Some very good local government online engagement advice from urban planner Scott Doyon

I posted this to my business blog a few days ago but since I mentioned Northfield it in, I thought I’d post it here on LoGro as well.

Scott Doyon is Director of Client Marketing Services for PlaceMakers, an urban planning firm. He published a post to his Better Cities blog last week titled Public process: Don’t botch your online engagement (also on their Placeshakers blog here):

Scott DoyonNew tools have made it easier than ever to set up a project website, fast and cheap, for just about any endeavor. So easy, in fact, that people often assume the task of populating it with content is equally so.

It’s not. Instead, what you end up with is city staffers with limited time and limited resources, and who already engage with the public regularly in person, suddenly presented with the task of doing so electronically as well. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, whenever they find themselves in possession of any piece of information even remotely related to the project, their response seems obvious: Put it on the web.

Raw information. Posted. Done.

That’s a problem.

The City of Northfield has a history such failed project web sites, some done by the city staff, some by consulting firms. Some recent examples:

Doyon writes:

Think of the parallel: You’re in a traditional public meeting and someone asks a question about why the city is doing something. Do you provide a concise rationale, spelling out its benefits and role in larger community goals, or do you hand them a binder with 300 pages of reports and memos and tell them to have at it?

What should local governments do instead with their project sites?

Provide however much content it takes to express, up front and at each step along the way, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how people can participate. No more. No less.

Grandview District blog siteExactly.  Unfortunately, Doyon doesn’t provide examples so here’s one I’ve worked on for the past 9 months: the GrandView District project blogsite for the City of Edina, MN. 

In that time, the project blog’s been updated 36 times with many dozens of photos and has nearly 300 comments attached. It includes all the files, Powerpoint presentations, archives of the webinar, and links to meeting videos.

Doyon also points out that local governments are unwitting victims of the “Blank Slate” dilemma:

Another common fumble is confusing the difference between collecting ideas and building consensus around community goals. A variety of new tools have made it easier than ever for cities to engage citizens in a discussion of ideas. “What would you like to see?,” they ask. “Provide your ideas and rate the ideas of others.”

That is, when presented with a blank slate, people naturally assume that anything is possible. But as you know, it’s not. Avoiding problems is all in how you ask the questions. For example, you’ll often find questions like this: “How can we improve Founder’s Park?” Sounds empowering, right? Unfortunately, it also sets a foundation for failed effort.

Instead, the question should be posed this way: “The city has budgeted $4 million towards renovations for Founder’s Park. Keeping in mind that further land acquisition isn’t an option at this site, what improvements, initiatives or recreational options would you like to see prioritized?”

That’s the exact approach the City of Edina took with another engagement project, the 2012 budget.  Working with the Citizens League, the areas of the budget that citizen input was sought were very narrowly defined. Ultimately, the process proved to be very effective and will be repeated again this year.

For background, see all my Edina-related blog posts about my work with the Edina Citizen Engagement project.

14 comments to  (Including 3 Discussion Threads) Some very good local government online engagement advice from urban planner Scott Doyon

  • 1
    Jane McWilliams says:

    Although it has been a goal of the city council at least since 2010, to work on communications, at the same time, the city has undergone significant staff reduction and reassignment. So, even if the council wanted to do so, at this time, there has been no possibility of creating the kind of online presence Mr. Doyon recommends, and which you and the city of Edina have established.

    On the other hand, while it isn’t pretty, I have found the city’s Redistricting Page (http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/projects/clerk/2012/02/15/redistricting__city_wards ) comprehenive and useful. City Clerk Deb LIttle and Brian Welch, Engineering Resources Manager (now resigned) were responsible for creating that reource. It isn’t the kind of “engagement” you’re talking about, of course, with the exception of the solicitation of ideas for redistricting. It would have been moreso if staff had time and encouragement to report on that page the results of the public input both from the questionnaire and at the public hearing, and the council’s discussion and decision. Just the same, those two staff members did a good job, given the limitations of time and other resources.

    At the same time the city is contemplating such things as getting out from under the NCRC, seeking revenue from the hospital and public utilities, and bonding for public safety facilities, it isn’t likely that it will embark on anything like electronic engagement. Too bad.

    • 1.1
      Griff Wigley says:

      Jane, I really don’t think it’s a matter of staff time and financial resources. Yes, it takes some time and money to learn and I’m obviously glad Edina hired me to show them what could be done and how to do it. But it has to be a mental shift first by the people at the top. No amount of time and money can make a difference without that happening first.

  • 2
    Griff Wigley says:

    Northfield City Councilor Betsey Buckheidt has a blog post that links here on this issue: More thoughts about citizen engagement

    Northfield will be updating its website soon, but as Griff has pointed out already, the shortcomings of the current online presence are not technological, but human – we still need to have the human intervention which turns the data into usable information, frames questions appropriately and presents it all in an engaging way.

