Walworth County Government Today: Help test new online civic engagement tool
It is been a while since my last excursion into social media. In 2012, I wrote a column about how technology in local government has changed over the years. I noted, at the time, that commentators were predicting that era of attending local meetings in person was over. Social media, like Facebook, they argued, would be the only way for government to engage its citizens in the future. I was not a Facebook user at the time, but to demonstrate my commitment to learn about the technology, I set up an account.
I still have the account; however, I don't believe that I have posted anything on it in the past five years. It has been a source of guilt for me since, not only because of my lack of follow through in learning how to use the technology, but because of my inability to respond to simple things like birthday greetings and friend requests. I can't remember the last post that I viewed from one of my kids; they have either de-friended me or moved on to some different technology. I haven't wanted to put them on the spot by asking them which case it is.
Many local governments use Facebook, but I have had my qualms about the technology particularly when it was newer. Ensuring the security of our network was my foremost concern. Facebook can also be a time waster. Opening up our network to its website can create yet another distraction for workers. Unlike a private Facebook user, local governments in Wisconsin have obligations under the public records law. Every post made by one of our departments, as well as any response, needs to be retained by the county and produced upon request. Finally, it seemed to me that the quality of some of the information contained in posts was lacking. The same could be said about the civility in exchanges between users.
For better or worse, technology appears to have addressed three of my concerns. Security has been improved. Most everyone carries a smart phone that can be used outside of our network. Workers who are inclined to spend time on Facebook can do so without using our computers. Several companies have appeared to solve the public records issue. Software is available to archive and retrieve Facebook posts. My final concern, regarding the quality of information and the civility of posts, still remains. I have the ability (I am told) to control the content of my personal Facebook page. If someone writes a nasty comment about my Grand Canyon vacation pictures, I can delete the entire post. When government establishes a forum for public comment, its ability to edit it becomes far more problematic. Comments that are critical of operations and spending are fair game and, in my opinion, should be left on a discussion board.
Those that are patently false or disparage an employee's reputation are more problematic. Who decides what comments should be deleted and what criteria should be used to make the decision? Is time spent moderating such a forum the best use of tax dollars?
Earlier this year, I was invited by Cameron Clapper, the Whitewater city manager, to view a vendor demonstration of a product his city uses called Polco. Polco is an online survey tool that promotes civic engagement. I was determined not to like the product because I have been the recipient of a number of different pitches selling similar products in the past. In many cases, individuals with a background in technology propose to reinvent government. While their technical skills may be sound, they often have little idea about what government does and don't seem to be particularly interested in learning.
Polco, on the other hand, appeared to be pretty straightforward. It allows the county to post questions on its website regarding a variety of issues and tabulate the responses. In order to participate, residents must set up an account on the Polco webpage. Its software cross-references the voter registration list to ensure that folks responding actually reside in the county and respond only once. Responses to “yes/no” questions or “rate on a scale from one to five” are anonymous. Results are shared only in aggregated form. Written comments to questions, on the other hand, must be signed with the poster's real name. The folks at Polco, who have set these systems up in much larger counties, report that civility among users has not been an issue.
I actually listened to the Polco sales pitch three more times. I invited them to one of our department head meetings as well as to a meeting of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council and Fire/EMS Study Committee. I learned more about the system each time and was interested in seeing the reaction of various groups to the product.
Eventually, we signed up and this is where I could use your help. During the remainder of the year, the county will be posting questions using the Polco system. The first step is to set up a free account at https://polco.us. Once registered, you will be directed to answer some questions that we will be posting regarding county programs and services. We have also posted a link on the county website at www.co.walworth.wi.us. These questions will change periodically and will be pretty basic at first as we learn how to use the system. The more residents that participate, the more significant the results will be. At the end of the year, we will evaluate our experience and decide whether to continue using the product. I will let you know how we do.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.