Leveraging Technology to Improve Participation: Textizen and Oregon’s Kitchen Table

Today’s post from Chante Lantos-Swett is the first in an occasional series that explores the top 25 ideas from the last round of the Roy and Lila Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government. Now in its second year, this special Innovations Award is designed specifically to recognize government-led innovations that demonstrate enhanced public engagement and participation in the governance of towns, cities, states, and the nation. The deadline to submit an application for this year’s award is April 15, 2016.

In this post, Chante Lantos-Swett, MPP’17 candidate, examines two cutting edge technologies striving to bring policy discussions into the public space. Textizen and Oregon’s Kitchen Table are two new initiatives that engage communities in innovative ways through text messaging and online crowdfunding. Lantos-Swett explores the potential of online tools to increase civic participation across a more diverse population and at a sustainable cost.

By Chante Lantos-Swett

For over a decade social media, blogs and comment sections have provided a platform for people from any location, demographic or background to weigh in on practically any topic. It should come as no surprise then that communities and states are looking for ways to harness this form of participation to generate more diverse input and responses to policy initiatives and projects. Using a variety of tools, including text message and online crowdfunding, places like Philadelphia and Oregon are developing exciting programs that have taken steps to make civic participation look like the connected world that people are already inhabiting.

In Philadelphia, the drive to find ways to use technology for civic participation stemmed from a desire to engage more citizens in the Philadelphia2035 long term planning effort. To solve this problem, the city of Philadelphia worked in partnership with the non-profit Code for America to develop and pilot Textizen, a fast and unobtrusive method for gathering real time feedback using cell phone text messaging. The model for Textizen is simple. Through the use of public spaces, flyers, and public transit advertisements, citizens can voluntarily and quickly respond to survey questions for city planning projects. An institution using Textizen can craft a series of questions to gauge support for an initiative, elicit preferences and prioritization from among a list of issues/options, or collect feedback on a specific project.

On the surface, text message feedback is an easy and logical way to breakdown the time and resource barriers that prevent average citizens from attending in-person meetings and hearings. This was seen in the initial Textizen pilot survey, which generated over 700 individual responses with a 90% survey completion. This was a dramatic increase in participation compared to the average attendance of 30–80 individuals at a public city-planning meeting. But with the ubiquity of cell phones across demographics and the adoption of sophisticated technology, Textizen has also become a financially feasible way to diversify input, build sustained citizen engagement, and generate insights beyond city planning.

First, Textizen makes it possible for cities to collect and analyze data in real time. For a city official, this means generating data points that not only inform the planning process of future projects but also address the concerns of current initiatives and issues. In the case of the Philadelphia Clean Air Council, the collection of real-time idling vehicle reports via text message resulted in 4 city agencies implementing stronger vehicle idling policies within 6 months. Second, by prompting survey respondents to include their zip code and key demographic information, the city is able to map the location and concentration of survey responses. Immediately, this means that city agencies running a campaign can keep track of which demographics and districts are missing from survey results. Over time, this information provides key insights on the needs of specific neighborhoods and groups in addition to informing strategies to maximize outreach and target under represented areas in future Textizens campaigns.

Finally, the use of Textizen has been an important tool for creating trust and accountability between government and citizens. By soliciting the input of citizens on the device they are most comfortable using, Textizen is reinventing the relationship between government and citizens. However, the process of soliciting input and feedback in a convenient and streamlined process does not mean citizens necessarily feel that the government is listening. That is why Textizen uses survey responses to engage in a two-way dialogue on the issues through the use of follow up questionnaires, progress reports, in-person meeting notifications, and adaptive survey formatting.

It is clear that more and more governing institutions see the public and financial value in acquiring real-time data from their citizens to inform policy planning and decisions. Today Textizen is used across multiple government agencies in Philadelphia and has been implemented in 40 U.S. cities. What remains to be seen is the ability of tools like Textizen to not only increase civic engagement within a city, state or country but to also inform the citizenry on issues that impact their lives. The limitation of 140 characters on a phone can act as a barrier to substantive information sharing and discussion on complex issues facing voters. And more research needs to be done to prove that platforms like Textizen are truly giving a voice to previously disengaged citizens.