  • 3
    Jane McWilliams says:

    You’re right, Griff -- there needs to be human intervention -- but how can that happen? First, as you suggest, someone “at the top” (the council?) has to determine that this is a priority and seek staff with the expertise to bring it off. But this is more than lack of will. Even if the council decides online engagement is the way to pursue their goal of increased communications -- don’t they have to find the resources to bring in someone with the tools to convert everyone in the system to “turn the data into usable information, frame the questions appropriately and present it in an engaging way” as Betsey says.

    This, at the same time the city has reduced staff, assigned several major responsibilities to retained staff, appointed a citizen group to find more money or ways to spend less and is close to bonding for a safety center. I have no doubt that there are enough council members and staff to make the “mental shift.” However, how can they move it forwrd under the present circumstances? Maybe in another year or two when, we hope, the economy is sufficiently improved.

  • 4
    Griff Wigley says:

    Jane, do you think the $2,500 that the City spends every month for NTV’s Channel 16 continues to be worth it? (I see the NTV website was updated a couple times in August 2007 and again a couple times in Sept. 2010. AARRGGHH!)

    As of the 2010 financial report, the Cable TV fund had a balance of $867,560. I’m guessing it’s still in that range for 2011. This fund can be used for any communications-related purpose that the Council deems appropriate. Why not use it for citizen engagement?

    • 4.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Good question , Griff… but the funny thing with using that fund is that any time the Council is looking for $$, the Finance Director always says a possible source is the Cable TV Fund with its 800K plus reserve… doesn’t matter what the use would be (isn’t almost everything communications?)… there’s always that 800K tantalizing the seekers.

      I think it is ‘will’ and priorities, no matter how much it is said to be, it’s just not a big enough priority to be put into action.

    • 4.2
      Griff Wigley says:

      Kiffi, did the Council have a new set of goals for 2011? The Council’s web page still links to the 2010 goals/strategic directions, the first of which was all communications-related.

      And has the Council ever gone back to grade its performance on those goals?

      • 4.2.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Yes, they did have 2011 goals, established about 4 months into the year, as I recall.

        And for 2012, their planning meeting on last Jan.24 established goals for this year, and even put them into quarterly sections of the year for accomplishing.

        At the April 3 meeting, they talked about checking in at the beginning of each quarter, and evaluating what had been accomplished in the previous time period, as well as looking at what lay ahead in the next quarter.

        But you must also give them some/a lot of leeway for dealing with issues that crop up, or projects that take longer than expected to complete.

        How many years has the Safety Center headed the top of the Goals and Priorities List?

      • 4.2.2
        Griff Wigley says:

        Can anyone find a web page or PDF that has the Council’s 2011 goals and their 2012 goals?

  • 5
    Jane McWilliams says:

    Maybe you should ask the council the question you asked me, Griff. Because I don’t watch much TV, I’m not much of a judge of NTV. However, looking at their online program schedule, I’d say it isn’t very lively. The city’s payment is not just for city cable casts. There was a time when it served a vital “Public Access” role and many of us hauled cameras to events, even produced some shows, all under the patient tutoring of Paul Hager. Now, with internet access and so much else on TV, plus with Paul Hager now focusing on Carleton, I think NTV has become rather irrelevant and almost moribund.

    As I understand it, there is an informal policy that the cable fund is for the city’s communication expenses. I believe the contract with KYMN for streaming is funded with that money. It will be used for the anticipated update of the city’s website. Once the site update is complete, maybe there can be steps in the direction Betsey suggests.

    For example, at the council meeting tonight, they talked about having conversations with the public about a potential local option sales tax. An interactive online engagement could work together with other educational modes. Wouldn’t it be helpful if Finance Director Kathleen McBride explained how a sales tax could work together with the bonds for the safety center and reduce the bite on property tax? Citizens could ask questions and comment.

    This could serve an important role in providing public information and input as the council ponders whether to pursue the idea of a sales tax. Unfortunately, I doubt the timing of the city’s online upgrade would make this particular idea feasible. But there will be other similar opportunities in the future.

  • 6
    Griff Wigley says:

    Jane wrote:

    I think NTV has become rather irrelevant and almost moribund.

    Indeed. Which is why I was encouraged back in 2010 when the Council set a goal to “Evaluate cable broadcast.” I was hoping that they would establish an Ad Hoc Task Force to examine that as well as the web site and all-things social media. I still think they should.

  • 7
    Jane McWilliams says:

    I can’t find the final 2011 goals, but they discussed them at their February 22, 2011 work session (http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/f/Feb-22-WS-Packet.pdf #4 ) and on March 22
    (http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/0/03-22-2011-Work-Session-Packet.pdf #4 )
    If they created a final document, I can’t find it.

    They had 2012 goals discussion on January 24 (http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/p/Packet230.pdf) and February 14 ) Again, I don’t know that there has been a formal final version.

    Does this help?

  • 8
    Griff Wigley says:

    Here’s an example of how things can go to hell in an e-handbasket when the online stuff isn’t managed properly.

    Tues. Strib: Cottage Grove fracas spills over to Internet

    The rifts have slid from City Hall into cyberspace, where Moe uses his website to blast council decisions and Mayor Myron Bailey uses Facebook to rail against some of the project opponents, whom he says recently called his wife nasty names.

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