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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

Communications Gridlock? Try Crowdsourcing

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Online crowdsourcing: Industry and government have embraced it, capturing community attention and engaging in direct and efficient two-way communication. Yet school leaders have been reluctant to adopt this process, presuming it's disruptive and undermining of authority. Is crowdsourcing a Pandora's box for schools? You might be surprised.
Let's say you have to tackle a high-stakes management decision. And let's say you want to go with a collaborative approach that gives your community a voice and opens a path forward that focuses on solutions rather than on contentious debate. How would you do it? What steps would you take?
Whatever the issue—whether it's tight budgets, changed school boundaries, or political wrangling over a bond vote—you would spark cooperation by crafting a detailed communication plan with many familiar touchstones. You would schedule community meetings, publicize them widely, and shout transparency. You would encourage folks to participate, be open to different points of view, and work together to find solutions. You would connect in other ways, too, realizing that strong communication is crucial to effective engagement with families and constituents, that it builds understanding and a higher degree of confidence.
But would the old modes of mostly one-way communication be enough? Do community meetings, website information, and social media channels result in the transparency the public needs and expects when decisions are so close to their hearts? Can these approaches create an environment in which everyone feels involved in a sunshine-bathed process away from the smoke-filled room?
For many school districts, including ours in Arlington, Virginia, the answer is no. We've come to realize that in today's electronic age, we must do better to avoid communications gridlock over highly charged decisions.

A Wary Public

When the public thinks about the way school leaders make decisions, particularly those on hot-button issues, their default image often is of faceless bureaucrats sitting in a windowless office around a table littered with paper and coffee cups, scratching their heads and looking at their watches.
Such images linger when complex and emotional decisions loom. Fueled by fear and lack of understanding, the public tends to fill voids with suspicion. "No one is listening to us," community members charge, and they mobilize efforts to make their voices heard. As a situation escalates into "us versus them," the hope for finding common ground grows dimmer and dimmer. The community claims a lack of voice in decision making; school leaders claim constituents were given every opportunity to participate. Gridlock reigns.

Our District's Hot-Button Issue

Sound familiar? In our school district, we experienced just this gridlock. Twice. On the same issue.
It involved a plan to redraw our elementary school boundaries. With each attempt, we worked hard to reach community consensus. Both efforts included draft plans developed by staff members and reviewed by parent and community committees. Both involved monthly meetings to deliberate over the options. Both included outcries from parents in competing neighborhoods, including hundreds of speakers showing up at public meetings and school board boundary hearings. Both efforts failed miserably, and the much-needed resolution to our boundary dilemma still eluded us.
Yet we believed we were on the right side of the transparency issue. Our spreadsheets neatly displayed the numbers: Schools, enrollments, capacity, and a map with the planning units and existing boundaries were out there for everyone to see. But it was clear we were missing something, that we had to do more.

Through the Public's Eyes

As our steadily increasing enrollment made redrawing the boundaries even more urgent, we prepared to go back to the community a third time. This time, we met with small community groups and asked a series of questions around a single theme: What will it take for the community to accept a change in boundaries? Their answers were clear: more transparency, more understanding, more partnership in the decision-making process.
So how would we do that?
We concluded that to leverage any kind of change, we had to see things through the public's eyes. Although staff had a deep understanding of the issue, had wrestled with the process internally, and had empathy for the disruptions the boundary changes would cause, the public was at a loss with all those things. Families and community members wanted to be more knowledgeable and engaged in the process and understand how the school board would make decisions.
Distributing a stack of spreadsheets—or a stack of anything—didn't create the bond we needed with constituents. We realized that the public was viewing the boundary issue through a narrow lens of self-interest. We knew our community was better than that. They were capable of seeing the big picture and aspiring to the greater good of all.
It was up to us to elevate the dialogue and raise the bar on transparency. We needed to make the information comprehensible, connect the dots, and help people recognize the ramifications of tough decisions.
We understood that making information public doesn't mean it's accessible or even understandable. We also knew that it was our responsibility, as an honest broker in this process, to fix this. When people don't understand something, they don't blame themselves—they blame you. They think you're hiding something.
We were determined to get it right this time. And maybe that meant allowing virtually everybody to communicate with us. So we decided to take a risk and consider online crowdsourcing.

What Is Crowdsourcing?

