Civic Engagement Democracy Participatory Democracy



The People’s Lobby is run entirely online using the digital tools NationBuilder and Loomio.

  • Last month, the City Council in Provo, Utah, voted unanimously to continue the Provo People’s Lobby, an experimental process in participatory democracy in which city residents collaborate online on a policy recommendation that is then submitted to the City Council for consideration and possible implementation. The process, which I first wrote about in March for techPresident, is run entirely online using NationBuilder and Loomio.

    Participants in Provo’s first People’s Lobby were selected at random from a pool of approximately 75 people who submitted or voted on the “pressing issues” they want addressed in their city. Invitations were sent to one person from each of the 25 neighborhoods represented in that pool; ultimately 14 residents participated in the deliberations on the decision-making platform Loomio. Their efforts were guided with minimal moderation from People’s Lobby creator Jeff Swift, Loomio consultant MJ Kaplan, and two political science students at Brigham Young University.

    Recruitment, Swift and his fellow moderators write in a report on the Provo People’s Lobby, required a lot of “handholding” via email and phone calls to get people on board:

    Future efforts will benefit from seeing the results of the first, and we have learned what information is important to transmit at this stage to ensure that participants will understand what they are signing up for and be ready to participate. We also anticipate that there will be a certain level of drop off no matter what we do, and this is acceptable. We are recruiting a small jury of residents and do not need a fully representative body in order for the Lobby to work as designed.


    Passing the deadline extension on Loomio. (Screenshot courtesy of the Provo People's Lobby)

    Passing the deadline extension on Loomio. (Screenshot courtesy of the Provo People’s Lobby)

    Originally slated to last two weeks, the process had to be extended to four because both stages took longer than Swift anticipated. First, participants were provided with the list of pressing issues collected in the month prior and instructed to choose an area to focus on; then, they deliberated over the specific recommendations they wanted to make to the Council.

    “They spent almost two weeks picking a topic; [the process was] extended another two weeks for a total of four, and they still barely had time to craft policy recommendations,” Swift tells Civicist. “It was at the very end of the second two weeks where they were able to agree on a final proposal.”

    “I think I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to settle on a topic,” Swift adds.

    At the end of the four weeks, after five discussions consisting of 205 comments by the participants, three priorities for supporting agriculture and public green spaces in their community were submitted to the City Council. Jeff Swift says he was at first disappointed in these policy particular recommendations because it turns out that these initiatives were already on the City Council’s agenda in some form.

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    “I would have wanted something exciting,” Swift tells Civicist.


    Comment made during the first Provo People's Lobby. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Comment made during the first Provo People’s Lobby. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)

    But that’s the inherent danger in creating democratic processes: making space for people to push for initiatives one thinks are unnecessary (one of the original suggestions submitted by the public in the earliest stage of the Lobby asked for a big box store in Provo, a proposal Swift was relieved they didn’t pursue) or flat out disagree with. “I have political opinions and there’s a good chance that the People’s Lobby will go in the other direction [in future iterations], and that’s ok,” Swift says.

    What the results do show, Swift points out, is that either the City Council is acting on their agricultural agenda but not sharing their progress with the community, or that they have stalled on their work in that area. Hal Miller, a Councilman and the liaison with the Lobby, tells Civicist that the results were received as a sort of “endorsement” of the work of the Council, and that these items have been pushed higher on the Council’s agenda.

    Swift says he is working on changing the mechanisms of the Lobby to prevent this kind of redundancy in the future. It is one of many small changes Swift will make after the People’s Lobby inaugural run. To start, the process will be allotted more time from the beginning.


    Not every resident will have deep knowledge of all or even most issues the Lobby might tackle. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Not every resident will have deep knowledge of all or even most issues the Lobby might tackle. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)

    Then, he will also increase the guidance by the moderators. Swift’s instinct was for them to be as hands off as possible, but that ultimately led to a handful of voices—many of which belonged to current or potential political actors in the community—essentially intimidating less politically experienced participants out of the process. One way Swift hopes they can change this is by beginning the Lobby by meeting—again, still entirely online—in small groups where people are hopefully more likely to feel comfortable voicing their opinions. The small groups will then take their ideas to the others.

    “We’re going to be more conscious about keeping the conversation moving forward,” Swift says.

    Although the numbers in the report on the Provo People’s Lobby are low, Hal Miller and Jeff Swift are both optimistic. Miller points out that Utah, and Provo in particular, suffers from low voter turnout. While a process like the People’s Lobby has the potential to increase civic engagement, it also means there is a steep learning curve as residents find out what it means to be civically engaged.


