of projects that might not have a home otherwise because they are interesting to only a small number of people, like members of a specific neighborhood. Barton is keen to emphasize that the site is changing in response to the project's successes and failures.

"What the first round site set out to do was to be a space for citizens to gather around new projects and figure out ways to make them happen," says Barton. "That’s a very very new idea."

Civic engagement has bedeviled city leaders since long before the days of Facebook. For Parvizi, that makes it worth the effort to try to close the gap between reality and expectations.

"Frankly, when it comes to community engagement, I don’t see a lot of people doing it," she says.

And when the expectations are not quite so great, Change By Us seems to stack up in a more favorable light. As early as late 2011, Local Projects and Code for America had impressed city officials in Philadelphia, who have more modest ideas about what the platform should do.

“We think of it as another channel for people to connect with government,” says Jeff Friedman from the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Philadelphia, who helps administer Change by Us.

Again: Transformative, no. Helpful, yes.

The experience of a similar project suggests that maybe smaller is better when it comes to this kind of platform. In 2011 — also with help from the Knight Foundation — Act for Alexandria launched ACTion Alexandria, a platform intended to help existing programs and nonprofits to more easily collect money and volunteers.

ACTion Alexandria, which was also supported by the city of Alexandria, aimed at an incremental shift, supporting groups that already existed the community, rather than attempting to conjure new ones. And it started relatively small: To begin with, a $100,000 Community Information Challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and $25,000 from the City of Alexandria. Tony Castrilli, director of communications for the city of Alexandria, says Alexandria gave another $50,000 in support last year.

ACTion Alexandria has garnered around 2,600 users and helped disburse $118,000 in grants. It raised nearly $320,000 for nonprofits in one day last year with its Spring2ACTion initiative. In the context of a city of less than 150,000, these numbers are substantial. In an email, Viselli says that the project has exceeded expectations.

All of the featured projects currently posted on ACTion Alexandria have volunteers in the single digits, but according to a recent study on ACTion Alexandria's first year, those numbers don't reflect the impact of social media, where "much of the [volunteer] brokering activity occurs."

“We get some publicity from it, but I don’t know how much,” says Dixie Duncan, executive director of Wheels to Africa. She posted her yearly bike donation drive onto ACTion Alexandria, but of the over 200 people she says helped volunteer this year, she wasn’t sure that more than a couple came from posting to the site.

Expectations — how to set them, how to manage them, and which ones are reasonable — are central to Change By Us' story so far, says Lee Fisher, president and chief executive officer of CEOs for Cities, the project's non-profit home.

"We didn’t have an evaluation mechanism in place, and that was a weakness," Fisher told techPresident. Since late last year, Change by Us has been working with an evaluation consultant to help the platform measure success. While about half of the project's latest funding is secured, the rest depends on whether or not it can improve.

"Knight legitimately doesn’t intend to release the remainder of the funds until they know we have taken it to a whole new level," says Fisher.

Although the October grant was publicized as being $590,000, Fisher says Change by Us has only been guaranteed $250,000 so far. The rest of the grant won't be awarded unless they develop "an evaluation framework," get three more cities involved, improve the platform itself, and secure one or more private sector partners.

For the time being, Knight is satisfied to let this experiment unfold.

“Ultimately, we’re two years into this, the field is in varying stages,” says Damian Thorman, national program director for the Knight Foundation. “We may not be in the wild west, but we’re not far out.”