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Common Sense California to Engage Santa Barbara

Civic engagement project with Noozhawk is designed to increase public participation on city budget issues

Over the past decade, the world has seen major changes in the way information is disseminated.

Take Noozhawk, for example. Can you imagine an online-only news agency working out in the 1990s?

Although figuring out what to make of the plethora of very inexpensive information now at our disposal is taking time, the increased access to such information has put us in a unique position to increase citizen engagement in public policy decision making.

Pete Peterson
Pete Peterson

Enter Common Sense California, a foundation-supported nonprofit organization aimed at increasing public participation in the local decision-making process. Founded in 2005 and based at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in Malibu, CSC encourages online discussions about policy issues, believing the process results in more informed policy decisions.

CSC awards grants to organizations in positions to increase public engagement, and utilizes an online commentary platform called UserVoice.

“I call it an idea aggregation and prioritization tool,” Common Sense California executive director Pete Peterson told Noozhawk. “The (UserVoice) software allows the theming of similar sounding ideas.”

CSC has built a number of nonpartisan input campaigns around California, often centered around land use and budgetary issues. In 2009, the city of Santa Cruz faced a $9.2 million budget gap, and sought a way to avoid making budget cuts resembling haphazard hatchet strokes. Winning a CSC grant, city administrators got to work fostering public comments to treat the budget mess more like a precision surgical operation. It worked so well that Santa Cruz received a Government 2.0 award — and resolved its immediate crisis.

Peterson said that although one of CSC’s earlier campaigns — dubbed California Speaks on Health Care — dealt with statewide health-care reform, he has found that CSC’s system is more effective in dealing with cities and small counties.

“We learned that political participation at the state level, with what we were trying to do, was almost impossible,” he said, noting that although CSC was able to host an eight-location teleconference involving stakeholders from around California, in the end, the issue was lost in a state Senate subcommittee that was unaware of the CSC initiative’s existence.

“In a state of 38 million people, there are so many moving parts that it’s very difficult to do something like this.”

But California’s small and midsize cities and counties, said Peterson, typically have decision makers who are more closely connected to the citizens they govern. Santa Barbara is one of the first places where CSC has partnered with a media source — in this case, Noozhawk, which recently won a CSC public engagement grant aimed at garnering more detailed citizen input on Santa Barbara’s long-range budget issues.

Click here for more information on Noozhawk’s grant and public engagement project.

“While local media have always been an important part of the stakeholder program — reporting and bringing these issues to peoples’ attention — Noozhawk has a brand and a platform that can be used to facilitate public participation,” Peterson said.

Peterson added that, unlike the typical three-minute public comment slot most people get at public hearings, UserVoice allows participants to comment more broadly on an issue, and also more neatly categorizes commentary.

“This facilitates discussion around trade-off decisions,” he said. “Instead of yelling at the mayor, we can talk about it and see what these things mean.”

Other organizations receiving CSC grants this year are the city of Fairfield for its budget and the city of Martinez for its General Plan.

Aside from civic engagement grants, CSC also offers a half-day seminar on civic engagement for city and county governments.

CSC is co-chaired by David Davenport, former Pepperdine president and now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution on the Stanford University campus, and Vincent Robinson, a founder and managing partner of The 360 Group in San Francisco and formerly executive director of Social Venture Partners Bay Area.

Click here for more information on Common Sense California.

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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