“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.