Podcast: Past & Future of Transparency with Tom Spengler, Rock Solid Technologies

Posted on September 10, 2021

Tom Spengler - GovLove

Tom Spengler

Tom Spengler
Chief Executive Officer
Rock Solid Technologies
LinkedIn | Twitter

Resident-centric government. Tom Spengler, Chief Executive Officer of Rock Solid Technologies, joined the podcast to discuss how local governments use technology to improve access and transparency. He talked about his time leading Granicus and the early days of getting organizations to stream and archive their meetings. He also shared his thoughts on future trends and technology to encourage resident engagement with local government meetings.

Host: Kirsten Wyatt

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Learn More

Rock Solid Technologies Website

Rock Solid Acquires PrimeGov as Virtual Meetings Gain Steam

Rock Solid Adds Public Meeting Management Platform Through PrimeGov Acquisition

Episode Transcript


Kirsten Wyatt  00:08

Coming to you from Portland, Oregon, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government. Gov Love is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. We engage the brightest minds in local government. AI’m Kirsten Wyatt, the ELGL co founder and executive director, and today I’m joined by Tom Spengler, the Chief Executive Officer at Rock Solid Technologies. Tom, welcome to Gov Love. 

Tom Spengler  00:33

Thank you, Kristen. It’s great to be here. 

Kirsten Wyatt  00:35

Today, we’re talking with Tom about his career path, the groundbreaking work he’s done to increase local government transparency, and his predictions on what the future looks like for local government communications and engagement. But first, as always, we’ll get started with a lightning round. Tom, what is your most controversial non political opinion?

Tom Spengler  00:56

Oh, all right. Um, I think I think I’m going to go with smaller government agencies are more efficient and effective. One of the things that I learned in all my years, especially starting out at Granicus was the bigger the agency was the more bureaucracy and the least effective it was. So I, maybe it’s a political opinion, but I always thought, you know, push more money down from federal to state to local and we’d all be better off.

Kirsten Wyatt  01:25

I think you’re gonna have a lot of Gov Love listeners, you know, cheering and clapping in their cars as they listen to this episode. So I don’t think that’s controversial. I think you just made some fans. 

Tom Spengler  01:34

Alright, good. 

Kirsten Wyatt  01:36

And then what is something that your hometown is famous for?

Tom Spengler  01:40

Yeah, so I grew up in Grass Valley, Nevada city. That’s where I went to high school, and it’s a gold rush town. So I’ve got a lot of gold rush history there. And our mascot was a minor, like literally, panning for gold. So wonderful place to grow up, though. So shout out to Nevada County and Grass Valley and Nevada city.

Kirsten Wyatt  02:03

What was the first concert that you ever attended?

Tom Spengler  02:06

Oh, this is, uh, this is a good one. So I think my first concert was actually a Dave Matthews Band concert. But my most memorable early concert was matchbox 20 in a, in a bar in San Jose. I mean, it was probably 200-250 people there before they’d launched their album. And anybody heard of them, and we, a friend invited me and we just went down there. And I was like, these guys are amazing. And then, of course, like they had a, you know, a top selling record later. So that was amazing.

Kirsten Wyatt  02:37

That’s great. And so when that when they became famous, did you remember that concert? 

Tom Spengler  02:41

Oh, yeah. Yeah, it was probably like a year later. I think I was I was an intern at Hewlett Packard, then that’s why I was in that area. And another friend that was in college had invited me out for it. And I was like, Sure, let’s go. Sounds like fun. So yeah, I bought the I bought the album. And I always remember there was a few songs that they played them that weren’t on the album that I really liked. And I have wondered what happened to them, so.

Kirsten Wyatt  03:07

Maybe you could join a fan club and like get access to like, deep cuts or something.

Tom Spengler  03:11

Yeah, I probably should, that’s probably all erased now. You know, that was kind of quick flash for them, so.

Kirsten Wyatt  03:18

And lastly, would you rather have sharks for arms or bears for legs?

