An article of mine originally published in the March 2017 edition Kansas Government Journal.
In today’s digital age, residents expect city services and information to be instantly and always available online. As elected leaders and public managers, we need to keep up with today’s technology and offer these services to residents. There are many ways your organization can utilize online services to better inform residents and improve efficiencies within your organization.
Manage Citizen Engagement
Many cities are using digital services for residents to ask questions online, find department contact information and report problems using an app or website. Using a centralized system for citizen engagement and reporting can also serve as a tool for cities to manage requests, delegate issues to the appropriate staff and monitor progress. Services like Comcate (www.comcate.com) or SeeClickFix (www.seeclickfix.com) are already being used by many cities in the state, including Kansas City, Shawnee, Olathe, Topeka, and Wichita. Services like these often utilize smartphone apps allowing citizens to take pictures or send GPS coordinates if necessary.
Create a Conversation
Whether you want to know how your residents feel about construction or just gather constructive feedback, there are several options for cities to engage residents and get credible, data-driven answers to civic questions. Citizen engagement apps can be used by city planners, administration, parks and recreation, transit, economic development and city leaders in a variety of ways. Many of these platforms can be integrated with e-mail and social media systems to promote your engagement efforts easily.
- MySidewalk (www.app.mysidewalk.com) is an engagement platform which allows the community to respond to questions and can be customized based on the data and feedback desired.
- Nextdoor (www.nextdoor.com/about_us) is a private social network to connect neighborhoods. A verification process is used for registered users and neighborhoods can be defined as you see fit. Nextdoor works to connect communities and share information which helps build stronger neighborhoods.
- Bang the Table (www.bangthetable.com/) combines many features to help cities dive into questions and topics with mapping capabilities, a collective idea board, polls, surveys and online forums.
- Peak Democracy (www.peakdemocracy.co/) is a cloud-based online citizen engagement platform built to increase citizen participation and build public trust in government. Their platform offers many of the tools you find in other online engagement systems as well as a mediation/monitoring component to keep conversations civil.
- Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com/) is perhaps the most well-known online survey tool and is used by many cities to gather data to make decisions.
Make Your City Easy to Navigate
Is your city up to date on Google Maps? Google Maps is one of the main places people get information about your city. Making sure your city’s bike lanes, sidewalks, trails, streets, and bus routes are accurate on Google Maps is important for visitors and residents alike. Aside from transportation, it’s also important to make sure information like operating hours and phone numbers are accurate for your facilities including City Hall, the library and recreation centers. Getting up-to-date on Google Maps is simple, just head over to www.mapmaker.google.com.
Create a City Newsletter or E-Mail List
Today, it is easier than ever to create an online newsletter or e-mail list for residents to receive information about city programs, services or events. There are many options available but MailChimp (www.mailchimp.com) and Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com) are perennial favorites which offer easy set up for even the smallest organizations.
Mass Notification Systems
Notification systems are critical communication tools during severe weather or emergency situations. However, these systems can also be used to engage the community and send out information on traffic alerts, road closures and general community information. Check with your county emergency management office to see if a system is already in use or check out on of these options:
- Everbridge/Nixle (www.everbridge.com) offers government entities a way to notify people affected by an incident based on location. Notifications can be delivered to people who opt-in to the system via e-mail, SMS text and voice calling.
- Civic Plus’ CivicReady (www.civicplus.com) system offers a mass notification system within their integrated technology platforms for local government with location-based communication tools delivered in text, e-mail and phone messages.
Improve Office Communication
Email isn’t the only way to communicate. Many organizations use online messaging services like Slack (www.slack.com) to handle internal communication. Trello (www.trello.com) is an online project management system that allows teams to upload files, photos and track progress of a project. If your organization has an Office 365 subscription, you may already have access to Microsoft’s messaging service, Teams (teams.microsoft.com), as part of your subscription. Instead of keeping track of email threads these services let you set up searchable group chats for different departments and projects. Staff can even upload files, share images and comment on posts. There’s even a ‘like’ button to cut down on ‘I acknowledge this’ type emails. Most of these services, like Slack, offer free versions to test out or for small organizations. Why not give it a go?
Better Utilize Social Media
Social media has great potential as a community engagement and customer service tool. We’ve all heard this before but few cities use social media to the fullest. Posting good content often and addressing concerns is key. Staff assigned to manage social media should be trained in customer service and your city should have a process in place for social media inquiries and requests to be handed off to the proper department or staff people.
Social media can be an important way to push out updates about city services but these messages aren’t always the best posts to build engagement. People love to read and share stories containing familiar information (i.e. their neighborhood or friends). Look for stories to share which connect people to your city services. For example, sharing photos of your city’s police officers stopping at a kid’s lemonade stand or a librarian helping someone find a job are heartfelt ways to engage with your residents. A great model of this type of engagement is the Facebook page for Fort Collins Police Services in Colorado (www.facebook.com/fortcollinspoliceservices). Fort Collins has seen posts go viral, mostly including adorable pictures of the K-9 unit. By driving ‘likes’ through fun, cute and heartwarming posts, Fort Collins has been able to build a robust audience for when they need to get the word out about emergencies or pressing issues, as well as build rapport with the community.
Illustrate Your Point
People respond to visual communication which is why infographics have become increasingly popular. Infographics are poster-like images that use charts, diagrams and illustrations to tell a story. Infographics can be used to communicate just about anything - from budget information to police call statistics. Wichita published a great example outlining their annual budget (goo.gl/52Ha2O). Online services have made it easy for anyone to make an effective infographic. Sites like Piktochart (www.piktochart.com) or Venngage (www.venngage.com) offer free and paid plans which allow you to easily make infographics to embed in your website or print out as publications or posters.