Sandbox Environment

Open Proposal

Title of Your Proposal/Discussion


Welcome to the SmartParticipation sandbox. Here you can learn more about the structure and functionalities of the platform, get some advice from the designers (CeRI), and actually practice setting up a discussion yourself. To see the administrative interface and practice set-ups, log in with these credentials: Username admin Password admin. (Credentials for moderator and commenter roles are also available.) Documentation on how to use the platform can be found in the SmartParticipation Manual.

Use this Summary space to give site visitors a concise, plain-language summary of what's going on and why they should participate. Remember that many visitors who arrive at the Home page will need some orientation into the purpose of the discussion and the process of which it's a part. You can use the "Learn" sliders at the top of this page to provide more details. Insert an an eye-catching graphic that can be easily associated with the topic of the discussion, then use that same graphic in Facebook and other social media to spread the word about the discussion and invite participation.

The SmartParticipation platform is designed to allow more than one phase of public commenting (for example, on important questions pre-drafting, and then on the resulting draft). You'll probably want to change the summary text as you move through different phases. For updates during a phase, use the Announcement function.

Discussion Topics and Subtopics - 0

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1|Why the Topic & Subtopic structure matters--a lot - 0

SmartParticipation organizes content, first, into Topic posts and, second, into Subtopic sections within each post. Users participate by attaching comments to specific subtopics.

This structure has several advantages:

  1. From the list of Topic posts in the Topic Carousel, participants can orient themselves within the scope of the discussion, and make their way quickly to the issues that interest them most.
  2. Requiring that comments be targeted to a specific subtopic helps to focus participants' attention, increasing the likelihood that their comments will be responsive to the issues, questions, etc. presented in that subtopic.
  3. The result is comments organized by subject matter. This lets participants easily find other people's comments on a specific subject, and makes interactive discussion more likely. Once the commenting period is over, it helps the sponsoring organization summarize the content of the discussion.

Using this structure effectively requires careful attention to how you organize and divide up the content you want participants to engage with. In particular, you must avoid creating topics or subtopics that significantly overlap with one another.

Think about setting up a filing system for household expense documents. If you label one file folder "Major Repairs" and another folder "2016," where should someone file a July 2016 bill for replacing the transmission in the family car? Either file folder would be a reasonable choice.

This is the kind of choice you do not want to create for participants. Each topic and each of its component subtopics must be clear and distinctive. Of course there will often be connections and interrelationships among topics and subtopics -- especially in a complex proposal or difficult policy question. To deal with this, you can (and should) include links in one section that point participants to other, related sections. And if, despite your best efforts, you're worried that some participants may still be confused about where to discuss a specific issue, you might include language specifically directing them to another post. See an example from a discussion on RegulationRoom.


2|Information triage, signposting, and translation - 0

SmartParticipation was developed in live public commenting on proposed new federal agency regulations. The CeRI team quickly realized that it wouldn't work to just transfer the official text published by the government agency into a series of topic posts on the site. Here's why:

  • Length. The amount of text was usually much more than most people would read, especially online.
  • Organization. The organizational logic of the document often reflected legal or regulatory concepts that didn't mean much to ordinary people.
  • Repetitiveness. The text often contained repetition. For example, an issue might be discussed in the executive summary, a background section, the main analytical section, and then in the actual text of the proposed regulation. What might make sense in a multi-page document would, if transferred online, undermine the targeted commenting structure by creating multiple reasonable places for people to comment on a single issue. See the previous subtopic.
  • Readability. The vocabulary and syntax of the official text was often difficult to understand, sending a subtle signal that government didn't really want feedback from ordinary people.

Using just the language of the proposed new regulation solved some of these problems. But it created others. If people saw only the proposed legal text, they often couldn't tell what the new language would mean in operation, how it changed existing law, what facts or reasons justified the proposal, what alternatives were considered, etc.

The bottom line? If you are using the SmartParticipation platform because you want more informed and thoughtful public participation, you have to provide information in a form that people can, and will, read and understand. This means:

  1. Triage: Figure out what information is most important, and relevant, for your anticipated participants. That information has to be foregrounded in the topic post structure. (Don't worry about the rest being lost. You'll handle that through information layering.)
  2. Signposting. Create topics and subtopics that align with how anticipated participants are likely to describe and conceptualize the issues--not with the legal, regulatory, or other categories used by experts. You want titles that your participants will recognize and understand. Look again at the set of topic posts on this Sandbox, which were deliberately titled to be non-technical and immediately informative and to signal the area of the site most likely to contain answers to particular questions.
  3. Translation. Convert "officialese" into user friendly language. This means shorter, simpler sentences and less complex vocabulary. Avoid jargon where it isn't strictly necessary. Where it can't be avoided, use the Glossary functionality to give users mouse-over access to a plain-language definition.

Want to see an example? The Consumer Debt Collection Practices discussion on RegulationRoom presented an agency document that took up 34 Federal Register pages in 10 Topic posts. This was still a lot of content, especially for the online environment, but it was manageable enough chunks that consumers and small debt collectors could make over 1000 substantive comments. (By the way, the length of this subtopic is at the outer limit of desirable. Breaking up the text with bulleted or numbered list helps.)


3|Information layering - 0

Information layering is the technique of using links and other web functionality (like the hover-over Glossary) to embed information in the main text. Participants of different interests and abilities will want different kinds and amounts of information. Through layering, you can make large quantities of information accessible while keeping the main text manageable in length and complexity.

For participants who want more in-depth information, supply links to:

  • primary documents, such as the official agency proposal or the draft legal language. For more about this, see Helpful Documents.
  • supporting material, such as relevant studies or reports
  • documents from earlier phases of the process, such as interim reports and drafts
  • background material that helps participants understand the larger legal or regulatory context, explains more about the actors, etc.

For participants who need a little more help, use the Glossary to define acronyms, necessary jargon, core concepts used throughout the discussion, etc.

Information layering lets you put all the relevant information somewhere on the site -- while keeping the main text relatively shorter and simpler. Your goal is to allow participants to access information based on their individual needs and preferences, going deeper where they want, getting help when they need it, and not being overwhelmed by material they regard as confusing or superfluous. See an example with multiple layers on RegulationRoom.


4|Test Drive: Try adding a new subtopic - 0

To practice adding a new subtopic to this post, click Subtopic in the blue-tabbed menu above, then Add a new subtopic. For step-by-step instructions, see the SmartParticipation Manual.

Adding an entire Topic Post is a bit more complicated, but not much. See the SmartParticipation Manual.

Don't hesitate to try it out. The Sandbox has a 24-hours reset, so whatever you do is only temporary.


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