Tom Spengler  03:23

Have to say this is a hard one, Kristen. I’m gonna go with sharks for arms, and I just, you know, that way, I can still run away from my laptop and get it get out of zoom calls for a while. I don’t want to be stuck. So that’s what I’m going with. But I think those are two tough choices. I mean, I like my arms and legs the way they are.

Kirsten Wyatt  03:44

How would you turn on your laptop? If you had sharks for arms? I mean, these are the things to ponder.

Tom Spengler  03:49

That’s good. I, you know, voice activated, maybe, but I, at least I could I could eject, you know.

Kirsten Wyatt  03:58

Alright, so let’s get started. You shared with us briefly that you worked at Hewlet Packard, but we’d love to hear about your kind of career and life journey to where you are today.

Tom Spengler  04:10

Yeah, that’s a great question. So I could spend the whole hour but I’ll try to try to be brief. I, I grew up like I said, between Tahoe and Sacramento in the foothills where all the California fires are now unfortunately, but and my passion in life growing up was basketball. And I just worked really hard at it. And I ended up going to Menlo College to play basketball, a little Division Three school right by Stanford in Silicon Valley. And I learned pretty quickly, a that I was not going to make a profession, out of anything athletic and then, two, you know, being in the heart of Silicon Valley I just really kind of caught that that bug. I transferred to Cal Poly. I was, got really into student leadership as the chairman of the board for the student government, there was the largest student run student government in the country. And I think I ended up having a $20 million budget. And we had 400 employees, 350 which were students. And so it was a great leadership experience. But it was also my first real experience around public meetings and agendas and parliamentary procedure and all the things that I kind of got into when I was the founder of Granicus. I worked at Hewlett Packard for a little while, and Cupertino, which also fed the Silicon Valley, kind of vibe and energy that I just really got addicted to around innovation and technology and built the intranet there, the first intranet at HP as an intern, I got to lead that project, which was a lot of fun. I went to Accenture right out of college because I wanted to travel and see the world. And of course, I didn’t really leave Silicon Valley the whole time. But that also was a blessing was put in there internet group during the .com boom. And that’s when I decided at 24 that I should obviously start a company and go figure it out. So Emory Jones and Javier Muniz and I, we co founded Granicus in December 17, 1999. So quite a long time ago, and I ran that for 15 years. And you know, our thesis there was just that we could make government more transparent by putting the video of meetings online streaming technology was brand new, and nobody really knew what to do with it. And so we looked at a lot of different markets. But you know, going back to my student government experience, I said, I’d really love to see what was going on with all those projects that I left, two years ago. And so we went out and we pitched we pitched you know, some California cities in our area, and city of Sacramento and Brentwood in Northern California and Matura county all said yes to us around the same time. And, and I was like, great, this is a let’s stick with government, we’ve got we’ve got an opportunity here. And of course, we’d run out of money a bunch of times, and we’re just trying to figure out product market fit, etc. But yeah, that was just a tremendous journey for me and understanding, you know, how we could partner a political win around transparency with automation, and kind of system or record tools for the staff to be more efficient in their jobs. And those two things, when they came together were really powerful. And then we sold the business to private equity, I got shown the door, you know, they they told me to go home and not come back. And that was that was an emotionally challenging time for me that, you know, took a while to work through. But it allowed me a break, which I think is a really special thing for for people, you know, that are working the kind of hours we were working and the intensity and focus that that it took to build a company. And so I really got about three years off, got engaged, married, have two wonderful kids now with my wife, Valerie, and so that are three and five and and then I got bored a little bit and I was doing some consulting and some board work and trying to help companies and leverage the experience I’d had in building Granicus and joined Prime Gov at the time, which was kind of a 2.0 on the meeting management and agenda work that we did at Granicus and I had been on the board and just been helping out. But I joined full time as executive chairman and partnered with Sherif Agib, who was our CEO at the time for that business. And we really started to to get a lot of momentum, the market wanted a new product and new technology but also wanted, you know, a company that that cared deeply about the customers and had domain expertise and focus just understood their problems. And so we were able to bring that back since we we kind of started out in that space and and then the city of San Antonio had an RFP out for a resident portal, essentially. And they included all of your agenda management and meeting management and boards and commissions appointments with all your resident engagement and kind of single portal for residents in a single portal, or one view of all that data for for staff. And we assumed we could just bid on that on our own. And the city said no, no, we’re looking for one vendor who can do everything. And so I brought in rock solid technologies and public input as their two partners and we ended up winning the bid. And we thought that was great validation of these things coming together. So the market really brought Rock Solid and Prime Gov together. And I was fortunate enough to be offered the CEO role there, which is really exciting for me and and so we brought the companies together and I’ve been in the CEO role for about six months now. And we’re really re-envisioning this kind of resident centric government, and how government can really drive better outcomes in their community, more convenience. And I’m really interested in better decision making. So how do we take all that data and help elected officials make the best possible decisions. And they have a hard job, and especially in local government, I think.

