This article has been updated with some additional clarifications from Trustee Stephen Schnall. Additional or altered text is highlighted with italics.
The South Orange Board of Trustees has approved a resolution to “offer residents ‘Peak Democracy‘ software to better engage residents and stakeholders in South Orange.”
The resolution, passed on August 11, 2014, allows the township to proceed with the purchase of Peak Democracy Inc. software and services at a cost of slightly less than $5,000 per year for two years (pro-rated at $2.084 for 2014) with an option to extend for another two years at the same price.
The software should launch in mid-September concurrently with the launch of the new South Orange Village website.
Trustee Stephen Schnall, liaison to the Public Information and Marketing Committee, described Peak Democracy’s software and services as a public outreach vehicle that would allow the township to post information on important projects and topics and solicit feedback from residents. The software has sophisticated authentication protocols that disallow anonymity and virtually prohibit the use of false identities.
Peak Democracy also has the ability through “software and human eyes” to notice if someone tries to change the topic or to notice if the conversation has become uncivil.
Trustee Mark Rosner wanted to know how many signups by residents would constitute success. Schnall said that was a “fair question” but that no goals for usage had been set as yet; however, he said it would be incumbent upon the town and the committee to market Peak Democracy. Rosner replied, “We really need to have a goal.” Trustee Howard Levison noted that the committee had had a conversation about public outreach earlier in the day; reaching senior citizens was one particular concern. Schnall added that potential solutions including offering PCs and training at specific sites in town were being reviewed.
Schnall extolled the virtues of the software and the services of the provider, saying that Peak Democracy would not be used to “force feed” the public, but to “learn from them.” He said that Peak Democracy was an effort to “be transparent and increase public trust.”
Trustee Sheena Collum asked who would frame the questions and be responsible for responding to the public’s questions. She wanted to know “who then compiles the next set of information when a participant” asks a question.
Schnall, noting that Trustees would not be allowed to participate on the forums, said “we have to explain what you can expect … not everyone’s question will get an answer.” South Orange Village Counsel Steven Rother added, “But that’s not to say that responses wouldn’t prompt a reframing of the questions” as well as answers with additional information.
Schnall assured the Board that the committee was looking at “best practices” and that policies and procedures governing the program would be in place before launch.
In a followup email to The Village Green, Schnall wrote, “Also, Peak Democracy is a ‘Software as a Service, SAAS,’ thus does not require any South Orange technology infrastructure or maintenance. We expect to launch it concurrently with the new website launch, where it will have a clear icon button in order for users to access/use.”
Village President Alex Torpey put a broader view on the conversation: “It’s a bit of an experiment,” he said, and one that “can work out really well for us.” Torpey looked around at the nearly empty SOPAC theater. “The number of people here tonight is not representative of the people who are interested.”
The vote to pass the resolution, which was part of the consent agenda, was unanimous.