I noticed two flawed attempts to solicit public participation on the web recently.
First, on Tuesday Hillary Clinton said the following during her nationally televised speech: “Now the question is, where do we go from here … But this has always been your campaign, so to the 18 million people who voted for me and to our many other supporters out there of all ages, I want to hear from you. I hope you’ll go to my website at HillaryClinton.com and share your thoughts with me and help in any way that you can.” If you read it closely you’ll see she’s only asking her supporters to visit her website, but you can be forgiven if like me you got the impression she was casting a wider net. As the DCeiver noted, when you visit her website the only option is to sign a petition declaring “I am with you, Hillary, and I am proud of everything we are fighting for.” The form includes an “optional” box for comments. I guess asking her supporters to “sign a pledge offering me your unconditional support” just wouldn’t have had the same ring in the speech.
Second, the D.C. Office of Zoning has opened a commenting feature on their website, where visitors are allowed to review and comment on the proposed policy changes to the city’s zoning code. Visitors must download a 115KB PDF of the proposed policy, which is embedded with HTML links to this webpage with boxes for comments.
Sharing policies, soliciting comments, and allowing visitors to view other’s comments are all good things. However, a number of things about the implementation bug me. First, never require someone to download a PDF unless you have no other option. In particular, documents containing text can be easily displayed on a webpage. In general, PDFs are a hassle to download on a slow connection, and for various reasons can cause browser crashes. If the draft policy were presented on a webpage, the boxes for comments could be located near the policy. The current structure requires you to switch back and forth between both documents. Lastly, offering a long page of input boxes all in one place will probably depress the response rate. Breaking it up into just a few pages or fewer fields would make it seem more manageable.
The technology and techniques of soliciting input online are rapidly evolving, but being honest about what you’re interested in and making the system as easy to use as possible are two good places to start.