On the other side of the country, Oregon’s Kitchen Table (OKT) is another online, civic engagement initiative that may provide some answers to the question of how to engage citizens in an inclusive and substantive manner. The program was founded in 2010 at Portland State University by a group of non-profit, community leaders, and former elected officials in order to create a permanent civic infrastructure for online engagement. At its core, OKT is an online platform that helps connect elected officials and the public in Oregon in joint projects at nearly any scale through public consultations, civic crowdfunding and Oregonian-to-Oregonian micro-lending.

Engagement with OKT starts with Oregon policy and decision makers seeking input or support on a particular issue or project through two OKT features: public consultation and civic crowdfunding. Each public consultation done on OKT involves designing an online survey that can be made available to OKT users, with specific outreach to users in relevant zip codes. The surveys are created in partnership with expert public opinion researchers and results are reported on the OKT website and made available to the public.

OKT initiative: Portland Harbor Superfund Cleanup. © Oregon’s Kitchen Table

The Civic crowdfunding component allows policy makers to engage the public on projects through fundraising, volunteering, and awareness building. In this way, a civic crowdfunding campaign moves beyond feedback and input and instead promotes activism. Participation in a crowdfunding campaign can be anything from donating money, using a “perk” or reward to reinforce the project’s goals, learning about volunteer efforts or events and using social media tools to help raise a project’s awareness among friends, family, or neighbors. OKT’s effort in public sourced fundraising has recently expanded to also include Oregonian-to-Oregonian microlending. This feature was created to support the Governor’s Prosperity Agenda as a means to increase access to financing for small businesses that need small loans to expand their business and ensure economic self-sufficiency.

Today, OKT has more than 7,000 users and has seen significant achievements through its three channels of engagement. Over 10 public consultations have been held online with reports on the results generated for public consumption. Perhaps its greatest success came through a civic crowdfunding campaign for a new public space. The campaign raised $24,000 more than the original goal of $100,000 from over 700 donors. While these are promising milestones from OKT’s first years of running, there remain questions on the impact of OKT and its scalability.

As with any online tool, it is hard to know the depth and degree of engagement by the average user. While the crowdfunding feature allows for more concrete participation, overall OKT does not provide an avenue for users to broaden their understanding of an issue or policy. And unlike Textizens, there is not a mechanized avenue for conducting follow up with a user based on their participation. Last but not least, OKT was created in the hopes of expanding not only the number of participants in policy discussions but the demographics represented. It is not clear that the 7,000 people using OKT are achieving this goal. These are issues OKT will have to address as it continues to build upon its early successes.

Both Textizen and OKT are on the cutting edge of leveraging online platforms to bring policy discussions into the public space and are seeing promising results. The potential of these types of endeavors is exciting for any policy maker. From increased data points on public needs and opinions to increased participation at a sustainable cost, online tools seem to be a viable solution to the problem of expanding civic engagement. But as both OKT and Textizen demonstrate, just because something is online or accessible by a phone, does not mean instantaneous expansion. Each of these initiatives and future projects will need to address the persisting limitations to reaching underrepresented demographics and groups and design methods to ensure citizen users are engaged in a meaningful way. Addressing these barriers will be a critical final step in helping to achieve the ultimate goal of building trust and communication between citizens and their public officials.

Chante Lantos-Swett is a MPP ’17 candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Prior to the Kennedy School, Lantos-Swett worked with non-profit organizations in California and Washington, DC to promote the creation and use of technology for education and civic participation for the United Nations new Global Goals.

Originally published at www.challengestodemocracy.us.




Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

Recommended from Medium

How to Run Against an Old, White Conservative

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Disclose Their Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) With the LAPL

The Trump era begins amid protest and turmoil

America’s Such a Failed State, Even a New Deal Won’t Fix It

Advocacy groups pressure Senate to reconvene and boost election funding

Elections in a Pandemic: The Crisis Response Should Be Permanent Policy

Where Will The Money For The $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan Come From?

Yes, I Own Guns. No, You Can’t “Buy Them Back.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Harvard Ash Center

Harvard Ash Center

Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.

More from Medium

An Outsider’s View of the Problems That Netflix Faces

People Champion Spotlight: Enriqueta Baquero

Local Versus Global Hiring: How to Attract Talent When Geography Is No Longer an Issue

Planning a trip behind my mom’s back, what could go wrong?