As co-founder of community engagement software, PublicInput.com, Graham Stone believes that equity is at the root of the success of any community, and to achieve that, those in power must listen obsessively to the people they serve.”
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Stone: Graham Stone
Jensen: Welcome back to The Movement podcast. We have Graham Stone of PublicInput.com who believes that listening obsessively is key to meeting the needs of the communities we serve. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Jensen: Graham Stone is one of the founders of Public Input, a software company that provides community engagement tools to government agencies. Their mission, make state and local governments more responsive to the needs of people. Welcome to The Movement podcast, Graham.
Stone: Thank you so much. I’m super excited to be here.
Jensen: Well, we’re excited to have you. So Public Input is right here in Raleigh. They’re one of our neighbors, so this is exciting to have someone local on the show. But I guess let’s start off. Can you just tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and how Public Input came to be?
Stone: The public engagement/community engagement aspect of the work that we do really became clear during an earlier part of my career while I worked in planning and civil engineering for a regional consulting firm here in Raleigh. I was actually sort of a planning assistant when I first came on board there working for the planning department as they did sort of regional plans for transportation but also, you know, zoning, housing-related work, unified development ordinances, these types of plans that really nobody in their everyday lives has any idea—right—of the impact that they have. And those plans as it turns out kind of guide everybody’s lives. You know, access to grocery stores for instance and the resolution of food deserts, to, you know, what you can add on to your house and how close to the property line you can build; I mean, these things are—I mean, they’re tremendously impactful.
And so a part of my work—I moved into sort of a marketing role there—was to help broadcast these. They figured, “You know, he’s a marketing guy. He can help advertise these opportunities to participate.” The really exciting part was when I met the other cofounder of PublicInput.com, Jay Dawkins, who was himself a transportation engineer at the time tasked with very similar types of work but actually the one who did the planning, the drawing, the engineering, who sat in the car and did the traffic counts, you know, as people drove through intersections. And the two of us did exactly what I think everybody imagines when a company is born. We had lunch one day. Jay pulled out a napkin, and he said, “Hey, yeah. This sounds really neat. I’ve had something kind of brewing in the back of my head.” And he sort of drew up this terrible idea for a worthless phone app. And I said, “That sounds great. I’m in. Let’s do this.” And the rest is history. Right? [LAUGHTER]
Jensen: Yeah, that’s a good story. So I think, like, just right off the bat what I’m hearing is you dabbled in all of these things that really they were interconnected, one thing affected the next. And we talk a lot about breaking down silos on The Movement, so I thought that was interesting, but also in the same way that’s kind of the story of Public Input. If you look at, like, the about section on your website, you guys are a team of planners, engineers, communicators, geeks, and artists. So you really right off the bat get the sense that it is a collaborative effort to make spaces better.
Stone: Yeah. Well, and—[LAUGHS]—I’m a fan of the podcast. And it was funny; you had a recent guest, David Fields from the City of Houston, who I think the title of that one was something about, like, avoiding letting a consultant—right—tell you what you need.
Jensen: Yeah, “Never Let a Consultant Tell Your Community Its Goals.”
Stone: Yeah. Yeah, that was it. And, you know, I laughed—right—having been with a consulting firm. But I also think it speaks to exactly what you said. If you let a group of planners and engineers build your public involvement, community engagement software solution, you may have a pretty narrow focus on what that means. So we make a really specific effort to bring as many different types of voices to our team—right—as we would hope to be able to bring to the conversation at these different communities during their engagement efforts.
Jensen: Let’s talk a little bit more then about that community engagement. So, again, we talk about equitable community engagement both here on The Movement podcast and elsewhere a lot. There’s an increasing focus on it. So how does the work you are doing fit into that and ideally address the inequitable allocation of resources throughout our communities?
Stone: You definitely hit on a buzzword and rightly so. I don’t think there’s a bigger issue right now to be tackled, at least within this country. Equity is at the root of the success of any community. If you are looking at where a highway runs, where a bus route picks up or drops off, the frequency and the coverage of the area that transit provides, those are all driven by the need to serve equitably. And so historically we’ve seen that inequitable allocation of resources, like you said, because of, you know, a number of things. I’ll go ahead and say it; you know, systemic racism is something that we have to tackle, and it causes negative externalities whether we intend that to be the case or not.
