Small cities punching above their weight in online engagement practice
The need for cities to connect with their communities has never been greater. The proliferation of fake news and deep political divisions in communities, both in the USA and elsewhere in the world, are compelling arguments to build community participation. Direct communication between cities and their citizens builds community resilience and gives the community access to reliable information.
As advocates of citizen engagement, we speak with a lot of cities, counties, towns and villages around the world about online engagement and we often come across an underlying assumption that it is something that is primarily for cities with larger populations and resources.
Our experience contradicts this assumption. What we find is that online engagement is successful where municipal or county staff acknowledge the need to engage beyond the small numbers of often unrepresentative people who habitually turn up to face-to-face meetings. This acknowledgment isn’t a factor of organization size; it is more one of attitude and commitment.
Take, for example, the Rural Municipality of St. Clements in Manitoba, Canada, population just a shade over 10,000. They launched their online engagement portal in October 2016 for a project entitled ‘Let’s Talk Trash’. The catchy name probably helped and in less than a month this small rural community achieved 1,271 visitors, gained feedback from 486 participants and, importantly, built a database of 550 community members who are registered to get involved in future projects.
CAO DJ Sigmundson explained that they chose to engage online because,
“We wanted to talk to as many people as possible by engaging through multiple channels … comments from participants have indicated that they appreciate being asked what they thought.”
A look at local government organizations using online engagement around the world (Figure 1) reveals that there is a relatively large number of smaller cities, shires, and townships who are using online tools and leading some of their larger neighbors in innovation.
We should qualify that the chart here is based on Bang the Table’s clients around the world (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, and UK). Getting data from our competitors is not always easy but, anecdotally, we would expect a similar pattern to emerge.
Local authorities with populations of less than 30,000 people comprise 24% of our sample with 32 of our 132 local authority clients falling into that size category. Seven of the 132 also have a population of less than 10,000.
This sample is not skewed by marketing to smaller cities, indeed the contrary is more likely to be true. We count among our international clients New York City, Montreal, Sydney, Westminster and other large cities and it is these that tend to be used as examples more often than our smaller clients.
Figure 1: Local authorities who are Bang the Table clients by population size as of 10 February 2017.
One of those smaller cities is the City of Aspen in Colorado (population just over 6,000). Famous for its skiing and social scene, the City of Aspen, in common with many other cities is working hard to give their community a voice. Mitzi Rapkin, Director of Community Services, explained what Aspen is trying to achieve in these terms:
“To us, it is significant even if we reach just one additional person by including online engagement … We were thrilled with the numbers getting informed and my hope is that as people get used to ‘aspencommunityvoice’, they will keep coming and tell others to join in.”
This community building is a critical element of online engagement. Building a database of participants over repeat projects allows the community to get used to using the online platform as a means to stay in touch with issues and to participate. Given the relatively small numbers who attend traditional face to face engagement sessions, this is an opportunity to hear more than the usual array of voices and this is equally important for small cities as for large.
Vanessa Sandom, Deputy Mayor of the Township of Hopewell, New Jersey (population just over 16,000) supports this:
“New Jersey municipalities often struggle engaging their citizens. More, outside of public meetings, governments have few ways to hear resident feedback … Hopewell Township hopes to create a new citizen-action forum, bridging the gap between resident and government”
Equally, Hopewell’s first project, enabling citizens to help identify trees threatened by the Emerald Ash Borer, has had a strong community response:
“Response to our first issue – the Emerald Ash Borer invasion – has been positive and swift.”
Of course, online engagement does require some dedicated resources. Even with an easy to use and affordable platform, someone has to commit to an hour or two to set up each project and to review the results and interact with the community. It would be a mistake to think that small cities are any more reluctant to dedicate these resources than their larger cousins. It would also be erroneous to think that it requires a huge resource to manage. In fact, engaging online through a single platform can be a resource saver next to trying to interpret messages from multiple social media and other sources.
JoAnne Klebb, Community Engagement specialist at the City of Penticton in British Columbia (population around 30,000), commented that:
“Online engagement significantly improved the efficiency of our engagement activity.”
The City of Penticton has had feedback from over 460 residents in a 9-month period with a multitude of positive ideas about their new Parks and Recreation Strategy and about how to fund infrastructure improvements. They have also provided information to over 2,600 people.
Some 10 years after cities first started to engage communities online, there are now few real barriers to doing so other than the recognition of the benefits of broad community participation. Cities both large and small are engaging online. It’s really just a matter of having a commitment to involving and engaging with the community.
To read more about the case studies mentioned above and to see small cities are leading the way in creating deeper and broader relationships with their communities using online tools you can visit Bang the Table’s Small Cities web page.