How do people get information about their local government? How do they voice their opinion? My town has a town meeting form of government. We have about 16,000 residents, but just a handful come to a typical meeting. Even when the outcome directly affects them, people don’t come.
Do people not know about issues or when meetings take place? Do we not feel our presence makes a difference? Do we trust someone else will solve our problems? Is it a scheduling issue? Is it too much to expect busy working people, especially those with children, to spend their evenings at town meetings?
There’s no single answer. I believe that we can start to address each challenge through smart use of the internet and social media. Many voters don’t know what’s going on with local government, but they do know what their high school ex is doing for lunch. That may be a function of interest, but it’s also because their high school ex posts on Facebook and my town does not.
On the flip side, town officials feel like they are begging for participation already. I suggest Facebook, and our hard working public servants point out that we already have a town website where meeting minutes are posted, even videos of some of the meetings.
A town website is great, but it’s just a first step. The average person doesn’t sit down at their computer in the morning and visit the town website to see what’s new. So what are the steps we might take toward adopting internet technology and social media? These are my thoughts:
An Effective Website
A website is not serving its purpose if your constituents are not using it. People shouldn’t have to call the department to find out where something is on the website. An effective website will present content in a way that makes sense to the user, it will not mirror the organizational structure of the town (or company). It will provide answers to the most frequently asked questions. It will highlight what’s new and noteworthy. And most importantly, it will be actively managed. Content will be fresh, links will not be broken, and metrics will analyzed for improvement.
Email comes next because it’s both easy to understand and widely used. Most people understand the value of offering email updates. Email updates can save on postage costs. Ninety-two percent of online adults use email so it’s a great way to get information in front of citizens who aren’t going to bother coming to your site to see what’s happening.
Email Updates/Newsletter Part B
Email updates really require a second level of adoption. Creating an email list and sending out a general update is simple enough. The real value comes from allowing users to customize their email content. A contractor in town might be interested in updates from Land Use and Zoning. I might care about updates from the Board of Education. If every town Board and committee provides an update in every email, the value is diminished overall. But if users can select the topics of interest, as well as receive information about upcoming issues and votes, email becomes a much more valuable tool.
Facebook is easy to use, and while younger users may still dominate, older groups continue to increase their use each year. The average Facebook user visits 40 times per month, spending just over 23 minutes per visit. Facebook offers an easy way to provide brief updates about what’s happening. Users can easily share the updates they find valuable with their own network, and towns can use events to remind the community of important meetings and votes.
Blogging offers a way to build a direct relationship and dialog with constituents. It offers elected officials a way to explain what’s happening and why they’re making decisions in their own words. Having a blog that your constituents read takes some of the pressure off getting every story in the local paper (and hoping it gets written well). It offers a chance for more lengthy dialog than social media tools.
Twitter (or Google+)
It seems people have a harder time finding comfort with and value from Twitter than other social tools. The value is there. Twitter allows easy communication with community members (though Twitter adoption is not as widespread as Facebook). It also offers a great opportunity to connect to experts or other elected officials. I’m not an elected official and never have been, but I would imagine that the chance to communicate with other people in a similar role, or follow key thinkers in local government would be a huge asset.
As my town officials lament the lack of participation from citizens, one of the questions I’ve been asking is, does participation have to come in the form of an in-person meeting? Can making a comment on a blog post count? Sending email? Commenting on Facebook? Are we asking for constituents opinions in multiple places, and do we count what we get as participation? (The answer to both questions right now is no). Today I read an article about a town that has started to webcast its town meetings, allowing people to watch via their computer at home as well as ask questions. This has increased participation considerably.
I’m throwing this one in, though I don’t know whether it is legal, nor do I feel entirely comfortable with it. For all my enthusiasm about internet technology, there is something I appreciate about showing up in person to vote. Voting should be valued. I always take my children with me to vote, and we talk about what it means to vote and why. I think the ritual is important and we should be able to make time for it in our busy lives. That said, we allow for paper absentee ballots. Are electronic ballots so far off (if they aren’t used already)?
Location Based Services
What if new residents could take a tour of the town and receive FourSquare tips about which parks allow dogs or what the summer hours are at the town beach? What if the town didn’t charge residents for their dog license if they’d checked in to the dog park 60 times in the past year? There are lots of creative ways for towns to use location based services to encourage a connection with residents.
What am I missing? What did I get wrong? Though I’m very excited about the possibilities, I’ve only been thinking about applying internet tools to local government for a few months. Thoughts are always welcome.
[Image credit: Mark Sardella, CC]