Pictured above: Each Appycademy graduate received a sign with their last name.
By: Chad Doran, City of Appleton, WI – Communications Coordinator
I love #CommunityEngagement. Just love it.
A good day for me is one with a Facebook page full of notifications or emails responding to a story posted on the City of Appleton’s website. This is how I know people are noticing what we are doing.
But (gasp) not everyone uses social media, or even a computer for that matter. Eventually these people will get left behind. Kent Wyatt has talked about how local government needs to embrace with technology and he’s right. Though it goes both ways. Cities use their website and social media to prod the local news media to cover our issues. Cities also need to create meaningful engagement to cultivate deeper, more meaningful relationships with residents.
Offering a citizen’s academy was a new approach in Appleton. We invited people in through the front doors of City Hall. Literally. We called it, “Appycademy.”
Numerous cities have a public safety academy for residents. Community members learn about the police department including a better understanding of patrol, how CSI is not real life, and how police are taught to engage with suspects. Sometimes, like here in Appleton, the fire department also gets a few opportunities to share their experience with the citizen academy participants.
Before I started work in Appleton, I completed Appleton’s Public Safety Academy. It was a great opportunity to better understand how public safety departments work. What we didn’t learn was about the other 12 city departments and various divisions. How do they work? How do they fit into the picture?
When I started work in Appleton two years ago, my goals was to launch a broader citizen’s academy. This didn’t happen overnight. It took time to get the staff on board and create the format, but this spring we made it happen.
Our first Appycademy was a huge success. But don’t take my word for it.
“I loved meeting the people in each department, and seeing the excitement they have in talking about their jobs. I now have a better appreciation of the city and all the departments, and all the people who run the city. I also appreciate knowing that my tax dollars are being spent wisely by regular people just doing their jobs to make our lives better.”
We read many similar comments from participants on the Appycademy evaluation.
The Appycademy Concept
We took the traditional public safety academy concept and turned it around. Instead of showing the responsibilities of each department, we came at it from the citizen point of view. We spent the first of eight, two-hour sessions explaining how property taxes work and how much of your property tax bill benefits the city. This varies by state, but here, roughly half of property taxes paid comes to the city. The rest goes to the county, state, school district and tech school.
This was an eye-opener for many in the class. Educating citizen’s about property tax and where the money goes set the tone by basically saying, “Now you know how much of your property taxes we get, here’s what we do with it.”
Each session focused on a different departmental budget and the services that departments spend money on. We also went on facility tours, saw first hand the equipment used by departments, and talked about the essential functions of city departments.
One of my favorite stories, came the week after we toured the water treatment facility. A participant told me that she had thought about skipping that week because, “It’s just water.” But what she said next summed up why we were doing the Appycademy – “But I am glad I went, because now every time I turn on my tap, I can’t look at my water the same now that I know how it works.”
That kids, is what you call a mic drop. Mission accomplished.
Appycademy Long-Lasting Benefits
That’s how you build community engagement. Get them in the front door and show them. Engage in face-to-face conversations. Each participant in Appycademy noted that the experience exceeded their expectations.
“I enjoyed each session and feel like a much more informed citizen. I have used the City of Appleton website countless times since attending the meetings for information I previously would have just wondered about.”
It’s proof that what we, as local government do, is cool AND appreciated.
I know this is a small sample of the our 74,000 residents, but… we have
- a waiting list of a half-dozen people for our next Appycademy.
- the power of the inaugural graduates telling their friends about the academy and spreading the word about city services.
- Appycademy participants correcting misinformation on social media and considering running for city council.
They’re connected, they’re engaged! Now, that they get i, they want others to get involvement.
Appycademy is a bigger investment than banging out Facebook posts. But the end result is a longer-lasting citizen engagement.
“I give the Academy a grade of A+ and recommend it to all of the residents of Appleton. The lectures were interesting and highly professional. The street sign will bring back pleasant memories.”
What unique ways do you build community engagement? What cool programs have you implemented? Let’s talk about them! I’m interested in hearing from you for our next program to tackle and I’m happy to share our experiences with you as well. Hit me up on Twitter at @doranchad or by email at [email protected]
- Twitter Verified: The Quest for the Check – Updated: 4/24/15
- #2: Check It
- 360 Review with Chad Doran, City of Appleton, WI
- Appleton to offer ‘citizen’s academy’
- Logistics: Creating a Local Government Citizens’ Academy
- Planning, Developing, and Implementing a Citizens Academy
- Implementation: Creating a Citizens Academy