News, Public Participation

Lessons from San Francisco’s First Online Discussion

As we wrap up the city’s first experiment in an online discussion, we’ve learned a few lessons that we plan on incorporating into our next version.

1. Ask the right question

If you don’t ask the right question don’t expect to get the right answer. It’s important to spend some time to carefully consider how you word your question.  I think that was one of our mistakes. We took wording directly from the stimulus bill without actually seeing if it made sense. Ask friends and family if they understand what you’re asking by seeing how they respond. 

2. Put a clock on it

In marketing, creating a sense of urgency is a powerful tool. It’s also important to online discussions. It helps concentrate the energy of the community and improves the quality of the conversation. It also limits the amount of information that govt staff has to digest.

3. Have a moderation policy

We decided to move forward with our first online discussion without a moderation policy. If you don’t have one you really shouldn’t engage in any type of moderation – even if it’s blatantly off-topic.  We have a couple of posts from spammers that I decided to leave on the site.  I’m unlikely to be infringing on anyone’s first amendment right if I remove these posts but honestly it’s my small way of protesting our legal counsel who have a very cautious view.  I’d love to see a balanced moderation policy similar to one that Obama has used. We’ll get there but when and how.

4. Keep the conversation focused

Having a moderator actively manage the discussion is critical to cultivating the right culture – focused and serious.  Contrast this to many popular social networking sites where witty and snarky comments are held in high regard. Another part of the equation is ensuring the right tools are in place like voting on submissions as well as flagging off topic items. This is critical with sites that attract a large number of submissions. Government just doesn’t have the staff to monitor every items so relying upon the crowd to manage itself is the only solution.

5. Crowdsourcing requires a crowd

This is the number one challenge of any website – getting more eyeballs. It’s critical though for any social media site to get a critical mass of participants; otherwise a quality discussion just can’t happen. While our first experiment generated a respectable number of ideas and comments it was likely driven by a vocal minority of the community. This with little advertising. For our full city wide launch we plan on using every tool we have in the toolkit. The most valuable is driving traffic from a heavily viewed main website. Invest the time to work with your graphic design folks and web team to create a compelling message on your home page.

While there is no argument that we could have done a better job, the biggest learning was to try in the first place. Innovation requires taking risks – something we’ll be saying often as we continue our experiments in open government.

-Jay Nath


3 thoughts on “Lessons from San Francisco’s First Online Discussion

  1. Ron Feiertag says:

    You mentioned the need to get more eyeballs. To do that, do a better job of publicizing your online discussions. I learned of it only afterwards. Could be publicized using Twitter or San Francisco Examiner.

    • Jay Nath says:

      We didn’t promote this roll out so we could test out the application and make some learnings. But I agree that we should use Twitter and local media to spread the word when we do our big launch (in August).

  2. c-nut-run says:

    great points. i couldn’t agree with you more. i have long thought about how to get more traffic to a govt site without advertising. it is a very different challenge than that in commercial sites. local media and new social media will definitely help spread the word. Also, asking the right question is critical. i checked your site out and to be honest, i was a little confused by the question. if you could make it more clear, i (and others) would be more likely to join in the discussion.

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