It just might work: Barnstable dips a toe in the waters of Gov2.0
Dec 19 2011

by tmartin on December 19, 2011

If you don’t give it a try, you don’t know what will happen.

That’s why I have to applaud the Town of Barnstable for taking a stab at something new. Or at least something new for this technically conservative region of the country.

Earlier this month the town unveiled Barnstable iForum (, an interactive space built upon a product from a startup based in Omaha Nebraska.

Mindmixer and its eponymous product ( came to market just over a year ago. The genesis of the product came from direct experience with community meetings where only a tiny fraction of the people who could be impacted by the outcome showed up.

Community planner Nick Bowden started thinking there had to be a better way to generate and share community ideas. So he began to create one. The company launched in the summer of 2010 and took in a $300,000 round of funding from Omaha’s Dundee Venture Capital last February.

Since then, a host of towns, cities, community groups, and civic organizations have signed on to set up a “virtual town hall” with Mindmixer – organizations ranging from a neighborhood consortium in Santa Barbara CA, to a planning agency in Burbank CA, to the Cities of Wichita KS, Los Angeles CA, Kansas City MO, and Flagstaff AZ  … and the Town of Barnstable MA.

In social media speak, Mindmixer and products like it are “community engagement platforms.” In normal English, it means the companies provide a ready-to-use online place where people can share comments, thoughts and ideas that could lead to action.

For Mindmixer, the community it wants to engage includes municipalities, elected officials, and other quasi-government entities seeking the input of their constituents. In short, it provides a place for people to talk with both each other and with their community leaders, without the constraint of a specific time or place.

In Barnstable, the Barnstable iForum started out with some proposed topics, each introduced by videos from town officials talking about the issue. For example, Alisha Parker from the growth management department and Lyndsey Counsell, chair of the Community Preservation Committee introduce the topic of bike transportation, while Hilary Sandler with the Committee for Barnstable Dog Parks asks for thoughts about dog park development in the town.

Then, people chime in with ideas, comments to ideas, seconds to ideas, and alternative ideas.  Participants get publicy ID’d by first name and last initial and have to register for a site account using a real name and email.  To encourage participation, the site hands out points for ideas, seconds and comments. You can trade your points for rewards like a dog license or a ride on the police department’s Segway.

I’ve been following and writing about Gov 2.0 for a couple of years now. The Gov 2.0 blanket enrobes all those idea that use technology to reshape the interactions of governance and civic engagement.

All that cool stuff about data visualization and open data? Gov 2.0. Mobile devices that let you report potholes and unplowed roads? Gov 2.0. Civic engagement platforms? Yup, that’s Gov 2.0 too.

Efforts like Barnstable iForum have the potential to reshape the ways communities, their members, and their leaders interact and drive decisions and direction. They have the potential to use technology to open up the doors and invite more people into the tent.

They even have the potential to change those relationships and dynamics that seem to have created a sense that government is “them” and we are “us” — the dynamics of being two teams on opposite sites of the field.  Deep my hidden optimist’s heart I wonder if perhaps Gov 2.0 applications could be the trigger we need remember that we are all part of governance and that there is no ‘them’ vs. ‘us.’

It won’t just happen though. Nice as it is, the mere presence of a community engagement platform doesn’t actually engage the community.

A thread in Barnstable iForum called “Think Tank for well paying jobs” shows this pretty clearly. There’s a back and forth among the same group of people. In the middle of it Eddie D asks:

It seems like all we’re doing is talking to ourselves … What was this Barnstable iforum created for? Is there anybody in charge to pass these ideas on or are we just wasting out time. [sic]

Fair question, Eddie D!

Because that is the challenge of Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0. It only works when a critical mass both talks and listens. And that takes work. Real work.

Communities need people to nourish and tend them. Online communities are no different. Getting the software platform into place is the easy part. Setting aside the time to monitor, comment, interact, and engage … well, now …

If Eddie D gets a meaningful response posted, he’s going to keep engaging. And he might even encourage others to engage as well. But if no one responds to Eddie, pretty soon he’s going to click away and never return.

I’ve always called this the watering hole effect.  You put out something attractive. You put out tools that let people get to the attractive stuff. Then you put out tools that let people share what they find. And create new stuff from it.

And then you watch the watering hole, adding extra bait to draw in more critters or shooing away predators that threaten to shutdown the watering hole.

You make sure fresh and clean water trickles through and you spend time drinking there yourself in case anyone didn’t get the message. You can’t force anyone to come to the watering hole, but you can make it an attractive, safe, rewarding, enjoyable place to be.

If you’re lucky, pretty soon it starts to take on a life of its own and it attracts more and more activity. It begins to grow organically. Interactions happen. It’s a success!

But it wasn’t a random unplanned and untended success. The world of 2.0 works because someone in every 2.0 community tends to it.

I love that Barnstable put Barnstable IForum out there. I have my fingers crossed that someone has been tending the watering hole. I hope the right balance of bait will bring people in and that predators don’t take over.

There’s potential! Will it work? Only time will tell. But if you don’t give it a try, you never know what will happen.

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