With a population of less than 5,000 and a median household income of around $50,000, Manor, Texas, is an unlikely place to find the cutting edge of government e-participation technologies.
But thanks to a young and enterprising Assistant City Manager (Dustin Haisler, now of Spigit), Manor has attracted significant investment from a variety of firms eager to demonstrate the utility of their technologies. As a result, this small Texas town has a variety of e-participation tools that should be the envy of much larger communities. It also has the savvy to institute the policies and processes needed for Manor’s bureaucracy to effectively utilize the citizen input it receives through those platforms.
So, what makes the Manor e-participation system so effective, in addition to all the fancy tools?
Two colleagues and I tried to answer that question as part of our capstone project at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, in pursuit of our Executive Master of Public Administration degrees. For the project, we developed case studies of four city-run e-participation projects, one in the US (Manor), one in Korea and two in Germany. We then developed a set of criteria and applied it to the case studies. I focused on Manor. You can find our full report here. Or, for a summary of what we learned from Manor,
Manor (pronounced May-nor) has labeled itself a “beta community” and boasts of being in a state of constant improvement. It has put several technologies to work to enable citizens to become part of this process through e-participation.
Manor also uses an aggressive mix of mainstream Web 2.0 portals and strategies, including:
* A Facebook page with very open settings;
* A Twitter account;
* A blog embedded into the city’s homepage that can be followed via RSS feeds and email subscriptions;
* An “OpenGov” section with data and plenty of ways to contact city officials; and,
* A fledgling Flickr stream and a YouTube channel.
On top of that, Manor has added to the mix three significant participation platforms that have been customized specifically for the town in partnership with technology providers.
One is Manor Labs, a platform on which citizens can submit ideas, crowd source the submissions and then work with city officials to develop the ideas into policies.
Manor also utilizes SeeClickFix, which allows citizens to use their mobile phones to report road, water and sewer problems for repair. The complaints are compiled onto a Google map that’s updated as repairs are made so citizens can follow the progress of their complaint.
Lastly, Manor has deployed QR codes on city vehicles and infrastructure, at historic sites and in other locations. The codes allow residents and visitors to access information on their smartphones, be it about a city service or a landmark.
Manor has won significant praise for these efforts, with positive news reports appearing in the Huffington Post, Inc. Magazine, the Austin American Statesman and a host of government and technology trade publications. The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University named Manor Labs one of its Bright Ideas, writing that “Manor Labs … allows anyone in the world to submit ideas for Manor and transparently watch them develop into solutions.” The White House Office of Science and Technology has praised Manor on its blog at least twice, with blogger Beth Noveck writing that:
Just as the federal government is using online brainstorming with government employees and the public to generate ideas for saving money or going green, state and local governments are also using new technology to tap people’s intelligence and expertise. The City of Manor, Texas has launched “Manor Labs,” an innovation marketplace for improving city services. A participant can sign up to suggest “ideas and solutions” for the police department, the municipal court, and everything in between. Each participant’s suggestion is ranked and rewarded with “innobucks.” These innobucks points can be redeemed for prizes: a million innobucks points wins “mayor for the day” while 400,000 points can be traded for a ride-along with the Chief of Police.
Access and Usability
Manor Labs can be viewed by anyone with Internet access without a sign in. An account is required to offer ideas or comment on ideas, yet registration took less than five minutes and there were no requests for personal information other than an email address.
The other features of Manor’s e-participation system are also very open. Any Facebook user can comment and post directly to Manor’s Facebook page. There is no registration required to access information using the QR Codes. In order to report a problem (or vote to have a problem prioritized through a crowd source function) on SeeClickFix, users have to enter an email address, but they do not have to complete any formal registration. SeeClickFix can be used from a desktop as well as a mobile phone.
This openness has led to fairly robust usage, although the city hopes for more. According to Haisler, about 30 percent of households have registered to use Manor Labs, compared to 70 percent who pay their city water bill online. So, Haisler says, “the goal is 70 percent usage on Manor Labs.” Currently, Over 1,500 people have created Manor Lab accounts, submitting 91 ideas that have garnered more than 650 comments and 167,000 page views. Manor’s homes on Twitter and Facebook both have over 500 followers — a decent number considering the small population.
The openness of the Manor participation platforms has not inspired a race-to-the-bottom among commentators. On the contrary, nearly all the comments seem on topic and contribute to the wealth of information on the platforms. Current ideas being discussed on Manor Labs include creating a publicly funded library system and recruiting a grocery store to the city. Six ideas have already been put into action. Citizen posts on the Facebook page range from questions about a canceled City Council meeting to inquiries from a perspective new resident.
The various Manor participation tools are likely broadening the democratic process. It is even more apparent that those tools are deepening the process for those already inclined to participate.
As in all cities, Manor is likely to have citizens who (1) will engage the city across all available platforms (traditional and digital); (2) will not participate regardless of the platform; (3) will participate via traditional channels like meetings and letters but are unwilling or unable to participate online; and (4) are more likely to utilize a digital platform than a traditional one, such as the home-bound and young adults.
