Move over, Facebook — there’s a new online platform for sharing views and opinions on public matters in town, and this one has a direct line to city staff and elected officials.
The city of Asheville launched its new public engagement website, Open City Hall, on Thursday, March 17. The Internet-based platform is the creation of Berkeley, Calif.-based Peak Democracy, a technology company currently providing cloud-based online services to more than 100 government agencies in the United States. According to the company’s website, some of Peak Democracy’s clients have been using the platform for more than five years.
The platform’s inaugural topic asks Ashevilleans whether the city should allow accessory dwelling units (also known as ADUs, garage apartments or in-law suites) to be used for short-term rental purposes under the city’s Homestay ordinance, and what impacts that use might have on neighborhoods. As of Monday, March 21, over 150 responses had been submitted on the issue.
City Communications Specialist Polly McDaniel will serve as the primary liaison for the platform. “The City of Asheville places a high value on participation in the decision-making process,” says McDaniel. “This tool will make it easier for many people to participate — and have a voice — in Asheville city government initiatives.”
In the near future, the online platform will be used to gather public input on the city’s upcoming effort to update its comprehensive-plan and on the future of the Haywood Street and Page Avenue properties. According to McDaniel, the city plans to follow best practices by posting no more than one or two topics in any month.
McDaniel says the results of surveys, polls and open-ended questions will be compiled and presented to City Council members in staff reports. Anyone can view all responses on any question online, and the results will be archived and retained indefinitely. This method of gathering feedback and input, McDaniel says, will be used in addition to — and not instead of — other forms of public engagement such as community meetings, public hearings and constituent email communications to elected officials.
After getting the go-ahead from City Council’s Governance Committee last year, McDaniel explains, Director of Community and Engagement (CAPE) Dawa Hitch led an effort to identify the best service provider for an online public engagement tool. Over a six-month period, CAPE staff researched several platforms, eventually concluding that Peak Democracy’s Open Town Hall product had most of the desired features in one platform.
Peak Democracy will provide a comprehensive service contract, which includes monitoring for civil and on-topic comments, as well as support to help the city craft effective discussion topics and surveys. The cost of the contract is $9,500 per year, which covers an unlimited number of users, topics and cloud-based data storage. The city signed a three-year contract for the service.
Chris Joyell, executive director of the Asheville Design Center, says his organization plans to make use of the platform during the upcoming public visioning process to determine the community’s preferred use of city-owned properties on Haywood Street and Page Avenue. “We have a volunteer looking at the capabilities of the system, and we are looking forward to using it to increase public engagement in the visioning process.”
“The hope is that, in the future, we will be able to use the platform in real time during meetings, so that citizens can participate remotely,” McDaniel explains. “Though we need a little more time to work with the system before we roll that out, the platform has that capability.”
Local technology entrepreneur Ty Hallock, who is working with a partner to develop Trusted Sharing, another online collaboration tool, thinks the new platform has the potential to increase public participation. “Now, people sometimes feel like they have tried to be heard and it hasn’t worked,” he comments. “A lot of people are disenfranchised in their efforts to connect with local government. If this is a medium for helping them, I think it’s going to be very successful.”
Though registration is not required, it is encouraged. McDaniel says registration allows the city to identify which commenters actually live in Asheville and are true stakeholders in the local community.
The platform limits each participant to one comment or response per issue. The company’s website explains: “Blogs are frequently dominated by bullies that post multiple comments. This intimidates constituents and gives bullies an unfair advantage. We use in-house software and staff to authenticate every participant, and restrict each participant to only one comment per topic so they can’t dominate, argue or attack each other.”
“This tool gives residents the opportunity to participate in the decisions that shape our community from the privacy and convenience of their own home,” Hitch said in a press release. “We want the public to be part of the process and they’re online.”