Civic Engagement Civic Tech future of work



“I sensed that we needed to hear from people who were formerly incarcerated and that they might be less likely to have internet access.”

Always ahead of the curve, the city of Austin, Texas, launched an online community engagement portal in 2008. Called SpeakUpAustin, the platform is the cradle of the city’s bike share program and played a part in shaping a plastic bag ordinance. It allows anyone with internet access to publicly share their opinion on upcoming policy decisions without having to attend a public meeting. Although this was a leap forward in terms of accessibility and convenience, participation was still limited by one major constraint: internet access. This summer, however, the city took steps to change that by using a text-based tool called HeartGov in tandem with SpeakUpAustin to poll city residents about a Ban the Box initiative.

The Ban the Box campaign to delete the part of job applications that asks about previous convictions has been around since 2004. The campaign began seeing some success (in Minnesota, for example) in 2009. Since then, cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and others have removed the question.

“The Austin city council decided to follow the lead of several other cities and jurisdictions in looking at what people are calling a fair chance hiring policy,” says Larry Schooler, the manager of Austin’s Community Engagement Division. “The idea behind it is really to try to help those with criminal records, with histories of being incarcerated have a fair chance at getting hired.”

“The policy could mean that employers would need to delay criminal background investigations until a conditional offer was made to an applicant, even a person with a conviction,” Schooler clarifies.

Schooler’s position was created in 2009, when Austin’s communications director decided to invest more resources in engaging the public in innovative ways. “I’ve sort of gone from being a person to come in and facilitate meetings here and there to someone who is really trying to design a new system of public engagement,” Schooler tells Civicist. “I’m spending a lot more time now creating tools and programs and doing trainings than I did at the beginning.”

HeartGov first came to Schooler’s attention after he saw a short piece I wrote last year for techPresident, about testing the tool in Brooklyn. He reached out to Asher Novek, who developed the tool as part of his master’s thesis at NYU’s Gallatin School, and they began discussing ways to use HeartGov in Austin. (Full disclosure: Asher Novek is a Civic Hall member and has done some contract work for Civic Hall assisting with marketing.)

Schooler decided that the public polling period for the fair hiring policy, which ended at the end of August, was the perfect opportunity. “One of the reasons I wanted to use HeartGov on this one in particular is because I sensed that we needed to hear from people who were formerly incarcerated and that they might be less likely to have internet access,” Schooler explains to Civicist.

Working closely with Novek, Schooler came up with three questions, one that asked what kind of companies should be subjected to a fair hiring policy, how the policy should be enforced, and how the city should implement the policy. City residents interested in providing feedback could text a local number and would get the questions one after the other in response.

The city solicited input on the hiring policy via email, text message (HeartGov), and an online discussion board (SpeakUpAustin), although Schooler notes that, because this was a relatively abridged public input period (less than a month), there was limited publicity. All told, the city received 150 online discussion posts, 175 texts (from 60 or so respondents), and a handful of emails.

“Some of [the texters] were obviously people who had been formerly incarcerated and had been dealing with this on a first hand basis,” says Schooler. “I’m not taking sides in the debate over the policy—but it was really gratifying to see people so directly affected by a policy be participating like that.”

A preliminary report Schooler shares with Civicist shows that the majority of text responses were in favor of the fair hiring policy, whereas the online responses were more mixed, even skewing against the policy.

“There were a couple people who posted online who did seem to have some history [of convictions or incarceration],” says Schooler, “but not nearly to the extent that the texters did.” More of the texters were employees, whereas there were greater numbers of employers responding online.

Without HeartGov, the city might have gotten a very different picture of local opinion on the fair hiring policy.

Schooler dreams of one day better integrating the text and online responses, so that participants online can see what people are texting and vice versa. He also has yet to figure out how to handle two-way communication with people using HeartGov. “I didn’t do any personal responses this time. There just wasn’t the bandwidth for me to do that, or the time,” Schooler says. “In an ideal world I would in some way respond—we did respond at the end, when we closed things out, to say thanks.”

The two-way conversation has always been what Asher Novek envisioned for his tool. For example, HeartGov continues to be used in some local officials offices in New York and he says he feels it is his responsibility to “nag” offices to respond to constituents reaching out through the tool, until it becomes a habit.

As for what’s next in Austin? HeartGov has already been pulled back into service, as part of a community forum on building equitable economic development in East Austin.

First Post



Sending Wi-Fi beacons out to help Syrian refugees; differing opinions on Lawrence Lessig’s bid for president; and more.

  • This is civic tech: One way that the Civil Society and Technology Project at the Central European University in Budapest is helping refugees navigate their difficult journeys: they’re setting up volunteers as “walking Wi-Fi beacons,” reports Aviva Rutkin for the New Scientist. She writes, “For about $100, you can pick up a ready to use Wi-Fi hotspot and prepaid SIM cards, pop it all into someone’s backpack, and send them out into the crowd. The networks last for about six hours before needing to be recharged, and can support around a dozen users at a time.”
  • A “We the People” petition on the White House website calling for a big increase in the number of Syrian refugees resettled here is now halfway to the 100,000 signatures needed to prompt an official response.

  • Our Jessica McKenzie reports for Civicist on how the city of Austin, Texas, is using online engagement tools to poll city residents about an initiative to delete the box on job applications that asks applicants about prior convictions. Featured: HeartGov, a text-based tool developed by Civic Hall member Asher Novek.

  • Tech and the presidentials: Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, a leader of the free culture movement and author of several seminal books on the internet, has announced that he is running for the Democratic nomination for President, having garnered a million dollars in backing Kickstarter-style online. He’s running as a “referendum” candidate seeking to only pass substantial campaign finance and election reform legislation.

  • Lessig’s friend Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, blogs about his reasons for supporting his run, arguing that he can “win by losing, so long as his referendum attracts sufficient attention.”

  • Taking a somewhat less optimistic (and more realistic?) view of Lessig’s chances, his friend David Weinberger, another Harvard scholar and author of seminal internet books, blogs that he worries that rather than demonstrating widespread support for democracy reforms, Lessig’s bid will “make [campaign] finance reform look more marginal than it actually is.” He calls this the “lose-by-losing outcome.”

  • At least two emails received by Hillary Clinton on her private server while she was Secretary of State contained highly classified information, Michael Schmidt reports for the New York Times.

  • Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina recently told a New Hampshire audience that if elected, she would ask Americans to respond to questions during her weekly radio address, The Economist reports. “For instance, she explained, she might ask whether the federal government should have the right to sack employees who fail to do their jobs, or whether it is important for Americans to know where their federal tax dollars go. Press 1 for Yes, and 2 for No.”

  • Brave new world: Apple and Microsoft are butting heads with government authorities more and more over demands for private and/or encrypted customer data, report Matt Apuzzo, David Sanger, and Michael Schmidt for the New York Times.