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Kirkland Takes Online Citizen Engagement to a New Level


October 17, 2013 by Byron Katsuyama
Category: Public Participation

Kirkland Takes Online Citizen Engagement to a New Level

For many years, I have been following the efforts of Washington local governments to provide citizens with greater access to information and services using information technology, initially through the development of comprehensive websites and more recently through the use of various social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. There has been a lot of progress. Washington local governments have made good use of the information technology tools available to them to reach out to their citizens, provide convenient services, and keep them informed about important events and activities in their communities.

Most local government websites identify their elected officials and appointed board and commission members and provide contact information for them. Citizens can usually download council and board/commission agendas, packets, and meeting minutes, too. In many communities, citizens can view live and archived streaming video and/or audio of council and  board/commission meetings. More local governments are making use of e-newsletters and social media channels, too, to push information out to residents on a frequent basis. Residents can often sign up to receive topic-specific email updates on the issues they are most interested in. All of these efforts have helped to raise the level of citizen engagement in Washington communities.

While Washington local governments have been doing a good job of communicating with residents and businesses through their websites and other electronic media channels, most such communication still tends to be one-way in nature. Few local government websites and other electronic media channels venture beyond information sharing to actually engage with citizens in two-way discussions directly or allow citizens to interact with other citizens in an online environment.

Now, the city of Kirkland is taking online citizen engagement to a new level with the launch of their “IdeasForum” website. The IdeasForum site allows residents to submit their ideas about Kirkland’s future to an online forum/discussion site hosted by the city and to view, comment on, and vote for ideas submitted by others. Kirkland’s IdeasForum is powered by Granicus’ CivicIdeas program that has been designed to capture citizen input and create a collaborative online environment between citizens and their local governments. The idea is to make it easier for residents to participate by providing the convenience of online access and to reach a broader audience than would otherwise be possible through traditional means. Kirkland, of course, is not the only local government that is using an interactive online platform to engage with residents on policy issues, but Kirkland is one of only a few so far that I have found who are doing so in the Northwest.

The new site invites residents to engage in an online conversation about two major community initiatives - the city’s 2035 comprehensive plan update and the Cross Kirkland Corridor Master Plan. The 2035 comprehensive plan update is a major 10-year update required by the State Growth Management Act. The Cross Kirkland Corridor plan will guide the redevelopment of a 5.75 mile segment of an old BNSF rail line into a pedestrian, bicycle, and transit corridor that will connect eight of the city’s 13 neighborhoods.

All new IdeasForum users must register to participate. Since I live in Kirkland, I actually went through the registration process, which was a simple matter of providing my email address and name. I noticed that some users simply gave their initials, presumably so they could remain anonymous, and that was allowed by the site. For users who are not concerned with sharing their identity, there is an option to provide a short biographical profile to let other users know a little about themselves. Users can also sign up through their Facebook accounts.

The IdeasForum home page features a video introduction to the site by Rob Mullin, the city’s Webmaster. The video gives a good overview to help new users sign up and begin contributing ideas and comments in the discussion and forum areas of the site.

The “discussion” area is the place where users can engage in conversations with other users about topics that have been posted by the city. The topics are posted as a set of questions pertaining to each of the main discussion topics of the 2035 comprehensive plan update and the Cross Kirkland Corridor Plan. Discussion participants can respond to the questions and/or to the responses left by other participants. Participants can also click to “agree” with a comment, similar to Facebook’s “like” button.  I notice that city staff have also joined in the conversation to respond to questions and/or provide clarifications.

The “forums” area is a place where participants can share their ideas about a city-defined topic and have others comment on and vote for them. The current forum topic is built around the question “what do you see in your vision for the Cross Kirkland Corridor?” The voting feature adds an interesting and useful interactive element that pushes the most popular ideas to the top of the list.  Participants are also given the option of “following” a particular idea so they can receive email updates when others add new comments on the ideas they are following. Participants also have the option of sharing ideas through social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Kirkland’s IdeasForum has only been live and available to the public since the beginning of October, so it is just in the initial stages of being discovered and marketed by the city. This is definitely one I will be keeping an eye on. There’s certainly no guarantee that if a city builds one of these sites that their citizens will necessarily come to use it, and there is still much to learn about how to do them right, but I believe that interactive sites like Kirkland’s IdeasForum that seek to engage citizens in a two-way conversation about local policy issues will soon become a common feature of local government websites and other electronic media channels. Will these efforts result in greater numbers of citizens who are willing to participate in the civic life of their communities? That’s the theory, but we will have to see a lot more experiments like this before we will know the answer.

For more information about Kirkland's IdeasForum website, you can contact Rob Mullin, Webmaster (425-587-3063), or Marie Stake, Communications Program Manager (425-587-3021), city of Kirkland.


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About Byron Katsuyama

Byron began work at the Center as a Research Assistant in July 1978. He holds a B.A. degree in Political Science from the University of Washington and an M.P.A. from the University of Washington's Evan’s School of Public Policy and Governance. After completing his M.P.A., Byron joined MRSC's consulting staff as a Public Policy and Management Consultant concentrating on municipal administration and policy analysis. Byron is responsible for research in such areas as emerging local government issues, best practices, strategic planning, performance measurement, and local government management. In addition to his consulting duties, Byron also maintains the "Focus" section of MRSC's website and is editor of our "In Focus" and "Ask MRSC" e-newsletters. He also coordinates our HR, Planning, Finance, Government Performance, and Council/Commission Advisors. In his own community of Kirkland, Byron also served for eight years as a member of the city's planning commission. Byron is a member of the Washington City/County Management Association (WCMA) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

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