March 5, 2012 By Indrajit Basu
While many new e-government technologies allow citizens to express their opinions and ideas for government, could online technologies actually become a viable substitute for City Hall?
Perhaps not. But a new website for citizens in Kansas City, Mo., showcases the concept that online platforms could be far more effective in engaging a much wider spectrum of participants.
“With many residents discovering the site and chiming in with great ideas, KCmomentum has already proved to be an effective tool to increase public engagement,” said Dennis Gagnon, public information officer for Kansas City. “And that is helping us shape the future of the city.”
Data and public opinion collected through KCmomentum.com has been used for a variety of initiatives. Data was used during the budget planning process, to identify initiatives that support the small business community, and during planning sessions for basic functions like parking and website design.
When the interactive website was launched in August, Mayor Sly James said the city wanted to hear from anyone in the community interested in how to make the community better.
Indeed, the website is enabling that audience.
“KCMomentum.com operates much like a 24/7 town hall,” Gagnon said, “Residents make comments or suggest new ideas that are discussed among others within the community — regardless of the time of day or their schedules. Members of the community shape the discussions and add to each other’s comments to create stronger ideas. The site also provides a mechanism for rating ideas. The material generated from the conversations is used by city staff.”
The website includes a points system, user leaderboards, and a voting system for supporting user-generated ideas.
A benefit that websites like KCmomentum provide is they facilitate participation among those who aren’t able or likely to attend public meetings. One common problem is that career-minded people — busy at work — rarely get the opportunity to get involved and offer their perspectives. Their opinions should count, Gagnon said.
Another issue is that people can say pretty much anything they want at a public meeting. But’s it’s important to have a mechanism to steer a conversation back to the real issue. A website like KCmomentum allows this to happen.
“This [online] process allows time for reflection and commentary that is not practical at a live event,” Gagnon said. “There are talented people in the community who might not have time for a public meeting, but can contribute to KCMomentum.com — when it is convenient for their schedule.”
KCmomentum also serves as an additional channel for reaching out to citizens who aren’t as well informed about the government services Kansas City offers. It’s not uncommon for citizens to request the city provide a service it, in fact, already offers. “This observation was a clear indication that Kansas City was not doing a good job of communicating to the public when it came to certain programs and services,” Gagnon said. “We are now working on this issue.”
The technology behind KCmomentum.com is provided by MindMixer, an Omaha, Neb. -based website builder of online platforms that engage citizens.
According to Nathan Preheim, the company’s COO and co-founder, KCmomentum is built on a .Net application with a proprietary content management solution. KCmomentum has some unique features, Preheim said.
“There wasn’t a platform that existed and did what we wanted KCmomentum do. So we built our own, based on our own unique business rules,” he said.
KCmomentum can support different types of engagements, like instant polls, idea submission, participatory budgets, and prioritization.
The website’s operation is outsourced to MindMixer on a “perpetual subscription” model, which means the city purchases a yearlong subscription and all city departments have access to it.
MindMixer’s platform is being used by Omaha; Mountain View, Calif.; Denton, Texas, and a dozen other local governments.
The question is, can online platforms like KCmomentum eliminate bureaucracy or the need for traditional methods of community outreach?
Gagnon doesn’t think so.
“KCmomentum may have some impact on how City Hall works in the future, but it is probably a stretch to imply that it could be a substitute for a city hall,” Gagnon said.
There is still a large part of society that isn’t quite tuned in to social media, Gagnon said. KCmomentum works well for those who are busy and are comfortable with digital technologies and social networks. However, there are many individuals who still prefer public meetings or written correspondence to convey their ideas, he said.
Still, Gagnon is working on expanding the website’s scope, especially for members of the business community who don’t have the free time or flexibility to step away from work to go to a public meeting. In a YouTube video posted on the site, Councilmember Scott Taylor asks the business community what types of features in a redesigned city website would be useful for startups.
Indrajit Basu is a Digital Communities contributor.