MML#3 – Cities and Civic Tech, How Local Governments Serve Residents Online
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 18, 2016)
Mackinaw Island, MI – Cities vary on how much effort they put into their websites, apps, social media, and online presence. Yet clearly the internet is important to residents and those wishing to do business. How can civic leaders get past their online fears and thrive on the web? This was the question asked by Scott TenBrink’s presentation “Confessions of a Civic Engagement Luddite,” which was part of the Michigan Municipal League’s Convention on Sept. 14. TenBrink is Community Project Manager of Citizen Interaction Design at the University of Michigan and his work focuses on how to help residents be more informed and engaged in their communities.
“Luddites” are those opposed to advances in technology, whether they be out of intimidation or simple resistance to change. The term comes from a revolt in the 19th century over mill workers losing their jobs to machines. The mill workers resisted the changes in fear of losing their jobs, so they destroyed the machines that made their work easier.
Apart from a few shining examples, many cities, townships and villages are stuck in the past. They either maintain minimal online presences or they get sucked into sales pitches for digital services they do not fully understand or properly use.
“I’ve worked with cities that get a new website. Someone comes in and shows pretty pictures, and sets it up, but it doesn’t meet community needs,” TenBrink said. While he shared many options for online community engagement, he stressed that the focus should be first on creating an overall communication plan and knowing the purpose of any apps or features being added. “I was seeing cities reacting to sales pitches instead of making strategic decisions about what they need.”
Other times local governments add technology but don’t use it to its full potential, or they use it incorrectly.
SEE CLICK FIX
One example is See Click Fix. This is an app that lets citizens report problems around town such as fallen tree branches, broken playground equipment and of course potholes. In the past a resident might call in a problem to city hall and not know what became of their complaint. With See Click Fix an issue is reported and someone in the city is tasked with responding. When used correctly, updates are made to the ticket so that the resident can know the issue is in progress. Or even notified if it may take time to fix or be unfixable.
Some cities are not managing the response part properly, TenBrink said. Instead of keeping the ticket open and giving updates, they are noting the problem in their other system and marking it closed on the app. While indeed they may be working on it, all the resident knows is that the issues has been marked resolved in the app, but is not in reality fixed.
One concern over See Click Fix is that municipalities already have a system for tracking work, and they see See Click Fix (or similar apps) as a duplication of work and just another thing to keep track off. And while there is work to it, the engagement with citizens and the ability to know about more problems sooner are the benefit.
Cities worry that having a reporting mechanism will create more work for them, stating they don’t have the staff or the resources to fix problems. They also worry that this would give residents higher expectations than they can meet. However, knowing about problems and having conversations with residents about the challenges are part of a responsive government.
One member of the audience spoke of how their city had been resistant to it, but found that residents valued knowing that they had been heard, even when reports could not be resolved. He also suggested that employees be trained not only in how to use it, but why it is a benefit to them and to the residents.
Social media is another example of Civic Tech that municipalities are learning. “Facebook is a slippery fish,” TenBrink said. “We’re not using it most effectively. Just telling people what we’re doing is not the most effective. All they’re doing is self-promoting. We need to think about Facebook as a conversation. And it’s not a conversation you control, it’s a conversation you participate in.”
He recommended not only creating posts that tell what is going on, but sharing posts from others that you like. Tagging people can help them feel connected and appreciated. And sharing stories from other cities and groups can help start conversations about what may or may not be needed in their town.
Another simple example of falling short of potential for engagement is when cities ask questions in a survey or even on social media, without tracking or using the responses.
Given all that civic tech can do, why are elected officials reluctant to invest in it?
TenBrink said the most common excuses he hears are that seniors and low income people don’t have access. “These are not accurate,” he said. “Seniors are on Facebook. If you tag Grandma or Grandpa in a post they figure it out. Low income people do reach the internet, they just reach it differently. Mainly they are on their cell phones, but they can also go to the library or computers at school.” He also pointed out that online services are not meant to replace current communication methods, but to increase engagement.
Another idea that comes up is the opposite – that young people only want to engage online, and that millennials will not come to public meetings. He said this also is a perception, that if young people are engaged online, then invited to events and discussions in person, they do come. Getting them interested and welcoming them is the key.
TenBrink urged participants to consider their own lives. “Think of how you shop. It’s much different than five years ago. How you interact with friends and family is different than five years ago. But how you interact with local government is not much different than 100 years ago.”
WHERE TO START
TenBrink suggested that instead of diving into an app or a new website, that officials plan their communications carefully and understand what they want to do and why.
He also said there are many low cost or free ways to engage and test the waters of how more robust programs could be used.
“Don’t start with an app,” he said. “Research your audience. How do they want to engage? Identify the type of engagement you want to achieve. Review the processes. What works, what doesn’t, what is missing? List available resources (data, communications channels, staff and training expectations). And start with a prototype. You can test your assumptions without spending a lot.”
A big question is this: After the developer is gone, after the salesperson has installed it, can your staff maintain it?
TenBrink recommended looking for cheap and free training online. Useful resources include YouTube, Google Apps, Survey Monkey, and Dropbox.
Some other civic tech that is on the radar of communities include: Place Speaker, Next Door, Civic Commons, Public Stuff, Neighborland, Crowdbrite and Cityzen.
Lastly TenBrink emphasized the need for innovation within leadership and staff. “You’ll adopt these products better if you’re building a culture of innovation and engagement.”
Learn more about The University of Michigan Citizen Interaction Design program at https://www.si.umich.edu/academics/project-i-citizen-interaction-design
The Michigan Municipal League is dedicated to making Michigan’s communities better by thoughtfully innovating programs, energetically connecting ideas and people, actively serving members with resources and services, and passionately inspiring positive change for Michigan’s greatest centers of potential: its communities. The MML has supported the oc115 with a scholarship to the conference. Learn more about MML www.mml.org.
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MML#3 – Cities and Civic Tech, How Local Governments Serve Residents Online