Kirsten Wyatt  10:27

You talk about, you know, initially wanting to be a basketball star, and then moving on and kind of getting hooked on the on the student government or the government bug, was entrepreneurship ever something that that you thought was in your future to, you know, build something from scratch, and then continue helping organizations grow?

Tom Spengler  10:47

Yeah, that’s a great question. I, you know, I had a couple of awesome mentors along the way. I mean, first of all my parents, I just had the best parents. So that’s always really fortunate. You don’t, I don’t think you understand that as a kid. And then as you get older, and you kind of see, you know, everybody had a different situation. So both my parents worked and worked really hard. And when I was 12, my mom and I collaborated on starting a weed eating business. So just clearing people’s yards. And, you know, as I mentioned, the fire problems in Northern California, especially up in the foothills there, every lot needed to be weeded. And of course, you know, I was like, well, I got a weed eater, and we did fix bids. So we’d send letters to, my mom was in real estate, we’d send letters to all the lot owners that lived out of town, and we said, for this much money, we’ll do it. And then then I started recruiting a couple of my other friends. You know, when I was probably 13, or 14, to, to really To be honest, let’s say, like, backed out to do the hard blocks, you know, and I, and I knew I took the easy one. So yeah, that’s probably not the best approach. But yeah, so that so that was some of the entrepreneurship. And then a family friend, Bob Bro, he had a, he had a technology company in Tucson, and we would see them in the summers, Bro Research. And he’s just an incredible entrepreneur. He’s retired now, but I got to see, you know, kind of what he was building in his own office, and we go, you know, we’d go over there I’d play with his son was a really good friend of mine. And we would we would see that and then Rob Walker was a mentor of mine later, like kind of in college, when I worked at Hewlett Packard, and he was one of the founders of LSI logic, which is a fortune 500 chip company. And so I just got exposure to other entrepreneurs. And I always liked kind of doing my own thing. And, you know, that’s, I think that’s where, where it all started.

Kirsten Wyatt  12:52

You were at, you know, really the start of Gov tech movement and have this interest in and investment in companies that are designed to help government be more efficient, more effective. What have been some of your observations on how the Gov tech sector has changed from 1999 when you were starting Granicus, to, you know, where you’re sitting today?

