Salt Lake City implemented Open City Hall, its on-line vehicle for civic engagement, a little over six months ago. Nole Walkingshaw, the City’s in-house administrator for the system, provided by Peak Democracy, presented an overview and interim assessment for the Salt Lake City Council at one of its recent work sessions.
According to Walkingshaw, Open City Hall has many capabilities for providing easier assessment of input on issues. For example, it can determine whether the response came from within or outside the City despite the fact that comments may be semi-anonymous. Other capabilities have not yet been utilized by the City including sorting responses by position (for or against) or by Council District.
District 6 Councilman J.T. Martin expressed displeasure with the semi-anonymous responses, stating that those providing input should be willing to ‘own’ their opinions as is the case with the other input mechanisms that the City uses such as Council Comments, emails or letters to the Planning Commission and for those who speak at open meetings.
Asked if there was any way to retrieve an individual’s name from a semi-anonymous response, Walkingshaw said the agreement with Peak Democracy does not allow them to do so. However, the City can require a name depending on the issue as it did for comments on the Parley’s Historic Nature Park management plan topic.
Additionally, Peak Democracy has a built-in capability for assessing the appropriateness of a comment, and if it determines a comment to be otherwise, can send it back to the author. Peak reports positive results in those instances since most users are less emotional by the time they receive such notification, ordinarily agreeable to modifying the comment. There is another assessment by staff within the area requesting feedback prior to the on-line public posting of any comments.
Open City Hall can and has sought input on issues impacting specific areas within the City such as Sugar House, which have included Parley’s Historic Nature Park Management Plan and the Parley’s Way Walmart rezoning and master plan amendment requests. Other topics addressed like accessory dwelling units and the new public safety building have broader city-wide impact.
Due to the duplication of feedback efforts with the City as noted above, the City is evaluating whether Open City Hall could or should be the single vehicle for gathering on-line input. Some of its advantages include:
- It is easier to manage than many of the other processes.
- The $500 per month cost is minimal.
- It has the unique capability of gathering more or updated data on a topic that has already garnered responses in that the system provider, Peak, can send respondents an updated question regarding previous responses to an issue.
- It is an ‘open forum’ that enables users to see what other respondents are saying.
- While a user can only comment once, s/he can edit responses up until the issue comment period ends.
Participant assessments on the system thus far have been positive; the overall quality and response rate is good. In a random satisfaction survey sent to various Open City Hall subscribers, more than 200 indicated they liked the system versus eighteen who did not.