Interview: Granicus’ Matt Hall

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Interview with Matthew Hall, Product Manager/Senior Community Manager for Granicus

Many governments are now developing or purchasing software to enhance the ability of citizens to learn and comment on what government is doing. This ability is known generically as citizen engagement. Companies in this space include MindMixer, Accela, SeeClickFix, and Granicus.

According to Crunchbase, Granicus, Inc. was founded in 1999 and is headquartered in San Francisco, California. It is an award-winning cloud computing provider for government whose industry leading solutions are designed to boost government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation. Leveraging its cloud platform and product suites, public agencies can establish meaningful connections with citizens while reducing operational costs.

Matthew Hall is the Product and Community Manager for Granicus’ Citizen Participation tools. He describes his job as creating an efficiency for government and making it more transparent by digitizing and automating. As never before, citizens can now watch and download government. Hall says that Granicus has over 1000 clients at all government levels in the US and Canada, ranging from a town of 20,000 to the US Senate. Hall, whose focus is on helping governments engage citizens online and is proud of — where people enter free form comments that go to city staff, with questions that change over time — and similar projects all over the US & Canada, sat down with me in February 2014.
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ARE A LOT OF GOVERNMENTS WADING IN TO THIS AREA? Yes, in a number of areas — livestreaming, posting agendas, meeting-related. More and more, it’s becoming something the public expects. We’re seeing it in our metrics — Granicus has millions of unique visitors per year. Tens of thousands of city staff access it.

WHAT ARE THE BARRIERS TO GOVERNMENTS PROVIDING THIS SERVICE? During the recession, there was pressure on governments to scale back noncritical services. More recently, we have seen that budgets for citizen engagement and transparency are growing. Citizen engagement today is about where livestreaming was ten years ago.

HOW CAN PEOPLE BE CONFIDENT THEY ARE BEING HEARD?  There are examples of successful efforts. Austin bike share started as a comment, others commented on it, the city noticed and kept the thread updated and the conversation going. The public had tremendous input into the locations and even picked the color by voting online. This would previously have been handled through a closed email loop.

HOW DO YOU MEASURE CIVIC ENGAGEMENT? Measures for activity and results are still mostly quantitative. Measures such as how many people are reached, how many interact. Qualitative measures such as how good the comments are may be a while. Measures need to take into account the many channels governments use, typically including Facebook and Twitter, in concert with contests and other approaches.

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO ABUSE THE ABILITY TO COMMENT? Open systems — systems that allow unlimited comments from individuals or enable people to participate without limit leave themselves open for abuse. Systems that promise a result based on voting can fall victim to abuse [Austin has had some experience in this department].  Granicus has an e-comment system that lets citizens have one comment per agenda item per user.

WHAT DO YOU SEE COMING NEXT? The direction is toward having people use their real names and vote on actual ballot initiatives, not just upvoting and downvoting. There are new developments in terms and conditions, and they are not necessarily getting more elaborate. Canada has new legal approaches for how citizen data is collected, who can see it. We are already seeing more use cases for having citizens vote online but we are also seeing more concern about what’s done with the data — not necessarily how they voted, but when they voted, what device they used, other data that can be mined. The move towards mobile devices will accelerate. iPads are cheap and make good voting systems, and effort is going in to building that capability. In the future we are likely to see e-comments become a formal part of the record. We will see new ways to open up processes and have citizens give input earlier in the process. Participatory budgeting is growing around the world and here in the United States right now. Gamification, like reputation management and reputation ranking, makes sense and has a growing role – not just assigning points but rewarding active, helpful contributors.

TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF. I’ve been at Granicus for seven or eight months. Before that I worked for civic technology startups including Aunt Bertha, Neighborland, Code for America/Code for America Commons, and OpenPlans. The industry for civic engagement has really grown up. Code for America fostered some startups – over 200 applied to the startup program while I was there. Now you have Tumml, 1776dc, and other startup incubators and groups like Unreasonable. I studied political science but nothing really prepared me for this career.  What I really like about it is the opportunity to develop theories on how people can interact with government, and being able to test those theories in the real world.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE WANTING IN TO THIS INDUSTRY? There is a lot of opportunity right now for people who have worked for consumer goods companies who want to work in the civic/good works realm and make money. Not everyone makes money, though. There are lots of startups out there; find people working to improve things in government and nonprofits, and ask them questions. Figure out how you can help. The less you make it a lecture about your own ideas of how things should work and the more you contribute to the team effort, the more successful you will be.

ANY CLOSING THOUGHTS? Citizen engagement has had amazing growth in a few years. As one example you see civic hackathons in multiple places. A lot of new startups and ideas adds excitement but the effectiveness of what you build is paramount — are you helping more people faster?


2 thoughts on “Interview: Granicus’ Matt Hall

  1. Matt Hall

    Thank you for writing about this topic, Steve. I do want to be clear that open systems do not leave themselves open for abuse. Actually open and transparent systems are much more resilient to corruption or abuse than closed systems. While in closed systems attempts to game the process can often go unnoticed, open systems where everyone can view each other’s submissions enable participants/observers to easily see if someone is abusing the process.

    Also, there are surprisingly few attempts to game or abuse open systems for civic improvement. I’ve worked with hundreds of these systems all across the country and have never personally seen an attempt to game the system like the example provided in the article. People who participate in open systems are overwhelmingly positive and respectful of the process. They participate because they want to contribute something valuable to their community.

    For more information about open and transparent systems in government check out the Sunlight Foundations work:

  2. Tim Bonnemann

    In the 2011 case of soliciting ideas from the public for naming a city department, it’s key to point out that the problem wasn’t so much the technology but rather the flawed design of the consultation process. From what I remember reading at the time, it appears the key public participation questions of who would ultimately make the decision and at what points and to what extent public input might be considered hadn’t really been thought through or specified with the necessary level of detail.


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