Tom Spengler  13:15

That is such a good question. You know, I think in a lot of ways, for cloud software for government, that we really kind of paved the path forward there. So when we started, there was, we, SAS wasn’t even a term yet. And it was ASP application service providers, but it was it was very limited, and especially in government. So I would say, you know, for our first 500 customers, let’s say which, you know, took us like a decade to get, we were their first cloud platform that they that they used, and the reason why we were able to convince them, the IT folks who you know, hated the idea, convinced them of the architecture, is we were doing video streaming, and it was just so heavy on their network. So they all knew that they wanted to do it and they wanted to, you know, the, the mayor wanted transparency, and we’re going to open up government, but they were like, you know, we have one team, one line for the city or county, like we can’t stream so they needed to host that part. And then we just built the database and application alongside it. And so I think, you know, that was number one, it was just so different then. You know, two, I think the Code for America was coming out probably, you know, five, six years into when we were doing Granicus. And, you know, I think the sustainability of the models that we were building where, you know, it was a for profit company, but we really had a nonprofit mission. I mean, we the people we would hire really cared about making a difference in the communities and Obama had been elected, kind of in the middle of our time and you know, he came out and said government will be more transparent, more collaborative, more participatory was his his first executive order. It’s like, that’s, that’s our mission statement essentially. And so I think, you know, the other thing that’s that’s played out is that the vendor who’s willing to do, to sustain the software, keep doing the updates, and keep innovating, and maintain and host that, is really being rewarded now, and people are willing to pay for that. We had to convince a lot of people of that too, so there’s a business model change that they’ve gotten really comfortable with, and in, you know, we feel really good as the original Granicus team says a lot of people that kind of fall into that have kind of, you know, blazing that path forward. What’s interesting now is evaluations for these companies are just absolutely insane. You know, we’ve we’ve looked at deals that have happened recently, and these companies are being valued at 10, 12, 15 times ARR, you know, so, annual revenue under contract. And I can tell you, for sure, that’s not what we got when we sold it. So a little jealous of some of the outcomes, and some of the founders have now that have been able to put five good years in and build something meaningful and have a three or four million dollar business and sell it for, you know, kind of transformational wealth for them. I think that that makes a space really exciting. Because you can come in and do something good and and, you know, very financially profitable, or for those people.

Kirsten Wyatt  16:41

If you had to give a rough estimate of the number of hours of city council, county commission, committee meetings that you’ve watched in your career, where would that number fall?

Tom Spengler  16:52

Yeah, no, it’s a story that a lot of people don’t know about my path is when we started out, the first two or three years were really bumpy. You know, everybody sees Granicus now, and they’re like, oh, this is, you know, wow, what a success. But, you know, we ran out of money every February for like the first three years. So the first time is, when we quit our jobs, we didn’t have any money and right before the .com bubble burst, and then the next year, the next year, and, and so Emery, my co founder, and our CFO, he used to tell me, you know, like I don’t have any money to reimburse you for gas. So if you think you can win that deal, you know, you should drive down, he should drive down there and do it. And I had this little Toyota MR2 that I had in college, and I was still driving that around. And I probably drove that 100,000 miles just for like Granicus meetings, to meet with cities and go to different city halls, but I probably have been to 1,000 City Halls, over the 21 years or so. I mean, I was going to multiple per day, and just you know, every day I could, one of the things that I remember thinking for a while, is no matter what community you went into, you know, rich, poor, rural, etc, Main Street around City Hall was always fairly nice. It was like, okay, they’ve, they’ve got this, they’ve got their city hall area kind of taken care of which I thought was interesting, not something you would, you would observe unless you’ve been to a lot of them. And then, in terms of watching videos of meetings, just a way too many, more than I would like to remember. You know, one of the projects that we did early at Granicus that was really interesting was search portal that aggregated all the data from all these, you know, 1000s of 1000s of agencies and, you know, hundreds of 1000s of meetings. And I think that was that was really interesting and powerful to be able to search, you know, and see like for, you know, COVID or mask mandates or vaccine mandates. It’d be really interesting to see across all of the the local government agencies, you know, what, what they’re saying what the staff reports were, what the different policies people are taking, I would say this last 18 months in local government, I think it’s been the hardest 18 months that they’ve ever had to, to deal with and work you know, shutting down government, spinning up virtual government, figuring out hybrid government now. The policies, how politicized everything’s been around COVID, It’s so unfortunate. So yeah, but I’ve watched lots and lots of meetings and I have a strong opinion of how those meetings should be archived online and and I’m definitely a believer in keep them forever. Which I you know, transparency and good, open records is important to me.

Kirsten Wyatt  20:02

As I was researching and preparing for this interview, I couldn’t help but spend some time being almost in awe of where we could be at this point in time with COVID and with, you know, trying to connect with our local governments remotely with governing boards tried to hold meetings in a way that’s transparent if we hadn’t had your initial kind of laser focus on video streaming minutes, agendas, being really open and transparent. I mean, did you have any idea that, you know, we might hit a point in time where it wasn’t just a luxury, but it was like, absolutely a necessity?