People in minority communities, low-English-proficiency communities, low-income—so we call these environmental justice communities. Right? So generally a term to define a group of people who are disproportionately impacted by the costs of a project relative to the benefits that they will receive. How’s that for some academia?
Stone: And I should probably back up.
Jensen: And that’s a different definition of environmental justice than I know, so it’s always nice to learn something.
Stone: Right. Well, happy to help. You know, the funny thing is the federal government actually has some pretty specific mandates around environmental justice in the National Environmental Policy Act, which many of the listeners may be familiar with, and how it defines the need for engagement in these communities before any federal dollars can be appropriated to an infrastructure project. This is a very contentious thing, not only because we can do better and include more people in Title VI and be better at involving environmental justice communities, but because it—on the other side of the coin, I mean, it adds just an enormous amount of time, money, energy, effort to the project development process.
You know, you look at the long-range plans that a lot of departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organization undertake, you know, the average page length of what we call an environmental assessment, I think, is 500. And the average timeframe to complete is four years. Right? And, of course, that means average. Some take longer. So we can do better with regards to our efficiency while not sacrificing the equity and the efforts that we make to bring a diverse community into the conversation. So kind of get back to the question you asked. Right? How does the work we’re doing fit into this? You know, software can really help when you talk about efficiencies, but what we really try to focus on first is providing the tools to planners, to engineers, to people who did not go to school, did not hang their hat on a career based on how to market and advertise these really truthfully boring, oftentimes public-involvement efforts to the community.
You know, we’re competing for the airwaves with Facebook and TikTok, and these are media groups who have done nothing but focus on getting attention, and then we’ve got to try to break through that to bring attention to what is very important work. So we try to provide the tools to give planners and engineers and communicators in public involvement an ability to reach a broad audience, targeting these communities through local media ads, through social media ads, through being able to place signage for QR codes and text message short codes to take surveys or submit comments or even just sign up, place those signs at gas stations and at parks and in corridors and maybe in the community centers of these harder-to-reach populations.
It’s all about making sure we are going to where they are and reaching out in the format that they are most likely to see us within. And then, on the back end of that, we try to create efficiencies through the way that all this data—because that’s what it really becomes, is an immense amount of data. Sometimes we see tens of thousands of comments come back on a specific initiative when it really hits home and we do a good job, and so we have to then provide the tools to make sense of it all.
Jensen: So something you touched on that was interesting to me was you spoke about the government is really in competition in many ways with these media companies to get attention. So what public input does is it does two things. One, it helps the voices of people whose voices wouldn’t ordinarily be heard, gives them some input, direct input into the political process. But also in many ways it also gives the government more access and equity as well, and that’s not something that I’ve really thought about, that the government is competing with corporations for access to people.
Stone: Mm-hmm. It’s a really, you know, sometimes insurmountable task that local governments, transit agencies, MPOs, RPOs, TPOs, COGs, DOTs—you name it. Right? I love a good alphabet soup. And they are all tasked with trying to get this awareness campaign out there so that they can achieve equity in the solutions that they fund. So, I think, you put it really well. This is not just about giving residents, citizens, the general population an equitable solution but giving—yeah—the government agencies who are working hard—I give them a lot of credit. You know, there are always some that are just checking boxes, but by and large the agencies we work with are incredibly ambitious, and they just don’t have the resources to do it. So that’s really where we try to plug in and help.
Jensen: One of your clients is King County, Washington. There you guys helped collect 475,000 responses from 25,000 participants. Can you tell us a little bit about that partnership, perhaps some of the difficulties that presented themselves along the way, and ultimately what Public Input helped them achieve? And also I think I want to dig into a little bit too what we mean when we say 475,000 responses. Can you break that down for us?
Stone: Yeah, absolutely. And that is a—it’s an exciting number, but it is—when you look at it, it’s more of, like, sort of an industry metric. Imagine 25,000 people responding to a 10-question survey. Right? And then you still don’t get quite 475,000 responses. So what it tells us is that of these 25,000 people, they are very involved. It’s hard for me to take the time to answer a two-question survey that YouTube throws up in order for me to access the video I want to watch.