Most of us have used crowdsourcing in our personal lives for years. If you've asked friends for restaurant recommendations, checked Angie's List before hiring a home contractor, or read Amazon reviews to decide what book to order, you've taken advantage of crowdsourcing. To make a better decision, you follow a process of collecting ideas and suggestions from a large group of people.
Crowdsourcing happens when
  • An organization or an individual has a task to perform.
  • A community voluntarily helps with the task.
  • There's mutual benefit for both the organization and the community.
Since the term was coined in 2006, online crowdsourcing has evolved as a communication strategy that's opening up ways to connect institutions with the people they serve. Taking advantage of the speed and convenience of technology, crowdsourcing creates space for lots of constituents to participate and share ideas. Tasks such as landing a robotic spacecraft on the moon, addressing waste and delay in state agencies, and selecting the design for a car have all been crowdsourced.
But what about the issues school leaders face? Is there a way to apply crowdsourcing to benefit the school community and support school leadership efforts?
We had our reservations about crowdsourcing. If we put a decision-making tool online, would that allow popular vote to decide the outcome? Was that crowdsourcing?
The answer, we found, was no. As we studied the concept, we learned a key distinction between crowdsourcing and other forms of online participatory culture. The process of crowdsourcing entails a mix of top-down, traditional, hierarchical management processes and a bottom-up, open process involving an online community.
That was just the mix we were seeking. We would ask for input from the community and, at the same time, recognize the responsibility of our elected officials to make the final call. Our desire for input was genuine. We knew that changing the boundaries was a complicated challenge and that there were several outcomes to consider, including some we may not have thought of.
An online crowdsourcing process would not be a stand-alone tool in our process. Rather, it would be integrated into our larger outreach effort that would also include traditional community meetings and "town halls" on Twitter. Crowdsourcing would add value to the package. We would vigorously promote it along with other outreach.
We understood that community members would have varying access to technology, particularly families that were low-income or were from non-English-speaking backgrounds. In these cases, we would use existing communication channels and face-to-face opportunities to engage families and solicit their ideas. In addition, we realized that we could facilitate participation in the online crowdsourcing process by giving families access to computer labs at school family events.
We were ready to take the next step.

The Online Boundary Tool

For this effort to succeed, we needed a well-designed and simple-to-use tool. We would lose the community if the online interface was confusing or difficult to follow. If only a few participated, the approach wouldn't work, defeating our purpose and leaving people still in the dark about the decision-making process.
We turned to a local contracting group to help design and implement the online process. Although complex to develop, the tool we ultimately created was easy to use. We uploaded the new Online Boundary Tool to our website and invited parents and community members to use it to redraw the school boundaries.

Figure 1. Online Boundary Tool

Arriving at the site, people found a map of the area (which represents the northern half of our county) that included geographic planning units, the existing boundaries, and the affected schools. They were asked to craft new boundaries according to the school board's established criteria: planning units must remain contiguous, and schools must maintain 90 to 100 percent capacity. We put the enrollment data right in the tool.
Engaging in the crowdsourcing process, our community users experienced what happened if they moved the boundaries of a single planning unit east or west, north or south. The implications of every maneuver played out in many ways. We had existing schools that had capacity for more students, whereas other schools were over capacity. Plus, we were building a new school that we had to fill. A Goldilocks flag on the Boundary Tool told users if a school was too large, too small, or acceptable—just right! Moving one planning unit had a ripple effect across all schools. These were not easy shifts.
More people participated than we could have wished for; several thousand plans were submitted. The online participation far surpassed attendance at the previous boundary meetings. This helped get many options on the table at the beginning of the process for all stakeholders to consider during our community deliberations. As the process evolved through dialogue and informal discussions, we were able to arrive at a small set of options that we all agreed were reasonable and realistic to further explore. These were a key part of the plan that the superintendent would recommend to the board.

Gridlock No More

Although the final proposal for the new boundaries that we presented to our school board moved nearly 1,000 students, the first public hearing on that proposal garnered only 23 speakers and the second public hearing had just 16 speakers. Almost half spoke in favor of the process and the proposal and urged the school board to adopt the superintendent's proposal. The board did.
This project has had many far-reaching results. Our stakeholders have appreciated the open process as well as having a seat at the table when redrawing boundaries. They've felt that their voices were heard at each step during the two-year process. Later, when so many people told us that they had no idea how difficult this work was, we knew we were on to something. Giving the community the opportunity to engage, ask questions, and be a part of the process created greater understanding all around and, at the same time, provided greater clarity on the decision-making process.
End Notes

1 Brabham, D. (2013). Using crowdsourcing in government. Washington, DC: IBM Center for the Business of Government, p. 7.

2 Brabham, p. 8.

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