The end is in sight
Last week I began the final step in completing my MPA program at Portland State University. The 509, as it’s affectionately known, is an “organizational experience” where almost-graduates apply what they have learned in the classroom out in the real world. It’s essentially an internship with a defined project and scope established on the front end. Despite being a required hoop to jump through in order to list “MPA” after my name, I am really excited about the project.
After some searching and lots of worrying I finalized my capstone project at the City of Gresham, Oregon. Gresham is a city of 106,000 to the east of Portland. One of the issues the city is dealing with that I find fascinating is that recently Gresham has seen an increase in poverty, drugs, and gang related crimes. As Portland gentrifies and becomes a more expensive place to live it has pushed these urban problems east to Gresham. (Sign up for our webinar with Joe Walsh on June 4 to talk about the efforts the city manager’s office is making to combat this trend). Although interesting, I won’t be focusing on that issue for my project.
I will instead be working on engaging citizens using technology. I’m really excited about this, because all cities want to engage citizens effectively and are recognizing, if they haven’t already, that public meetings are a terrible way to get people involved in local government.
Primarily I will be focusing on researching and testing four apps. These apps each have a different focus and are will either reach people in new ways, allow the city to provide better customer service, or will allow the organization to operate more efficiently (sometimes all three at the same time).
The first app we are exploring is called ReCollect, an app for solid waste services. Although that doesn’t sound very exciting it’s actually a great way for citizens to easily find out about their pick-up schedule, report problems, and allow the city to quickly communicate solid-waste related news or information. (Shout out to Dan Blue for making my job extremely easy by doing a lot of research on it last year).
Citizens can search their address to find out their schedule and then sign up to receive updates and alters or download a calendar (so no more costly printing for the city) and receive updates or alerts about pick-ups. Above all, this app will provide better customer service to citizens, allowing them to sign up for customized alerts and letting them find important information without having to call in or interpret a color coded calendar.
Textizen is another app that I will be evaluating for Gresham, it allows citizens to participate in surveys using texts. Cities use it by displaying a question on a poster, at an event, on the web, or even announcing it at a council meeting and the public can text in a response. Then depending on the answer the app will ask follow up questions and engage in a short survey over text message.
This survey tool is unique because its response rate can be as high as 90%! Plus by using text messaging it means anyone with a cell phone can participate, no smart phone needed. On the other end the city can see results in real time using the app’s Internet dashboard.
The last app I will be testing as a part of this project is the very sexy, “Boards and Commission” app. This Internet tool is used for city staff to keep track of openings on citizen advisory committees. It tracks when terms will expire, how many openings there will be, and what applications have come in. This should allow the city to have fewer vacancies on their varying boards and hopefully allow more citizens to get involved.
I will also be researching an app called SeeClickFix although we aren’t sure what it will take to launch a pilot test. This app requires a lot more back-end support, but it’s been used in other cities to great success. SeeClickFix is one of several apps that allow citizens to take a picture on their cell phone and report a problem. So that pothole in front of your house, the graffiti on that building across from your work, or the burned out streetlight down the road – just take a picture and the city will start the process to take care of it.
Places like Boston have used similar apps very effectively but it means you need to integrate the app into your workflow system. Since that can take awhile I most likely won’t be testing this app before my project is up at the end of the summer.
Even just a week in to my capstone I have noticed the carry-over from my graduate work. Trying to scope this project has already made me use the skills from my project management class, and testing these apps will make me dust off my program evaluation textbook.
However, I have also noticed where the classroom falls a little short. None of our classes really focused on the impact of politics on projects. My professors have only ever talked about dealing with the administration side of the politics-administration dichotomy. In reality administrators are not completely separate. Elected officials dictate the direction of the project and the timeline. The Gresham City Council has already sped up the timeline for testing the ReCollect app and it shaped the current focus this project, rather than on a project to combat graffiti.
I think this dose of reality is important for students to learn before entering the profession and I’m glad I’ve been doing other internships before this one so it didn’t come as a big surprise. Although elected officials may be tough to deal with at times or cause headaches for administrators at the end of the day it is their city, we just run it.
A Call to Action
To the ELGL members out there, have any of you used technology to engage citizens in this way? I’m curious if anyone has experience implementing and using these apps or any app. Let me know, I would love to hear from you, reach me by email firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter @benkittelson56, or call me 503-819-5343.
Sr. Budget & Management Analyst at the City of Durham, North Carolina. ELGL Board of Directors. Producer & Co-Host of the GovLove Podcast. Would rather be walking his dog Franklin.