[Noozhawk’s note: This is one in a series of articles on Noozhawk’s Santa Barbara Challenge, our public-engagement project on the city of Santa Barbara’s budget. Related links are below.]
Social media played a big role in saving one California beach city from a major budget crisis.
Santa Cruz — renowned for its surf, boardwalk and beautiful redwood trees — found itself in a big hole in the spring of 2009. The state of California had just taken $2.1 billion in funds promised to civic governments for economic redevelopment, including $3.7 million of Santa Cruz’s share. Already dealing with a loss of jobs and tax dollars to neighboring Silicon Valley, the city was suddenly facing a $9.2 million deficit.
Santa Cruz officials were scrambling to find a way to engage citizens in a timely manner to help them make the difficult and painful budget cuts.
Peter Koht, the city’s economic development coordinator, spearheaded the effort to engage the community to solve the budget challenge. Three of Koht’s friends — Shane Pearlman and Peter Chester of Shane & Peter Inc., a Web development and consulting firm, and Rob Knight, a senior Web developer at UC Santa Cruz — volunteered their time, and within a week the four had launched the Santa Cruz City Budget Web site.
Next, the team turned to UserVoice, a Santa Cruz startup that had recently moved its headquarters to San Francisco. UserVoice’s online platform allows users’ ideas to be collected, discussed and prioritized, and, through its technology, Santa Cruz residents could log in, make suggestions about the city budget, vote on suggestions and comment.
Koht told Noozhawk that he began looking to social media as an outlet for civic engagement after he realized the anonymous comments posted on the local newspaper’s Web site were simply unhelpful in spurring productive discussion among the community.
“The goal was to grasp at that reasonable voice and to change the discussion from people saying ‘you should do this, you should do that,’ to ‘What can we do together to get through this,’” he said during a presentation at the 2009 Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C., where the Santa Cruz project was honored with the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase Award.
“It was really opening it up to new ideas.”
The Santa Cruz site, which has since been taken offline, contained multiple points of entry: a blog written by the mayor for the latest news, the city manager’s budget message and raw data from chartered financial analysts.
Koht said the project helped discussion go further than public meetings or newspaper commentaries could.
“We were hearing the voice of the community, and it was reasonable, it was helpful and it was creative,” he said.
Suggestions and plausible ideas were the ones highlighted on the main page of the Santa Cruz City Budget site. A suggestion needed 60 votes to reach the coveted front-page spot. Defamation and distracting dialogue were eliminated by registration requirements on UserVoice’s Web site.
Koht said the project was “completely viral.” After an alpha group of fewer than a dozen testers worked out the kinks, the city relied on email marketing to residents and spread the word through the Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce and neighborhood groups.
The Santa Cruz site was up for six weeks, and 8 percent of Santa Cruz’s 55,000 residents expressed nearly 4,000 opinions, concerns and suggestions, he said.
The project caught the eye of Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in Malibu.
“They caught my eye after they won the Gov 2.0 award,” Peterson said. “The online platform was a good way to engage residents. That’s how I learned about UserVoice, and it led to our online civic-engagement grant program.”
The Davenport Institute, formerly Common Sense California, is now working with Noozhawk to conduct the Santa Barbara Challenge, a public-engagement project on the city of Santa Barbara’s budget that is loosely modeled after the Santa Cruz program.
“We had to communicate directly with our public and really change the debate of resetting expectations of what we could and could not do in this budgetary situation,” Koht said.
Despite the positive nature of the exchange of ideas between Santa Cruz residents, the budget crisis left a painful mark: the city lost 48 employees, and those who kept jobs sustained a 10 percent pay cut and reduced their workweek to 36 hours.
But the project also identified positive opportunities. Among the ideas for economic development were looking to keep local talent in the area, moving forward with sustainable practices, starting a mico-lending program for small businesses, and enhancing partnerships with UCSC to support small businesses and technology.
“In the end, our greatest success was getting more people involved in the conversation,” Koht said. “No longer drowned out by the outliers, a new voice emerged, united to face a continuing crisis.”