Tom Spengler  20:47

Yeah, well, I mean, I would say I had a dream, for sure. You know, the the last 18 months, the digital transformation, just acceleration of that has been incredible. I would say, you know, when we first started out with transparency, there was you know, I would say, kind of coastal states, and not necessarily the Northeast, as much as you know, the West Coast and, and Southeast Florida, Virginia, were really strong in their, their views on transparency. And so once we proved it out in those kind of, I’d say forward leaning more progressive states more, more comfortable with technology, then we were, we had the opportunity to bring it to other states. And sometimes we were met with just crazy looks. I remember being somewhere in the northeast, I won’t say where but, you know, saying hey, we can you know, we could stream this, it could be live, it could be archived. And if it’s like, the gentleman looked at me and said, why would we ever want to do that? In our community, if people could see the meetings live, they would hear something they didn’t like, and they’d come down in their pajamas. And I was like, well, okay, we don’t philosophically have the same view. But yeah, I think, but you know, what’s changed that I think is amazing. And I hope it stays. And I’ve talked to a lot of public servants, city managers, etc, that also share the same view. But, you know, the two way communications versus just to pushing the information has been a big part of what accelerated with COVID. And, you know, video conferencing in the meetings, was something that we were interested in before, we actually created a product that would allow you to do a video comment. So just recorded, and then you could watch it before, you know, so one of the problems with public meetings is they’re already long. And so if your solution is to make them longer, like nobody really wants that that product, right? So getting feedback and interaction before the meeting, but after the agenda is posted, is this really unique opportunity of timely and actionable feedback. So here’s what we’re going to talk about, here’s all the background data, educate yourself on the information, and then tell us your opinion. But tell us before we make the decision, right? Because after we make the decision, you always get the people come in and said, Nobody told me, what, you guys are hiding everything. And so hopefully, some of these interactive tools, we have a product called Community comment, and we did a request to speak for virtual meetings that allowed it a lot automation there, on the Prime Gov business, hopefully, those tools will stick around and this level of convenience for residents will be there, but also the aggregation and reporting on that information in a digestible way for for decision makers, whether that’s staff or the elected officials, I just think it’s, it’s really interesting, and hopefully those things won’t just get turned off when we go back to meeting in person.

Kirsten Wyatt  24:06

And as we think about, you know, the future and, you know, hopefully, you know, I’m with you, I hope that these features stay turned on. And these are still values and principles that the government goes back to even you know, when in person meetings are feasible, but what are some other topics, trends, concepts that you’re seeing on the horizon, that you think local government should be aware of as it relates to community engagement?