Manor’s e-participation tools give the city its best chance of engaging that fourth group of citizens. Additionally, by using technology to engage people on less arcane matters of government — such as SeeClickFix’s focus on potholes and the QR codes fun and interactive way of providing information — the system has cast a broad net likely to inspire participation from a diverse demographic. Likewise, the willingness of the city to work through popular mainstream sites such as Twitter and Facebook further increases the chance that average citizens will participate.
The more complex Manor Labs may not inspire participation from those who have not previously opted to participate, yet it clearly makes citizen participation deeper and more meaningful than it would be in other settings. The constructive feedback ideas receive from other citizens and from city officials would be nearly impossible to replicate at a public hearing. The written record created by the exchanges on Manor Labs also creates a valuable resource.
A main feature of the site is transparency. Manor Labs takes an idea through four phases. In phase one, citizens submit ideas and then comment and vote on the submissions. The idea is scored based on a combination of votes (which can be both for or against) and comments. There is also a very healthy practice of citizen-users providing links to relevant information. In phase two, top ideas move on to a development stage, where city officials work with citizens to flesh out the idea. In phase three, the city further develops the idea and explores whether implementation is feasible. Finally, enacted ideas are listed, as are ones the city determines are not workable, using the brutally honest language that the idea has been “aborted.” The city explains why the idea was abandoned, completing the feedback loop.
Manor Labs clearly demonstrates the power of crowd sourcing as the citizens themselves go through the potentially laborious process of proposing, sorting and ranking ideas. It also demonstrates collaboration as city officials work with citizens to workshop the best ideas. Yet government is not burdened by going through this process for every submitted idea — only the ideas that reach a certain threshold of support. For this reason, Haisler believes the Manor innovation laboratory is scalable to larger communities.
The fact that the city responds directly to every idea that emerges from the first phase on Manor Labs speaks well to the inclusiveness measure.
However, there is a question as to whether Manor Labs further disadvantages marginalized groups. The robust engagement tools give citizens inclined to participate more power than ever before. People without Internet access can not use the platforms, at least not from the comfort of their homes. It is also possible that the richness of the online tools will mean that ideas submitted via Manor Labs will be favored over ideas presented in other, more traditional settings.
Manor does have places where those without Internet access at home can utilize the platforms, and the city has instituted the excellent practice of going directly to community and business groups to educate people about the platforms.
Questions on Facebook and on the other platforms are all answered promptly.
The format of Manor Labs – with a big funnel on one end for idea input, a crowd-source function that allows citizens themselves to narrow that input, a developmental phase that involves citizens and city officials working together to develop an idea, and a final stage where government reports on its decision – is a remarkable model of how to effectively utilize citizen input.
As a result, citizens can clearly see the influence of their ideas, yet, crucially, government itself maintains control and makes the final determination on implementation in accordance with its mandate and resources.
Two other cases we looked at for our paper actually turned over final decision making to citizens themselves, which seemed to increase citizen motivation for participating, but may also not be the answer for all government institutions for obvious reasons.
There are multiple motivations for citizens to participate on the Manor platform. First, they get quick feedback, which lets the user know their ideas have been received and heard. Second, they get a real chance to influence policy, whether it’s by proposing an idea, promoting someone else’s idea or directing city work crews through SeeClickFix. Lastly, there is a virtual currency system on Manor Labs that rewards participants with points called “innobucks” that can be traded in for things ranging from small gift certificates to rides in a police cruiser.
Motivations for politicians, lawmakers and bureaucrats are less clear but still apparent. The publicity has been very positive and has probably helped motivate the various governmental actors. Haisler says he spent a fair amount of time educating city officials on the benefits of utilizing the system. He said that task wasn’t difficult, but that it required a willingness to facilitate “whiteboard” sessions in which he works one-on-one with city officials to hash out the benefits of utilizing the system. He reports that support for SeeClickFix within the Public Works Department has increased as complaint calls to the department have decreased.
Arguably, some of the ideas that have been implemented through Manor Labs to date may have been implemented without online engagement. But some of the emerging ideas, such as a publicly funded library system, most likely would not have originated from the bureaucracy itself, nor from the political process. Few communities are thinking of adding an additional tax burden these days. But the positive discussion around this issue on Manor Labs may well create the climate where such an investment would become feasible.
In general, the technology, protocols and work processes behind Manor’s e-participation systems are exemplary. Our project group was particularly impressed with the openness of the platforms, the transparency of the decision-making process and the proactive approach in creating policies to guide the city in utilizing citizen input.
One potential area of concern is the lack of off-line engagements that may deepen the participation process and lessen concerns over digital divide issues. A program of small-table deliberations like the ones run by AmericaSpeaks (I’m involved with a similar effort called CNYSpeaks) would be a way for citizens who are simply unable or unwilling to utilize the digital tools to participate. However, Manor’s use of so many tools, its willingness to promote those tools in more traditional settings, and the openness with which it manages those tools, helps off-set those concerns. Additionally, as Steve Ressler of GovLoop told me, it should be acknowledged that there is also a “public meeting divide” and “newspaper reading divide.” In other words, no participation program is capable of being fully inclusive.
[Note: A special thanks to Dustin Haisler for his time in helping my project team prepare a case study of Manor, and to Ines Mergel, who introduced us to Dustin through her New Media Management class at the Maxwell School. … This post also appears on GovLoop.com.]