Open Town Hall aims to keep online public forums civil

Open Town Hall

In 2007, Robert Vogel and Mike Alvarez Cohen started Peak Democracy to “build public trust in government through online public comment forums that are civil yet meet government freedom-of-speech and transparency laws.” Peak Democracy’s Open Town Hall now serves more than 25 government agencies and elected officials.

Vogel and Alvarez share their philosophy and experience building Open Town Hall and helping citizens become engaged by meeting them where they are.

What problem does Open Town Hall solve for government?

Open Town Hall enables governments to provide constituents with online public comment forums that have the order and decorum of government meetings — thereby making the online forums civil, constructive, and legal.

More specifically, the problems that Open Town Hall solves for government include:

  • Diversifying community feedback beyond those few that have the time or inclination to attend public hearings;
  • Providing an alternative to online community blogs that are frequently filled with vitriolic attacks, dominated by a few extremists, and consequently uninviting for most constituents; and/or,
  • Satisfying explicit or latent demand by constituents for their government to offer online public forums (that are civil and informative).

How do Open Town Hall online public comment forums work?

Integrating Open Town Hall into a government’s website can take less than an hour of a webmaster’s time. Peak Democracy provides an HTML snippet to the webmaster, and then the webmaster simply embeds the HTML into a page of the government’s website. The forum’s look (i.e. color, logos, etc) can be easily customized by the webmaster. All of the forum’s IT requirements are provided by Peak Democracy’s servers — including bandwidth, storage and backup, etc.

Government staff access the forums via a password-protected dashboard and backend suite of tools. Staff prepare topics, review the content, and then make the forums available to the public. The forums are then announced to subscribers and the community via email, Facebook and Twitter — as well as announcements at meetings, and other communication channels.

People visit the online public comment forums, learn more about the topics, read and support other perspectives, as well as post their own public comments.

In addition to handling all IT requirements, Peak Democracy’s software and staff monitor comments to maintain civility, authenticate participants to prevent fraud, and provide end-user support.

Government leaders can read the responses and synthesize voluminous feedback using Open Town Hall’s analysis tools. The forums can be archived for public records retention, and printed for distribution at community meetings.

What’s the pricing model, current customers, and how are they leveraging Peak Democracy?

Peak Democracy’s cloud-computing architecture, smart software and economies of scale enable the company to cost-effectively price it Open Town Hall service — as described on this web page. Pricing is based on client population, and starts at $2,400 per year of unlimited use, or $700 per forum — for communities with populations below 25,000.

Open Town Hall is used by over 25 towns, cities and counties. They have launched almost 600 topics, and have had about 50,000 people attend those online forums. All the forums include user surveys with results that are accessible to government staff. Over 96% of user survey respondents indicate that they like Open Town Hall.

Clients are leveraging Open Town Hall to post forums that range from (1) topics agendized on council and commission meetings such as fiscal budgets, annual priorities, and land-use projects, to (2) topics of general interest to government leaders and staff such as transportation studies, sustainability projects, and safety issues.

What are lessons-learned and advice you have for government when it comes to conducting online public comment forums?

Having supported almost 600 online forums from communities across the US (and Canada), Peak Democracy staff has learned a great deal about the best practices for online commuity feedback. For example, online public comment forums should never be positioned as votes or polls — otherwise they can usurp the decision-making autonomy of government leaders.

Learn more about Open Town Hall at the Peak Democracy website.

Luke Fretwell is the founder of the civic innovation and technology blog GovFresh. He advises civic leaders and businesses on how to best leverage digital strategies to create more effective, collaborative governments. He has written about government IT for Federal Computer Week, NextGov, FedScoop, StateScoop and FierceGovernment, and has been referenced by the Washington Post and Fast Company on civic technology issues. He has worked with a number of government-focused companies and media, including CivicActions, NuCivic and FedScoop and has been involved in broad-focused community efforts, such as GovPress, CityCamp, CivicMeet, Agile Government Leadership and Open Source for America. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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