Stone: I skip through that. And it’s like this is—it literally takes five seconds. So we have a challenge with attention spans, coming back to, you know, the competition for bandwidth. But, yeah, the 475,000 out of the 25,000 means that these are people who do take the time. They are thoughtful, and they are responding more than just, you know, singularly. They are reengaging time and again. And, you know, that really is the measure of engagement that we like to push. You know, we talk about representative audiences as far as equity and knowing who we’ve heard from and making sure that it looks like the community, and that’s really—you know, you talk about King County being a thought leader. I’ve to Seattle several times. My wife was born in Seattle, and I think that many of the listeners know it’s an incredibly diverse area.
There are dozens of languages spoken fluently throughout the community, whether it’s Mandarin, whether it’s Spanish, whether it’s Vietnamese. You know, these are people who have come and made a life in the United States, and we—right—and the country that we are have to make sure we accommodate the language they speak. And King County is incredibly good at ensuring that. You know, talk about, like, difficulties; I’ll get back to that one because it is difficult. But there’s some really exciting enthusiasm I think I mentioned. You know, the large majority of the agencies we work with are excited to do this work, and they really know it makes a difference. And it comes back to how.
So King County and King County Metro within the county are two—I would call them almost mentors of ours. The term you used, partnership, is probably giving us a little bit more credit than we deserve. They have taken such a forward-thinking approach to engaging across language barriers and engaging through accessible formats. And that means, you know, visually impaired people cannot take the online survey that you might be accustomed to seeing, you know, in your browser pop-up. Right? We have to be able to get to visually impaired or hearing impaired and those populations who, of course, like, can’t speak English or Spanish—right—two languages that are pretty common. King County has pushed our software development to be far more robust in language translation, not just Google Translate but way beyond it, to actually reflect the nuances of some of these languages.
And, I think, that we as a software built purposefully for government, we knew that by listening obsessively to these governments—and that’s actually one of our core values in looking for people to come onto the team. Right? “Is this something that you do inherently by nature? Are you a listener?” And then learning with those governments so that we can share that with other public agencies. So essentially we’re evolving to meet their needs, which are of course ever evolving, and ultimately it helps the entire ecosystem. So, long story short, I commend the King County, Washington folks and their efforts and their work with us because they truly are a mentor in this regard.
Jensen: That’s amazing. You’re helping governments engage with their communities. It didn’t even occur to me that you have to take into account not just people who don’t, like, ordinarily come to city council meetings or transportation board meetings but, like, people who are unable to engage in other ways, so, for example people who are visually impaired. And you’ve got to make your software be able to talk with them as well. So that’s really impressive to me.
Stone: Well, thanks. Yeah. And, you know, you mentioned city council meetings and the people who come to those. I—okay, I’m a nerd, and I’m dying for the day when I can return to council chambers and show up to a policy planning commission and—[LAUGHTER] But not—all right. Maybe I’m not representative of most people. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. We have to talk about a pandemic. Right? You know, one and, I think, a good example of some of the ways that the partnerships that we have with these organizations guides us is actually virtual public meetings. So in April—March we saw the writing on the wall. In April we all picked our heads up off the floor and reacted. And, you know, several of our agency customers said, “Hey, we’ve been using your technology for sign-in screens at meetings and the ability to have some live polls at those meetings, but, you know, we’re not allowed to meet in person. We have to by law have meetings for our projects or just general council business to continue. What do you got?”
And, you know, at first we sheepishly said, “Nothing.” But that’s not acceptable. And so we put our heads down, and there was within a couple of weeks a prototype from our product team that allowed for a fully-remote, city council or planning commission or whatever project team to connect over Zoom, or Webex, or Teams, or Google Meets and then project that meeting to the public through both an online portal so you don’t need to download Zoom to show up to these meetings—they can just show up to the website, you know, like a good public meeting. Right? Just drop in—but also be able to participate in those meetings. And that was the hard part because if you just broadcast through YouTube your meeting, well, that’s great. But there are public participation components to each of these meetings, and so we had to figure out how to jump phone lines in to basically patch people through to call in and speak into the meeting and offer testimony. We needed to figure out how to transcribe those comments for the meeting minutes. We needed to figure out how to leave voicemail comments that would then be added in. And all of this—right—came from our agency partners telling us, “There is a problem here. We don’t know how to solve it,” and, I mean, virtual public meetings have become probably one of the greatest benefits of that listening effort that we put forward with our clients.
