[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.]

Noozhawk readers will be asked to supply the suggestions — and votes — in the upcoming Santa Barbara Challenge public-engagement project on the city of Santa Barbara’s budget. But the tallies and tabulations will take place on an easy-to-use, online platform powered by UserVoice.com.

Launched in 2009, San Francisco-based UserVoice.com is a partner of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in Malibu. The Davenport Institute last year awarded Noozhawk a grant to conduct the project, which aims to identify and develop reader suggestions to fix Santa Barbara’s budget or for the city to spend its money more wisely.

                  Santa Barbara Challenge Survey  |  Complete Series Index  |

Daniel Kan, business development manager at UserVoice.com, said the social-media Web site is a convenient way for busy people to have a say in local governance issues, and to communicate, share ideas and vote on suggestions.

“UserVoice translates to a government space because communication is difficult to have with citizens, people who have other things they get involved in,” Kan told Noozhawk. “People who can’t go to town-hall meetings can log on to UserVoice and submit their input.”

UserVoice’s accessibility is the biggest reason for the success of the site, which originally was started to provide companies with customer feedback surveys and product suggestions.

“Things are moving toward the Web,” Kan said. “(UserVoice) allows you as a citizen to voice your opinion on the same platform as everyone else, even most vocal participants. It allows anyone to get involved with a just few clicks and without large barriers to entry.”

The city of Santa Cruz used UserVoice to ask its citizens for help solving its own budget crisis in 2009, and the buzz surrounding the social-media project sparked the interest of Pete Peterson, the Davenport Institute’s executive director.

“Pete was running seminars with governments in California around public engagement,” Kan said. “He has the expertise, and we have the tools people can use.”

Peterson said UserVoice.com has been an effective tool for promoting public engagement through the Davenport Institute’s Common Sense California program.

“Common Sense California consults on projects around the state; we just finished a water project in Northern California,” Peterson said. “We’ve created a Rolodex of consultants that we bring into specific issues, and UserVoice is one of the partners we consult when there’s a need to engage residents on a specific issue.”

The biggest challenge with UserVoice is the lack of involvement from government leaders, Kan acknowledged.

“The biggest problems we see is the buy-in,” he said. “People really want to get involved, but the government isn’t always open to suggestions or opening floodgates. Often citizens will want to have forums, but the government doesn’t want to open up immediately.”

Involvement in the forum from people who can make decisions as well as active citizens is a necessary mix to make UserVoice effective for civic change.

“The perfect storm of people involved can be a very powerful tool,” Kan said.

More than 55,000 organizations from around the world have signed up for UserVoice, with small businesses forming the majority of the privately held company’s users.

“UserVoice works well for small businesses because you can have a lot of engagement and the businesses are small enough to respond quickly,” Kan said. “Fortune 500 companies use it to look for ideas for the next product launch.”

The city of Vancouver, British Columbia, launched a six-month program last year asking citizens how the city could become the greenest in the world by 2020. Thousands of recommendations were made and a suggestion to encourage more vegan diet options in restaurants was the top vote-getter.

Noozhawk will officially launch the Santa Barbara Challenge later this week. Watch for the announcement and instructions on how to register, make suggestions and cast your votes.

                  Santa Barbara Challenge Survey  |  Complete Series Index  |

Noozhawk contributing writer Taylor Orr can be reached at torr@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.