    Voting on proposals. (Screenshots courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Voting on proposals. (Screenshots courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)


    “It exceeded my expectations,” Miller tells Civicist. “I thought there would be more difficulty composing the lobby, more difficulty to bring them together in an ongoing way, and that it would prove difficult to harness the respective energies of the members of the lobby given that it included members who are well known for their activism.”

    Swift and the other moderators were pleased with the results considering how foreign an idea the Lobby is:

    Considering three facts, this level of engagement was heartening. First, this was the very first time anyone in the world had tried this process. It was frankly a bit confusing to understand and we have gotten better about explaining it. Second, we started with an email list of zero people and grew our list to 90 people. This foundation will magnify our efforts for future efforts. And finally, that marketing was limited to Karen Tapahe’s [Community Relations Coordinator for the City Council] tireless promotion on Facebook and to PR channels. In the future the People’s Lobby team will do more marketing and promotion to get the word out.

    A second experimental round of Provo People’s Lobby will begin in September. After that, the Council will have to decide whether to incorporate the process into their budget. The cost of the first two rounds were covered by an anonymous donation.

First Post



Mike Bracken to step down; Civic Hall hiring a writer/researcher for Rethinking Debates project; and more.

  • Tech and the presidentials: Here’s Donald Trump’s self-referential question to his fellow Republican presidential contenders, as posted in response to Facebook’s call for questions for the candidates appearing in the first GOP debate this Thursday. If you look closely, you’ll see that the article he has printed out on his desk for reading is headlined, “Donald Trump Winning Facebook by a Landslide.”

  • This headline has more cliches per word than most: “Exclusive: Republicans Launch Game-Changing Data Center That Will Forever Change Politics.” The story, by Mark Fidelman in, isn’t a scoop since people have been reporting on the GOP’s Data Center for years. But it does share some new data about what’s in Data Center, including the number of people in the national voter file that they’ve matched with email addresses (22 million) and the number of “micro targeting data points” they’ve amassed (7.7 billion).

  • Cryptowars, continued: Longtime British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, author of much of the best reporting on Britain’s secret surveillance programs going back decades, reflects in The Intercept on how Edward Snowden’s disclosures have not only affirmed his earlier work, but also how the debate over rampant government eavesdropping has finally shifted.

  • While the German authorities have backed off their threat to investigate two journalists who write for, the country’s leading political and digital rights blog, people there are still angry that they were threatened with a treason charge for publishing reports on domestic surveillance, Melissa Eddy reports for the New York Times.

  • Government opening: Mike Bracken, the pathbreaking director of digital for the U.K. government’s Cabinet Office, has announced that he’s stepping down after five years in that position.

  • As Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka blogs, Bracken’s impact on digital government was transformative. Not only did he lead a massive overhaul of service delivery in the U.K., his work inspired her and other counterparts in the United States and led directly to the launch of the U.S. Digital Service. As Pahlka writes, “Now, a pilgrimage to the GDS that Mike and his team have built has become a rite of passage (and a shot of energy and inspiration) for every serious digital government reformer in city, state, and federal government in the U.S. and around the world. Each of us is hoping to learn from and borrow Mike’s model and capture even a fraction of the team’s success.”

  • Everything Pahlka says about Bracken’s influence is true (and this great talk by him at PDF 2014 showcases his thinking). I’d like to add one more personal comment, about his courage. When the gifted young coder and democracy activist Aaron Swartz took his life in January 2013, suffering under intense pressure from an over-zealous government prosecutor who thought his copying of academic journal articles was some kind of horrific crime, Bracken posted an eloquent tribute to Swartz (and an equally skilled British hacker, Chris Lightfoot, who was a pioneer of e-democracy at mySociety), titled “Standing on the shoulders of giants,” on Government Digital Service’s official blog. To my knowledge, not a single one of Bracken’s counterparts in the U.S. federal branch who work on open government did anything equivalent to mourn Swartz’s untimely death.

  • Hidden pleasures: Melody Kramer has pulled together an impressive list of “every hidden journalism-related social media group I could find.”

  • The is a crazy, funny satire of Facebook, made by Daniel Kolitz. Its premise: “The year is 2016. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has absconded to parts unknown, making off with the data of Facebook’s millions of users. Texas mattress mogul Buck Calhoun has purchased the gutted social network in a fire sale and has now launched a data drive to replenish its depleted stores of valuable personal information.” Check it out during your lunch break.

  • Job opening at Civic Hall: We’re looking to hire a researcher/writer for our new Rethinking Debates project. Please help spread the word!

  • And with that, I’m off for some vacation—my able colleague Jessica McKenzie will be holding down the fort here at First Post while I’m away.