Local governments get a chief of staff in an app


For city and state government, fostering civic engagement has always been hard to do. Many city and state government meetings happen during the work day, and in the case of cities, quite often city councilors work part-time. Until recently, very little of the governing process has been available online, further limiting engagement as working residents have little time to seek out paper announcements of meetings on local issues. In recent years, technology has steadily been improving how governments interact with residents and one vendor, Granicus is hoping to provide local governments with a chief of staff, in an app.

San Francisco-based Granicus has been working with state and local governments since 1999 to leverage new technologies to improve public service. Their latest app, iLegislate is designed to help local governments bring more of their processes and public notices online and engage with citizens. The app performs many of the functions a chief of staff, or lead spokesperson would do through automation.

iLegislate enables governments to review meeting agendas, supporting documents, and archived videos over the iPad. Meeting agendas and supporting documents can be posted online and distributed to members at the same time. The company also offers archiving features so that members can go back and review historical documents or video tapes when they are discussing an issue.

“Early on, you had a lot of people saying they didn’t use a computer and didn’t want to use a computer, but iPads have been able to overcome that resistance. People are already using iPads in their personal lives and that’s translating into them bringing them into work, or governments issuing them out,” explains Tom Spengler, co-founder and CEO of Granicus in an interview with CivSource.

The application integrates with Granicus’ Citizen Participation Suite, which helps bring local residents into governing by creating an online community around local issues. Local residents can view upcoming meeting agendas and provide their feedback on issues. On the government side, public workers can automate a lot of the processes for public notification, delivering information faster and more consistently.

According to Spengler, getting the technology set up, goes quickly. iLegislate is an iPad app and can be downloaded as any other. Getting a citizen community together can be done for a smaller city in a week or so. Larger and more complex communities can take longer. “It’s really not an issue of getting the technology stood up, that can happen fairly quickly, change management and training internally takes longer and that’s going to be defined by the internal processes of an agency,” he says.

So far, the company has approximately 326 agencies using the software. He explains that Granicus has also worked out some of the common objections to online communities by enabling a variety of community policing and filtering tools to ensure that local residents are well represented. “Everyone worries that when you set up an online community it is going to end up like a blog where comments are negative, or inappropriate but we have done the work with our clients to ensure that content is positive and local residents are accounted for.”

Recently, the company launched one such community for Austin, Texas. SpeakUpAustin! was created to keep community engagement and citizen empowerment at the forefront of local government initiatives. To date, it has engaged more than 1,100 citizens, generated 424 ideas, put 50 ideas into action, and fully implemented 18 of them. By fully integrating their online forum with traditional civic engagement channels, they have been able to attract more than 10,000 citizens to participate in city planning efforts.

“We aren’t trying to bring all of government decision making online, but we do think there are ways to improve interaction with local government so that it involves more people and not just those who have the time to come during the work day,” Spengler says.