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Engaging Citizens with the NC Department of Transportation

In early 2010, New Kind began a project with the Communications Office of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to help test new ways for the department to engage with its “customers”—the citizens of North Carolina.As in many states, North Carolina’s Department of Transportation is often the main point of interaction (and impression of) state government. Whether driving on state roads, using public transportation, or getting a driver’s license or plates, citizens in North Carolina would likely meet or see the work of some of the over 14,000 employees of NCDOT every day.

North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti and Deputy Secretary for Communications Ted Vaden believed there was an opportunity to more deeply involve citizens in improving the services provided by NCDOT. We at New Kind believed there was an opportunity to employ some of the same principles used by successful open source software companies like Red Hat to build better software faster. But we’d be using them not to build better software, but instead to build better government.

We led multiple preparatory sessions with NCDOT staff, introducing them to new ways in which citizens are engaging with government online, with a particular focus on how the “open source way—collaboration, openness, meritocracy—might apply to a government agency. And we worked with the NCDOT staff to co-design a citizen engagement model in which North Carolina citizens could work together with government workers toward a common goal in an open, collaborative environment.

We helped recruit citizen participants to three collaboration sessions in different parts of the state. It was a new experience for the citizens and NCDOT employees. Rather than promoting or trying to explain a change or new policy, we listened to what they didn’t like, getting all the criticisms and concerns out in the open. But this was no focus group.

Once we collected an exhaustive list of complaints and concerns, we then changed the conversation. Rather than focusing on what was wrong, we focused on what was possible. We asked these citizens what great things NCDOT could do for them and how these ideas might come to life.

At New Kind we feel strongly that great ideas can and do come from anywhere. In this case they literally did. All across the state we received excellent suggestions, many of which surprised and delighted the NCDOT staff. Several of these new ideas—including one to merge multiple NCDOT communication platforms into a single entity—were chosen by the staff to implement.

We believe that great community collaboration involves moving beyond just getting “advice” and actually involving the community in the implementation of the solution itself. Because of this, we devoted a great deal of each session to having citizens design and map out potential applications for their ideas. After each session, we posted citizens designs and prototypes in an online forum open to the public.

NCDOT found that even a few sessions with a small community of average citizens quickly pointed to new ideas and methods of operating, with implications for not just communication interfaces but organizational structure and policies. Through careful tracking of outreach methods, session surveys, and staff training sessions, NCDOT now has more capability to employ the innovative ideas generated by applying open source principles to community engagement efforts in the future.

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