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Every time a government program launches and people complain about its implementation, we hear the same thing: “well, there was a public comment period – why didn’t you say anything then?” Of course, very few of us ever seem to hear about these public comment periods when they’re happening. They happen with small groups of people who have the time to hear about and attend such meetings, and end up being a nuisance for government and non-representative of the citizenry at large.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) took a unique approach to the public comment period and got unprecedented public interaction by encouraging digital commenting and discussion of their plan.

Challenges

Leading the United States’ first ever online national policy discussion on homelessness meant that USICH had a powerful opportunity to build a plan that would affect the daily welfare of millions of Americans. Jason Kravitz, Director of Communications for USICH, knew that public feedback was key, since the it was vital to acquiring full input from the agency’s key stakeholders and those who actually experience the tragedy of homelessness. The trick? USICH only had 3 weeks for public comments. While scheduling a number of physical discussions with stakeholders across the country, USICH knew that they needed to hear from more folks than they’d reach in person. The traditional method for online commenting – emails and web form submissions – just wouldn’t do. Aside from the time crunch with the plan due to Congress and the President in a matter of weeks, USICH wanted to give the public an opportunity to have a comprehensive discussion on the issue. The traditional form of public comment often does not allow for a dynamic discussion or debate, and that wouldn’t work for such a major issue with such controversial solutions.

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Wisdom of the crowd

Inspired by the Department of Housing and Urban Development UserVoice forum, USICH set up fsp.uservoice.com. “It streamlined the process immensely,” said Jason. “It allowed everyone to contribute, from advocacy groups to service providers to state and local government officials to citizens who experienced or were at risk of experiencing homelessness.” With all the talk of listening to “constituents”, USICH managed to get actual, readable, recorded feedback from the folks they were trying to help. Many of the people profiled in the plan actually got to lend their voice to the discussion. That’s powerful.

Promoting in the right places

Of course, just having a better system doesn’t mean that people will automatically get involved. USICH got tactical and reached out to the channels with direct connections to the homeless. In the age of Web 2.0 (or are we on 3.0 now?) we forget that the key to marketing is knowing where to market, regardless of how shiny or new it is. USICH took out ads in the 8 homeless publications with the largest circulations, and asked homeless services providers to tell their members. Instead of the mysterious public commenting period we never hear about, those with the most at stake had the message delivered directly to them.

Focusing the conversation

Government isn’t traditionally known for spending much time on looks or design, but USICH used design to ensure they didn’t generate an aimless conversation. While the simplest way to focus the conversation on your forum is to simply change the question prompt, USICH took it to another level and used our custom design option to build extremely visible conversation buckets that visitors could click into. When you visit their forum, it’s clear what questions they’re trying to answer. This level of clarity increases engagement, especially when dealing with populations who may not be immensely computer literate.

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Conclusion

“The result was tremendous,” Jason told me. “We expected folks to comment, but we never expected this level of participation.” In their 3 week window for public comments, USICH had 2000+ users post nearly 700 ideas and contribute 600 comments to the conversation. Jason said that many of the ideas and comments confirmed what they were hearing from its regional meetings, but more importantly it provided the agency with additional context and color to provide when discussing these plans. The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness was released at the White House on June 22nd.

We salute USICH for bucking the traditional and actually involving the public. Their goals to end veteran and chronic homelessness by 2015 and family, youth, and children homelessness by 2020 are valiant ones, and we look forward to seeing this true representation of democracy used to help those in need.