TAMPA — Hillsborough County government usually holds public hearings or town hall meetings when it wants to get community reaction to topics that elected officials are mulling. Emails and calls are accepted, too.
The county has turned to a new platform in this digital age to check the pulse of residents as it embarks on crafting a strategic plan, or essentially a broad list of priorities, for the future:
For weeks the county has been soliciting suggestions from residents through an interactive website on how it should be focusing its efforts on behalf of the public. The crowd-sourcing site provided through the company IdeaScale allows people to post suggestions and to comment and vote on other people's ideas.
The effort will continue until mid November.
Hillsborough joins a growing list of governments from Chicago to Seattle and Austin, Texas, in using the social media platform to invite public discussion on topics ranging from spending to making better use of technology.
The county usually used surveys of residents for such exercises. But people don't always know much about their county government and the role it plays in providing services. Nor do they always care.
So the surveys haven't always offered great guidance in what the county should be doing.
"The challenge with a survey is you ask them to respond based on whatever they may know about an issue," said Eric Johnson, the county's former management and budget director who is helping to coordinate the planning effort. "Here there is an opportunity for them to comment, read other people's comments and vote.
"They have the opportunity to respond to only the issues they care about."
Response from the community has been somewhat tepid. The effort has been publicized largely through notifications to community groups that have shown interest in matters that county government handles.
Just over 200 people registered at the site — idealhillsborough.ideascale.com — and about 50 posted suggestions. Nearly 100 have left comments.
But some of the more popular ideas are not necessarily front and center on the county's agenda.
The idea getting the top number of supportive votes? Building an exemplary education system, something over which the county has little control. Other suggestions range from the broad (promote greater research opportunities) to specific notions that are not so much strategic but tactical (create an annual pass to county attractions such as the Florida Aquarium and Museum of Science & Industry).
Adding bike lanes, making greater use of reclaimed water and taking greater steps to ensure safety of non-auto users along roads are popular ideas. Cleaning up the water near Bayshore Boulevard and importing sand to make it more beachlike has been panned.
Suggestions about streamlining regulation to promote economic development have generated some of the stronger pro and con reactions.
Herb Marlowe, whose Newberry-based Analytica consulting business has been commissioned by the county for $70,000 to assist with its strategic planning, said he has only recently started using crowd sourcing to get community thoughts on priorities. He has used surveys or town hall forums, but they are limited in value.
"There's no chance to follow up," Marlowe said. "People's perceptions about issues do tend to change when they've heard another person's point of view."
Plus, town hall forums tend to attract only the people who usually show up at public meetings.
"I applaud them," Marlowe said of the activists who show up at government functions, "but you can't really assume they represent the community as a whole. This gives another means to get feedback out of the community as a whole."
This platform also tends to attract younger users more comfortable with technology who aren't necessarily the sort who show up at government meetings, he said.
The IdeaScale program allows people to post suggestions without using their name or another identifying moniker. Most of the comments are anonymous.
Among those whose identities could be discerned, the forum has been a welcome one, they said. They fit into the category of people who regularly weigh in on government issues.
"I've done a lot of strategic planning at the ground level," said Ken Roberts, a retired businessman and tea party activist from Apollo Beach who goes by a shortened version of his email address, or "phylken." "I think what the county is doing is good. I think it can only add to the exercise."
Roberts mostly commented on others' ideas, voicing his belief that scaling back regulation would promote business growth.
On another end of the political spectrum, east county environmental and growth management activist Mariella Smith also applauded the effort as another way for government to solicit public feedback.
Smith said, however, she thought the county could have done a better job of letting people know about it. She also isn't a fan of anonymous commentary.
"That's one thing that I don't like about internet communication in general," Smith said. "When people are allowed to be anonymous, they say things that they wouldn't say in public."
Marlowe said he will review the ideas and reactions to them and combine them with results of interviews with 75 to 100 representatives of community groups in offering suggestions for areas of focus by commissioners. The board is expected to start offering its own ideas, starting with a workshop at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the County Center.
Other cities have used crowd sourcing for typically narrower areas of discussion. Austin has a crowd-sourcing site that invites people to suggest ways that the government's website could better serve the public. It has more than 2,400 users offering suggestions that range from the highly technical to the pragmatic, like enabling people to pay their utility bills online.
Johnson, the county employee coordinating Hillsborough's strategic planning exercise, says he can see the potential for using crowd sourcing on more specific community issues in the future.
"This is a powerful tool," he said. "But only if we can get people engaged."
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.