Tom Spengler  24:33

Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, so one of the things right now is just hybrid government  and I would say, you know, for those of people that are listening that are in government or you know, are in a company that’s struggling with, you know, opening up offices, or being kind of, you know, remote only, the hybrid piece is the hardest, right? So if you’ve ever been on a zoom meeting where, you know, four people are in person, and then two people are on zoom, you know, when you’re, when you’re the person remote, it’s just, you’re never quite as connected as you you’d like to be. And so I think balancing services and input feedback, if you will, both digitally for convenience, and, and, you know, safety, depending on your, your situation and your communities, with being able to be in person, and, and weighing those the same, I think that’s going to be a really interesting concept for government to, to work on, you know, the continued transformation of services online, we saw lots of people in Puerto Rico, we have a, you know, a tax collector, product, right. And so all of a sudden, every customer who wasn’t taking, you know, payments digitally needed, needed that product and needed to be able to do payments, digitally. So just, you know, the the service level, digital, and then building tools internal, again, in this hybrid government, so that the staff who are going to man the counter, and interact with people in person, also have great tools, right. And it’s not just the digital tools that you’re building for the digital experience, where you’re building great tools for the in person experience as well. And that feedback that you get at a counter, or requests for, you know, some sort of service gets recorded in the same place, with the same with the same tools, and the similar level of efficiency. I think that’s, that’s where I really see hybrid government going. I think, other other trends, the ability to really get data aggregated in the in the right way. So when I, when I think about some of our clients, like city of San Antonio, a big city, seventh largest city in the country, over a million population, two council meetings a week, city of LA is one of our clients as well. And I think that they’re meeting you know, more often, but these agenda packets that they get, you know, I mean, this is like you’re reading a Harry Potter book, like every week, right? I mean, you’ve just, you’re going through these, like massive amounts of information. And so, you know, hey, if I’m not feeling good one week, did I dig through all that information? You know, and is this even the right information that I needed? So much of the information that we see in agendas is very department driven, right, like, okay, it’s the purchasing department turn on the agenda, what are all your projects that you need to approve. And then, you know, public works, now it’s your turn, right? And then CIO and IT department. But But really, if I’m, if I’m an elected official, like, I have a strategic plan, I have some goals for the community, I want to see the information in that context. So we’re working with a city where we’re starting to bring in, you know, strategic planning information and categorization of everything that gets put onto the agenda. And that’s just one filter of, you know, 10, that I think are really interesting to put in front of elected officials and say, Oh, you know, I can’t, I’ve heard from my community that we want to be a more livable community. And, you know, these 10 things I’m about to approve, are all lined up to that goal, and show me how how that’s going to be affected. I think that leads to better governance. So So I think there’s a data piece in government, both kind of internally and then aggregated that that’s really interesting. On the aggregated side, you know, benchmarking. I know ICMA, the city manager’s organization, they do some of this, but I think we could we could really benchmark projects better. And being in the agenda space again, it’s like, here’s the project coming, that needs $5 million. And it’s going to take two years, wouldn’t it be interesting to see other cities or agencies of the same size and demographics and, you know, here’s 10 other projects that were similar. These are the ones that were most successful. And, you know, that’s what we patterned our our suggested project off of. So I think that that data pieces is really interesting. And we’ve seen it in other industries. And so I think government is on its way to really having more meaningful data to make better decisions. And hopefully Rock Solid will be a big part of that. That’s, that’s my goal.

Kirsten Wyatt  30:01

The other thing that seems to have emerged is a greater understanding of how technology can potentially improve equity and access to decision makers. And this idea that previously, it was perhaps a luxury to, you know, drive to your city hall, you know, have the time to sit there, testify, you know, feel comfortable in front of a microphone. And nowadays, you know, COVID has really shown us that, that we can get community feedback, and we can get people involved and informed and it doesn’t require that luxury of in person participation. So I’d love to hear more about how kind of that equity and inclusion piece, you know, drives some of the work that you’re doing right now and how that really also is dovetailing with this greater interest in local government to improve inclusion?

Tom Spengler  30:53

Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, I think those are those are just such important principles for governing. And I think most cities, at least talk the talk there, right? That they want equity, they want inclusion, and they want everybody to be there. But I find that, you know, government is just naturally hard to change. They’re very slow, they’re risk adverse, they’re set up that way. So it’s very easy for decades to run the same programs. And when we first came out with tools for digital participation, you know, the digital divide was always brought up. And I think that’s fair, right? There’s, there’s definitely parts of our communities that don’t have digital access, I would say over the, the decade plus that I’ve been working on this, that that divide has shrunk a lot. You know, whether it’s at school or home, or you know, the smartphones, I mean, it’s just incredible way you can, you can do with your phones, and at least SMS messaging has, you know, almost 100% penetration for adults in the US, which is great. But the free time divide is, is what I like to talk about. And you know, I wasn’t living that then. But I was kind of aware of it. But now I’m exactly the person that I was talking about, you know, if you have a job and a family, especially kids, like, I’m never coming to your council meetings, unless there’s an issue that I’m so you know, focused on personally, or, you know, I always use the example is like, they’re going to rezone my house, or they’re going to remove the stop sign in front of my house. I mean, it had to be very personal. And the people, you know, again, I’ve been to lots of these meetings, you look around, and the people that are there to speak to council are not representative of the community at all. And, and I would ask, I’d ask elected officials and staff, do you feel like the members that come to speak in council meetings represent your community? And like, I don’t think I ever got a yes on that question. So what are we doing? Like, why are we not getting more representative feedback. And I think these digital tools really allow, you know, for that equity and inclusion, but you still have to be very mindful and measured in who you’re getting to participate. And I think that’s, that’s a critical part of the reporting and the data that goes into the backend of these systems and, and also the promotion. You know, it’s easy to promote things to certain groups that are typically involved, but how do you how do you go find the groups that really don’t trust government? There, there’s a lot of distrust, I find, I find that there’s a lot of frustration, distrust at the federal level, that’s just how politics are kind of talked about now, nobody can be happy, no matter what the President is doing, you know, it’s, it’s always frustrated. And then that just trickles into local even though a lot of people don’t understand what their local government does and what they’re responsible for. So bridging that gap, you know, building this digital bridge between the leadership and a government agency and their residents and stakeholders is, is what we’re trying to do. And so that means, you know, omni channel communications, that means being intentional about your outreach, means language translation in terms of, you know, Spanish, French, Chinese, whatever you need to reach your audience in there as well. But also translating, the way that we talk in government is so different than the way residents see the world because again, they just don’t understand that if they have a fallen tree branch, they need to call public works. They just know I have a tree branch across the street, someone can fix it. And so doing that translation, I think it also makes people comfortable with with using these services, not abandoning them,

