Engage Sandpoint: One year later

By David Phillips
Reader Contributor

About a year ago, I wrote in the Reader about the new Engage Sandpoint service and my initial impressions. Those impressions were generally positive, as it seemed city administrative personnel were actually reading the submitted issues and getting things resolved. I also wrote that the challenge going forward would be to continue authentic engagement and thus keep the public interested in the service.

(While I believe there are several opportunities to improve the seeclickfix.com application itself, my focus here is about how the city is using the application. I will point out, however, there is a limitation in the application when it comes to viewing archived items, which made referring to specific examples in this piece infeasible.)

I think that if I were to have given the city a grade for the launch and initial response, that grade would’ve been a B+ or even an A-, as in “very good” to “exceptional.” After a year of using Engage Sandpoint and observing the city’s ongoing responses, I’d have to go with a C or C+, as in “adequate but in danger of failing.” Granted, issues are still getting resolved, but I’m referring to the general pattern of response and its implications for future public engagement.

Most service patterns are driven by some sort of management directive. The problem is that, much like our “interesting” block of Pine Street between 4th and 5th, the downstream effects of a directive aren’t always foreseen.

A side trip here:

A while ago I was director of engineering at a software company in Seattle. Our teams (design, engineering, QA) were really struggling with delivering projects on time. Those of us on the ground felt the problem was a combination of unrealistic scope and duration, but upper management felt it was a motivation problem. Their solution was to launch an employee bonus program tied to projects getting delivered on time. The bonus program proved highly effective in that projects were suddenly getting finished by their deadlines. The “completed” projects, however, while they contained the full scope of features required, were buggy and failed constantly. In systems-speak, “the employees had optimized their effort to maximize their bonuses.”

I bring the story up because, “Your request has been closed. Thank you for using Engage Sandpoint,” is, in my opinion, getting stamped on issues all too frequently without any resolution being provided. When people take the time to report an issue, I think it’s fair to say they have an expectation to be informed as to how the city addresses their issue. In the technology sphere, closing an issue in a tracking system without providing a resolution is simply not allowed, period.

I suspect someone in the city administration determined that a perpetually nearly empty “open” queue was a good indicator of success. It’s a legitimate metric, true, but if that closure leaves the public in the dark about what was actually done —  or worse, if the closure was stamped without any actual resolution just to clear the issue out of the queue, that action is defeating the fundamental purpose of the service, which is, really, collaboration and communication between the city and the citizenry.

On other issues (for example, the garage sale signs at Cedar and Boyer), the issue was reported a year ago, closed prematurely, then re-opened, then closed again with a vague statement about the city finding a good solution. A year on, the issue hasn’t been resolved (only “closed”) and the city has been mum about any action. Some current issues, like the abandoned furniture between Church and Oak (https://seeclickfix.com/issues/6009446), are getting re-opened because the solution the city described doesn’t appear to have been implemented.

Keeping an issue open while several status updates are provided by the city until the issue is addressed and resolved, then closing the issue, is a far more logical and productive methodology.

Finally, if the city is honestly interested in their citizens staying engaged with this service, I think some form of moderator is going to be needed at some point to keep the conversations civil and constructive. The trolling “go back to where you came from if you don’t like it” response to an issue is hardly helpful, and for a lot of people, a comment like that will mean they won’t ever report an issue again. While the trolls will be perfectly happy with that result, to have reporting drop off or even stop, I can’t imagine the city is of the same opinion.

Engage Sandpoint is a powerful tool, and we’ve seen some positive results since its launch. I think there’s a lot more good that can come from keeping this tool useful and relevant. It’s worth the effort for the city to truly engage with its citizens and keep us informed.

David Phillips is a technology consultant/photographer/filmmaker who arrived in Sandpoint from Colorado by way of Seattle and points further west.

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