This is now a—it’s not going away. You know, I was sitting in on a panel discussion that I was really appreciative to join for the National Freedom of Information Coalition a couple weeks ago. And they were asking the question of myself and some others, you know, “Are these virtual meetings here to stay,” and unanimously we said, “Yes. It’s now an expectation of the public because it’s so much more accessible.” They don’t have to find transit to get to the city council meeting. You know, that was—I mean, if you talk about, like, a primary barrier, people not—you know, not only a second job or homework with the kids but an ability to get there. We can now do these from our phones, from our laptops; we can do it from a landline and call in and listen. And that’s equity. Right? So I’m glad you mentioned city council meetings. Sorry for the tangent, but it’s an exciting opportunity to keep listening and keep growing.
Jensen: Absolutely. And we like tangents; they always take the conversation interesting places. And I actually wanted to touch on something else that you said, that perhaps you enjoying going to city council meetings. But that’s why conversations like this and conversations surrounding equitable community engagement are so important. Right? Because what happens is the people who do want to go to city council meetings, who can go, who don’t have as many barriers, they’re the ones whose opinions and needs get heard.
Jensen: And so we have to really, really try hard to bring as many different opinions and voices and experiences into these places as possible, so.
Stone: And you hit it on the head. Right? It’s the, you know, the opportunity to participate does not guarantee an equitable outcome. We know that people of minority communities, of limited English proficiency, of low-income families have different lifestyles that prevent them from participating in the more traditional fashion.
Stone: And I am very lucky to be sitting here in front of a laptop with a broadband signal. That’s a fortunate place to be. And it is up to us who have that to ensure that there are ways outside of that to be a part of this process and that we don’t just build them but advertise them and promote them and market them, because my favorite movie with the great Kevin Costner—right? If you build it they definitely won’t necessarily come. You have to bring this to these communities and make it easier for them.
Jensen: You’re now in 35 states across the U.S. You’ve worked with leaders from all sorts of public agencies from transit and housing to disaster relief. Who is doing it best, and how are they doing it, and what did you learn from them?
Stone: [LAUGHS] I love this question.
Jensen: Good. [LAUGHS]
Stone: It is good. I say fairly often, we at Public Input are in a really, I think, valuable—I’ll put it this way. I think we have a lot of responsibility in the position that we are in because we get access to the inner workings of so many different local governments, so many different transit agencies, so many different regional planning organizations, departments of transportation. And it’s our responsibility to take note of all those best practices and not only build software on them but share them with other agencies across the country. And so, I think, naming names is tough because there are some folks who are doing it very, very well, and there are some agencies who are just checking boxes and not because they don’t want to be doing better maybe but because, again, it comes back to resources. But I think that there’s a couple common denominators to those who are doing it best.
Equity, again, the word of the decade, I think, in where we are with this process, those who understand that equity is not going to happen on its own. If you just put a survey out there online, it is not going to—that is going to give you a biased result because there are people who are tuned in, like myself, people who have the time and the bandwidth. Collaboration and data management, I think, are the two other common denominators those who are doing it very well encompass. There is so much opportunity for government agencies to work together. And, you know, I’ll actually take it back to the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA. NEPA was famously, I think at this point in the industry, revised. Back in September, the new NEPA was published. So this isn’t something that is, like, you know, specific to this administration. Administrations for decades have said, “This is a very long and arduous process. What can we do to make it better?”
The new NEPA places a very sort of stern emphasis on collaborating across agency lines to share information and reduce duplicated efforts. That means that we have to be better at managing data. Right? If you look at a public agency—so we’ll go back to King County—who is simply engaging the community on a project-by-project basis and saying, “Okay. Well, we got our Title VI report together. We submitted our NEPA report. They gave it the sign-off. Put it in the project report. Stick it on the shelf. And, you know, go forth.” And then the next project starts, and they do it over again. You know, I feel like some sort of televangelist some days talking about data management and the importance of buying into that as a culture. Those communities, those agencies who are storing this information in a place that can build on all of the different initiatives across the different departments, whether it’s transit, to parks, to neighborhoods, and housing, you know, each one of these departments within any kind of a government agency hits on a different part of the community, people who have different priorities.