Kirsten Wyatt  34:58

And I’ll just put in a quick Plug in reminder to our listeners that earlier this year, ELGL and Rock Solid partnered on at first of its kind survey about what community members want from their local governments in terms of communication. And this concept of an omni channel approach came through loud and clear, this idea that you can’t depend on one channel anymore if you want to reach the wide variety of members in your community. And so we’ll make sure we link to that survey and that data, if you’re having any challenges at all in your organization, convincing them to move to an omni channel approach, the survey really did tell that story very well. So look for that in the show notes for today’s episode, I want to switch gears and talk a little bit about the work that Rock Solid has been doing trying to get more people in younger generations involved in government, ways that you’re trying to involve Gen Z and boards and commissions or in elected service. Tell us more about some of the things you found, the best ways for local governments to get younger folks engaged in their, in their local government.

Tom Spengler  36:08

Yeah, well, first of all, let me say the research that that you guys did, and we partnered with you on, the report that you just mentioned, really great work. And so we appreciate the opportunity to work together on that important topic. And, you know, we keep learning, you know, more and more information, and the world is changing. And part of that is this, you know, these younger generations. And and it’s funny, because as a as a founder and CEO, when I was 24, I always feel like I’m on, you know, hip to the new technology. And now that I wake up, and I’m like, wait, you know, I, what is this Tik Tok thing, I just don’t have any clue. And, you know, my, my social media is run by my wife, mostly. But yeah, you know, the, the boards and commissions piece. I mean, this really came during the election. And obviously last summer, we were probably, you know, at a really critical time in terms of people’s frustrations, whether it’s social justice issues, you know, around policing and racism, or it was COVID and lock downs. And, you know, obviously, at the time, we had a president who was was very inflammatory, I would say, and, you know, just really brought the political discourse to a head, and, and you just saw so many people coming out to vote. And, you know, one of the things that I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss was that voting is not, is not the only way to get involved. And I think it’s important, but we started beyond the vote, as an initiative to help get people involved in the system, you know, so you’re, you’re seeing, you know, marches and protests and buildings being burnt down. But, you know, we weren’t seeing people applying for police commission seats in every city to really make a difference inside the communities. And a lot of people don’t understand how those systems work and don’t feel like they could make a difference and don’t trust the system. And I think that’s all fine. But, you know, when we kind of started researching it, there was 10,000, open seats in the United States, between state and local government boards and commissions. And, you know, we really started trying to just tell the, you know, put the message out there that like, go get involved, you know, go grab one of those seats and work from the inside out. And I think that you’ll, you’ll be able to add that to, you know, kind of the other programs that are being run and initiatives that are happening and see some good success. So, you know, figuring out how to fill those seats, we started talking to, you know, different elected officials who are appointing and we did a podcast on Beyond the Vote with Steve McShane him and I had a nice conversation. And Steve, you know, talks about all the processes that he had to build his network so that when he had the opportunity to appoint someone, he had someone in the community that was knowledgeable and ready to go, and, you know, maybe align to some of the beliefs that that he was elected on. And that’s, you know, just such an old school perspective. And so, now, you know, if we want to reach those, that younger population, it’s really about a digital approach. You’ve got to you’ve got to a, have all those seats available online. You’ve got to really market them to, again, where where that audience is. And then you’ve got to be ready to interact in a really digital way, right? So if if somebody goes to your website, sees there is a board or commission seat open that they’re interested in. And then it’s like, hey, come, come to City Hall, get the form, fill it out, and then return it to us, like what you lost 100% of the the gen Z’s and millennials. And then you know, the whole process all the way through, if you can really keep it engaging, keep it digital, do all the things that they’re used to in terms of updates and statuses, etc, really allows you to expand that you know, expand your pool of candidates that want to get involved to be more representative, be more inclusive, and, and, and get some of those people involved. And then, of course, you have a new challenge, which is, there’s a lot of education that has to happen for people who haven’t been around government so that they can understand the process and be effective in it. And that was one of the things that Steve brought up is they have a they have a young council member there that’s in the Gen Z group. And he just like, he’s like, Why are these meetings so long? You know, can’t we can we keep this to like an hour? And he’s like, you’ve got to be ready for these six hour meetings, and you’ve got to get your stamina up, and you’ve got all these things. But that’s also going to be a change agent, right. And so I think that’s really valuable. But for people that are listening to this, I think, you know, finding people in your community that can help on the inside out, and you know, really participate, it’s just, I think it’s going to be the best way for us to solve some of these these important challenges.

