Small but Successful Participatory Democracy Experiment to Continue in Utah
The People's Lobby is run entirely online using the digital tools NationBuilder and Loomio.
Last month, the City Council in Provo, Utah, voted unanimously to continue the Provo People’s Lobby, an experimental process in participatory democracy in which city residents collaborate online on a policy recommendation that is then submitted to the City Council for consideration and possible implementation. The process, which I first wrote about in March for techPresident, is run entirely online using NationBuilder and Loomio.
Participants in Provo’s first People’s Lobby were selected at random from a pool of approximately 75 people who submitted or voted on the “pressing issues” they want addressed in their city. Invitations were sent to one person from each of the 25 neighborhoods represented in that pool; ultimately 14 residents participated in the deliberations on the decision-making platform Loomio. Their efforts were guided with minimal moderation from People’s Lobby creator Jeff Swift, Loomio consultant MJ Kaplan, and two political science students at Brigham Young University.
Recruitment, Swift and his fellow moderators write in a report on the Provo People’s Lobby, required a lot of “handholding” via email and phone calls to get people on board:
Future efforts will benefit from seeing the results of the first, and we have learned what information is important to transmit at this stage to ensure that participants will understand what they are signing up for and be ready to participate. We also anticipate that there will be a certain level of drop off no matter what we do, and this is acceptable. We are recruiting a small jury of residents and do not need a fully representative body in order for the Lobby to work as designed.
Originally slated to last two weeks, the process had to be extended to four because both stages took longer than Swift anticipated. First, participants were provided with the list of pressing issues collected in the month prior and instructed to choose an area to focus on; then, they deliberated over the specific recommendations they wanted to make to the Council.
“They spent almost two weeks picking a topic; [the process was] extended another two weeks for a total of four, and they still barely had time to craft policy recommendations,” Swift tells Civicist. “It was at the very end of the second two weeks where they were able to agree on a final proposal.”
“I think I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to settle on a topic,” Swift adds.
At the end of the four weeks, after five discussions consisting of 205 comments by the participants, three priorities for supporting agriculture and public green spaces in their community were submitted to the City Council. Jeff Swift says he was at first disappointed in these policy particular recommendations because it turns out that these initiatives were already on the City Council’s agenda in some form.
“I would have wanted something exciting,” Swift tells Civicist.
But that’s the inherent danger in creating democratic processes: making space for people to push for initiatives one thinks are unnecessary (one of the original suggestions submitted by the public in the earliest stage of the Lobby asked for a big box store in Provo, a proposal Swift was relieved they didn’t pursue) or flat out disagree with. “I have political opinions and there’s a good chance that the People’s Lobby will go in the other direction [in future iterations], and that’s ok,” Swift says.
What the results do show, Swift points out, is that either the City Council is acting on their agricultural agenda but not sharing their progress with the community, or that they have stalled on their work in that area. Hal Miller, a Councilman and the liaison with the Lobby, tells Civicist that the results were received as a sort of “endorsement” of the work of the Council, and that these items have been pushed higher on the Council’s agenda.
Swift says he is working on changing the mechanisms of the Lobby to prevent this kind of redundancy in the future. It is one of many small changes Swift will make after the People’s Lobby inaugural run. To start, the process will be allotted more time from the beginning.
Then, he will also increase the guidance by the moderators. Swift’s instinct was for them to be as hands off as possible, but that ultimately led to a handful of voices—many of which belonged to current or potential political actors in the community—essentially intimidating less politically experienced participants out of the process. One way Swift hopes they can change this is by beginning the Lobby by meeting—again, still entirely online—in small groups where people are hopefully more likely to feel comfortable voicing their opinions. The small groups will then take their ideas to the others.
“We’re going to be more conscious about keeping the conversation moving forward,” Swift says.
Although the numbers in the report on the Provo People’s Lobby are low, Hal Miller and Jeff Swift are both optimistic. Miller points out that Utah, and Provo in particular, suffers from low voter turnout. While a process like the People’s Lobby has the potential to increase civic engagement, it also means there is a steep learning curve as residents find out what it means to be civically engaged.
“It exceeded my expectations,” Miller tells Civicist. “I thought there would be more difficulty composing the lobby, more difficulty to bring them together in an ongoing way, and that it would prove difficult to harness the respective energies of the members of the lobby given that it included members who are well known for their activism.”
Swift and the other moderators were pleased with the results considering how foreign an idea the Lobby is:
Considering three facts, this level of engagement was heartening. First, this was the very first time anyone in the world had tried this process. It was frankly a bit confusing to understand and we have gotten better about explaining it. Second, we started with an email list of zero people and grew our list to 90 people. This foundation will magnify our efforts for future efforts. And finally, that marketing was limited to Karen Tapahe’s [Community Relations Coordinator for the City Council] tireless promotion on Facebook and to PR channels. In the future the People’s Lobby team will do more marketing and promotion to get the word out.
A second experimental round of Provo People’s Lobby will begin in September. After that, the Council will have to decide whether to incorporate the process into their budget. The cost of the first two rounds were covered by an anonymous donation.