By Keith T. Barber
An online platform designed to give local governments precise data about citizen concerns and attitudes related to specific issues is currently being rolled out by the Town of Chapel Hill.
FlashVote delivers statistically valid community input to government officials within 48 hours, according to the company’s website. FlashVote promises its exceptional participation rates will ensure valid sampling on issues affecting voters.
Ran Northam, communications manager for the Town of Chapel Hill, characterized FlashVote as an invaluable resource for governing in the digital age.
“There’s a lot of noise out there and we’re drinking through a firehose right now,” Northam said. “Information is so difficult because you might miss it.”
FlashVote allows community members to determine the issues that provide the foundation of its online surveys. FlashVote structures, collects and reports survey results while also providing policy analysis and suggesting best practices, according to its website.
Collecting reliable, accurate citizen feedback is an essential element of good government, Northam said, and FlashVote provides the tools to achieve that aim.
“This is a tool that will really hopefully give our community members a way to give information but then also see that information. How are other people in my community [responding]? How’s my community on the whole feel about this topic that I’ve also weighed in on?”
Northam said FlashVote significantly improves upon the Town’s current survey efforts, specifically, the biennial community survey and the Town’s weekly electronic newsletter.
Northam explained that it takes the Town of Chapel Hill weeks to analyze the data collected in its biennial community survey, but with FlashVote, it takes a mere 48 hours.
“I really kind of see this as a real fine point, laser-focused community survey when we can really dive deep into the issues that are most pertinent to our community,” Northam said.
Chapel Hill Town Council Member Camille Berry said she’s already received some feedback from her constituents about FlashVote, and stated local officials should be prepared for the new platform to meet with some resistance.
“The public needs to understand the method, the approach and gets the point where they trust it so that they will engage with it,” Berry said.
Berry noted the potential of the FlashVote platform, but stated it can’t substitute for the human touch.
“We can increase the the involvement of our wider community and not just those who are have been comfortable with coming to us during meetings,” Berry said. “The Town is looking for new ways to engage and to solicit input from members of our community — this being one of the latest versions of how we’re doing it, and I do believe that it will continue to depend upon the relationships that we foster offline.”
Northam said FlashVote addresses the shortcomings of the Town’s current citizen survey efforts.
“We know that [with traditional methods] we’re only going to get a certain group — a certain group of community members weighing in because of how we’re able to deliver it, so we’re not going to get that statistically valid result that we’re looking for.”
Like any innovation, FlashVote has pros and cons, Berry stated.
“And like all of the tools that I am familiar with, they can be used well for their stated purpose — for the altruistic purpose — but they can be misused,” she said.
“I think that we as receivers of information need to be aware of that. And we as content producers — we have to be prepared that our information will be accepted differently than what we intended, so there’s responsibility on both sides.”
Northam said the next step in the FlashVote rollout will be the recruiting of Chapel Hill residents to participate in the online survey.
“Right now we’re in that recruitment process of getting people to sign up — putting together a panel that is demographically representative of our community,” he said.
Northam added the potential topics to be addressed in FlashVote surveys will vary but there is one topic that always elicits strong opinions — the Town’s budget.
“Budget is of course always something that comes up so annually, but other than that, we’re trying to keep it very open to any and all topics that are pertinent to our community,” Northam said.
Northam said he’s optimistic FlashVote will help level the political playing field by giving all Chapel Hill citizens an equal voice in town government.
“It’s important to know what that community feedback is — not just the opinions of people who have time or ability to come out to a council meeting…but to also give people in the community who might not have that time, or ability or interest even in coming to a meeting to give more input on decisions that we’re making,” he said.