And so by looking at it holistically and storing it in a place that you can share with your peers not just across departmental lines or within those consulting firms that do a lot of this work but across peer agency lines. You know, from a DOT, down to the MPO, down to the transit agency and the local government that are all doing this similar work together, that’s where those who are doing it best are putting their time and their effort. So we’re learning from them where does this synergy take place, where can data sharing offer opportunities for better understanding. And then when you have that better understanding you can know who you’ve heard from, who you haven’t heard from, who your peers have heard from and who have they haven’t heard from. And you can all fill in those gaps in diversity together. Right? That’s how we as a community make sure that we’ve heard from all of the people that we’re representing.
Jensen: That’s powerful. It’s like a kumbaya.
Stone: I feel—I’m going to go with that. Rather than a televangelist, I’m going to go with a camp-councilor kumbaya. Yeah, I like that. [LAUGHTER]
Jensen: Well, Graham. You know, before we got on air you told me that you could talk about equity and access for days. So if you have anything else to add now is your chance.
Stone: [LAUGHS] Well, at the risk of following through—right? [LAUGHTER]
Jensen: That’s okay.
Stone: No. I think, when you look at equity and access, you know, those are two separate terms, equity being a very intentional approach to doing the work that it takes to reach and engage and then reengage—right. This is about relationships, which if you’re in one, you know require conversation in two directions. If you’re not in one, it’s perhaps because you weren’t aware that they require conversation in two directions, and I’m here to help. But access—right—that’s about the tools that we provide for people to communicate with.
I looked at some Pew statistics, and I think many people know. Right? Ninety percent of the United States has access to broadband internet. And we can break it down by demographics, but by and large a pretty good chunk of Americans have the internet. Now, we’re not there. Let me say that point blank. Broadband access has to be a priority, has to be funded by the federal government, has to be implemented by the agencies who are currently focusing on transportation because the internet is the new transportation. You heard it here not first but certainly reiterated. Twenty-seven percent of adults over 65 don’t use the internet. So it’s not about having the internet, it’s about not using the internet, and so accessibility goes back to understanding how people prefer to communicate or how people are comfortable communicating and making sure that we serve them in a way that they can actually be a part of the conversation.
That can transcend. Right? The internet is one example, but using text messaging, using in-person meetings, using community centers where there’s social capital, I think this is the big topic of conversation, but getting the relationships with community leaders in these harder-to-reach areas—right—and saying, “Look. You have the trust of the people who look to you as a leader. Can you please be our megaphone? Can you please help us spread this message? Because it is the people that you work for who we’re trying to reach and hear from.” So accessibility goes beyond, you know, screen readers and making sure that we’re there for visually impaired, although it does encompass it. So all that, again, to say this isn’t an easy job. There’s not a lot of—there’s no silver bullet. There’s not really a single answer to all of it other than to understand the problem as best we can so that we can try to tackle it.
Jensen: Great. Where can people learn more about you or Public Input?
Stone: Anybody is welcome to reach out to me directly. My email is simply Graham@PublicInput.com, and that is the best way to reach me directly. But, PublicInput.com, naturally. You can reach anybody else on our team through that site. We have a nice little chatbot that is—that’s real people, by the way. If you ever see those pop up on the websites that you go to. Those are actual people back there, so they are there to help. I would also point you towards our Twitter handle, @PublicInput. That is a place to go and find out where we are presenting, where some of our case studies are, some of our whitepapers and best-practices guides. It’s a big focus of ours to be a resource and not just a provider of software in this effort, because I think there’s so much work to be done in understanding the problem, and it’s important to be looking more deeply at the issues and sharing everything we know in addition to building solutions. So thanks again for that opportunity, L’erin.
Jensen: No problem. Thank you so much for joining us here on The Movement podcast.
Stone: Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to continuing to be a regular listener and seeing the guests that you continue to have on. I’ve learned something from every one of them.
Jensen: That’s good to hear. Well, until next time.
Stone: Until then; thanks, L’erin.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
Listening is key to successful leadership. Read more in this handy guide Leadership Upside Down.