Even local governments highly committed to resident participation can find it difficult to identify the engagement activities that meet the needs of most of their residents. With busy work and home schedules, residents often have little time for meetings, and some prefer to have electronic information pushed out to them rather than having to seek it out.
Results from ICMA’s 2011 E-democracy/ E-participation survey showed some interesting electronic approaches that local governments are using to meet the needs of their constituents.
Transparency is important in increasing trust in government. One of the impressive steps that the city of Southlake, Texas (population 26,575), took in releasing the results of its resident surveys is to post all of the comments online, including critical comments.
By doing so, the city makes clear to residents that the council and staff are aware of the issues that have been identified and will be accountable for addressing them. As City Manager Shana Yelverton explains, “It seemed only natural to post the comments; they are part of the survey responses.”
The staff is careful not to let one or two negative comments detract from an overall positive score because they are not reflective of the community. In one case, staff called one resident who had a customer service complaint and had provided a phone number within the survey. The phone call resulted in some in-service training for staff and reestablished the commitment between staff and the resident.
Because the survey is online, city staff was attentive to accessibility from the outset. Alison Ortowski, assistant to the city manager, described the outreach that city staff extended at both the senior center and the library to make sure users had a positive experience.
In addition, a question was included about the respondent’s type of Internet access. Ninety percent reported a high-speed connection. The city needed 450 participants for statistical validity, and 805 were received. The results were geo-coded to help the city better understand the concerns of a particular neighborhood.
Seeking input for a neighborhood forum program. Another example of a partnership that the city has with its residents is the Southlake Program for the Involvement of Neighborhoods (SPIN). SPIN is an effort to facilitate communication back and forth between neighborhoods and city staff and between residents (see Figure 1).
Beginning in 1993, a proliferation of neighborhood groups began seeking information on development projects. So the council passed an ordinance to put SPIN in place. SPIN’s volunteer representatives host forums and attend regular meetings to discuss issues important to the neighborhoods such as requests for zoning exceptions and modifications to existing structures.
Reports on each SPIN meeting are posted online with details about the proposed changes, detailed plans, and other supporting documents provided for anyone who is interested (see Figure 2). SPIN representatives learn about and in turn help neighbors understand how the city operates. In the years since SPIN’s inception, these representatives have become extremely knowledgeable about the city’s development process. In some instances, a SPIN representative is able to schedule a meeting with a developer and collect neighborhood input before the issue comes before the council.
Recently, Southlake was faced with the highly contentious issue of gas drilling. Once again, the city used technology to give residents the ability to submit questions online. Those questions were then given to either the city attorney or the city council for review before the meeting. For more than two hours, the questions were answered one by one.
The outcome? Several months later, one site was approved with strict conditions, and the other was denied. In the end, due to a drop in gas prices, the gas companies withdrew their application for the approved site, which has not been used; there is currently no drilling within city limits. The good work of the SPIN representatives facilitated an informative meeting with detailed information and minimal contention.
Using social media for outreach. In another example of a technology partnership between the city and residents, the city is also using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, an automated phone and e-mail system, and cable TV to connect with residents.
Launching a digital newsletter. In 2010, the city launched a digital newsletter called MySouthlakeNews.com in order to provide news-now information on projects and city events.
“These are just some of the examples of how we use our resources to keep residents informed,” says Yelverton. “We’ve worked hard to create several different platforms so that residents can engage.”
With two electronic initiatives, Kansas City, Missouri (population of 459,787), has demonstrated its commitment to resident participation. Two online initiatives developed by the city planning and development department and the city communications department offer enhanced opportunities for solution-oriented discussions.
Hosting an online town hall for development plans. Designed as an electronic town hall, the “Plan Kansas City” Web site is interactive and fun to use. Each geographic area that has a plan in development is highlighted. By clicking on the highlighted area (see Figure 3), residents can submit their ideas for the plan.
Rewards are available for those who contribute the most practical ideas and comments. Ideas range from malls and mixed-use development to storm shelters, sidewalks, and more affordable housing.
The “back end” of the Web site shows participation by zip code, so not only can city staff see whether the people who live in the neighborhood are the ones responding; they can see by zip codes the distribution of responses within the neighborhood. This enables city staff to identify a zip code that shows a low level of input and reach out to those residents. The tool also allows staff to see where a particular concern is concentrated.
Soliciting community ideas. KCMOomentum is an online initiative that solicits comment and ideas from the community about new or existing programs. City staff invited neighborhood residents to see the online tool and learn how to use it. Dennis Gagnon, director of communications, explains that some residents made it clear that they preferred in-person meetings to online communication. In response, the city offers in-person meetings as well as online discussions.
The city recently posted this question: “What kind of information on the city’s website would benefit start-up businesses?” Several people responded with specific suggestions and others seconded those suggestions.
In addition, there’s an option to “improve this idea,” so that people can build on each other’s suggestions. Staff were surprised that not many people responded to a question about small business needs, but lots of discussion was generated about broader zoning issues (see Figure 4).
Everyone who uses the online tools must register. When a new topic is introduced, a blast e-mail is sent to everyone who has registered. Although it has not been able to include interest areas in the registration process, the city has been able to work with groups that targeted e-mail lists, including the parks and recreation department and the chamber of commerce, to publicize new topics of interest to those audiences.
The bottom line, explains Gagnon, is that KCMOmentum and Plan Kansas City are social media tools and must be treated as such, and he says, “It’s important to monitor and participate in the conversation.” This was reinforced when city staff solicited ideas about one topic and found that people were asking for things the city was already doing.
The Electronic Government 2011 survey, also referred to as the E-participation/E-democracy survey, was mailed to all city-type governments with a population of 2,500 or greater and to all county governments that have either elected executives or appointed managers. An online option was also provided. The survey response is 28 percent. The survey is in collaboration with Dr. Donald F. Norris, Dr. Christopher Reddick, and ICMA. The data are proprietary.
Staff jumped into the conversation and pointed out that the services already existed. Staff also learned that they needed to do a better job of publicizing them.
As online engagement increases, local government staff are aware that there is no one perfect method of engagement. People like to receive information and participate in different ways, and it’s the role of local government to offer opportunities that will appeal to a broad range of community members.
As stewards of representative democracy, local government staff members are reaching out to community members in new and different ways while maintaining approaches that have proved successful over time.