Making Public Service Work From Home

A big idea and a little determination can change communities for the better.

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Sometimes you don't have to venture much farther than your front porch to make a difference. Just ask Michael Wood-Lewis. As new residents of Burlington, Vt., Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, were having trouble feeling at home. The occasional wave to a passing neighbor or the guy walking his German shepherd past the house didn't constitute the kind of community the Wood-Lewises were looking for when they moved from Washington, D.C., in 1998.

So Wood-Lewis created an online neighborhood newsletter. He spread the word by passing out fliers that encouraged residents to write in about topics of concern or interest to the 400-household neighborhood. Then in 2006, encouraged by the success of the interactive newsletter, and seeking a way for other neighborhoods to participate, he launched Front Porch Forum, a Web site where folks can log on to a site designed for their particular neighborhood and discuss everything from road repairs to the school budget.

Wood-Lewis, who has an MBA, has since turned his idea into a for-profit business, serving 40 Vermont towns. While developing his site, he worked full time as an executive director of a trade organization. You don't need to be Web-savvy to create a service like his, he says. He started by using free online tools, similar to a Google group or a blog that allows for comments and forums.

Once Front Porch Forum launched, Wood-Lewis became its CEO and took it on as a full-time job. But he insists that the goal hasn't changed. Front Porch Forum sells ads and subscriptions to local businesses, municipalities, and institutions to fund itself. But residents register for free. City council members, school board members, and public works officials also subscribe—to find out what their constituents are talking about and to get a sense of the kind of help they might provide. And citizens can get their complaints heard.

"We were looking for a service that would draw people out of their digital, hurried lives and get them interested in what was going on in their street," Wood-Lewis says of turning his idea into a viable service. He was determined to keep the community website free and accessible, a safe place where people could introduce themselves to their neighbors and at the same time were encouraged to meet face-to-face. On Front Porch Forum, individuals log on to the site, pick their neighborhood from the list, and provide full names and addresses so that no post is anonymous. This helps to keep the conversation open and honest, as well as neighborly.

Wood-Lewis hasn't exactly started a revolution, but experts say he has become part of a movement of people finding custom ways to build a community. "We've come out of a period of pretty steep declines in the traditional forms of engagement, and we are also in a period of a lot of experimentation and innovation," says Peter Levine, research director of Tufts University's Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Levine says that while people may still belong to a traditional membership group, meeting attendance has been declining since 1975 and people are less inclined to meet and interact with other members one-on-one.

Wood-Lewis's own experiment appears to be working. He applied for the 2010 Knight News Challenge grant, which rewards "innovative ideas that develop platforms, tools and services to inform and transform community news, conversations and information distribution and visualization." Wood-Lewis got $220,000 to expand Front Porch Forum to almost all Vermont towns over the next year. Front Porch Forum now has four employees, or "expert community managers for neighborhoods," to monitor and maintain the sites.

Of course, some forms of civic engagement might require you to roll up your sleeves and get your hands off the keyboard and into the dirt. Linda D'Avirro and other members of her San Francisco community had grown weary, and wary, of a dilapidated playground in a nearby park. D'Avirro had lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years and had never seen a time when children or families were able to use the playground. Year after year, the grass would grow taller around the rotting wooden swing set, and the bushes had become unruly. "It was just scary, creepy, and no one would go over there," says D'Avirro, who at the time worked in hotel sales.