Kirsten Wyatt  41:35

So what’s next for you in the coming months, anything new and exciting that our listeners should be on the lookout for?

Tom Spengler  41:43

Well, I’m hopefully going to be traveling a little bit. So I’m speaking at couple conferences, I’m going to MISAC in Palm Springs at the end of September. And then I’m going to three CMA, which is the City County Communications Marketing Association in St. Louis, I’ll be speaking there. And we’ll be talking about communicating to different generational groups and the differences there, which we touched on a little bit here. And then we’re going to ICMA in Portland, and we’ll be we’ll be launching there kind of this, more detail on this combined vision for Rock Solid, that, you know, it’s really resident centric government with, you know, kind of a single portal for residents. And it’s an aggregated view of data for staff, but also an integration into the legislative process and the agenda process that I think is really meaningful and, and that includes boards and commissions appointment tools, as well. So we’re excited for ICMA, I think that’ll be, you know, a strong representation of where we’re going in the future, in terms of the business and our products. And, yeah, I’m excited for that. And hopefully, I’ll get to get to travel. I miss seeing people in person shaking their hands, seeing their smiles and I don’t mind working from home, but I do miss that that part.

Kirsten Wyatt  43:12

Exactly. Well, I have one last question. If you could be the Gov Love podcast DJ, what song would you pick as our exit music for this episode?

Tom Spengler  43:25

It would probably be something from One Republic, I’d say they’re one of my favorite bands. So maybe right now my playlist is Feel Again, from one Republic, so I’m gonna choose that for today.

Kirsten Wyatt  43:37

That’s a great song to end with. Most of all, I want to thank you for joining us today on this episode of Gov Love. 

Tom Spengler  43:44

Thank you, Kristen. I enjoyed it. 

Kirsten Wyatt  43:46

Gov Love is produced by a rotating cast of ELGL volunteers. A reminder that the all virtual ELGL conference is on September 23rd and 24th. Tickets are $80 and we’re mailing out swag boxes. So don’t delay if you’d like a swag box that includes the latest edition of the famous ELGL Socks. Please register today at ELGL21.com. We’re covering topics as varied as finding the joy in local government careers to climate change. And we also have unique networking opportunities planned like local government trivia night, and we’re even teaching a cross stitching class where you can make your own live, work and play wall hanging. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. You can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter @GovLovePodcast. Thank you again for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.

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