This article was written by Jill Greiner from the City of Charlottesville, Public Works Department, Environmental Sustainability Division, Water Efficiency Program Coordinator. Jill wrote this article as part of the Water Resources Cohort. Read all the articles from the cohort here. Connect with Jill on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Email.
Whether you are in a public works, utilities, transportation, or parks department, you need someone in that department fully focused on communication. Communication is one of those essential but easily forgotten positions in a department where most local government might turn to a centralized communication office for help. While these centralized communication offices are also essential, having a dedicated communication position(s) for your department will provide much more value, and most importantly, a direct connection or pipeline of information to your community from your department.
When you think about a service-focused department in local government, you think about the parks, transit, or utility departments. What do these departments do, they provide the community services (some 24/7) to ensure an expected quality of life, like having clean water or a smooth street to drive on. These services are essential to a community, and many of them are taken for granted. When is the last time you had to worry about not getting water when you turned on the tap? Some services provided by these departments might go above and beyond the expected essential services, which can help make your community special or unique.
So, for these departments that arguably provide some of the most essential services to a community, why are they often some of the same departments that a community hears the least from. Typically, when the community does hear from these departments, it is because their services are changing or there is something bad related to their service (road closures, water main breaks, or changes in their trash pickup schedule).
However, these interruptions or changes are often the only communication from these departments because everyone just expects that their service will be delivered on time. As a result, some of these departments don’t have a full-time employee to handle communication, or maybe they do, but they are not given the support to tell a department’s story.
Years ago, many of these departments could get by without communication in part because it was not an expectation in local government and because there was not much to report. Water was being delivered and from everyone’s perspective it was safe, trash was being collected, and streets were being built or fixed as needed. However, infrastructure does not last forever, and technology and science has changed significantly. We now can test for more contaminants in water or analyze a street for cracks to fix before a full redeveloped or rehabilitation is needed. This new understanding has also brought on a deeper burden to these services to do better and react before a disaster could happen.
Communication is not just as easy as putting out a press release when something changes; in 2020, communication means something very different. When you think about a typical person in your community and how they might interact with anything about their local government, they might be watching their local news or reading the newspaper; but they are also checking social media or attending (or zooming) a local event. We all know that communication in local government is a lot of work and involves creating digestible information for a wide range of audience that is eye-catching but informative enough to engage them (does something like this even exists?).
Your new communicator doesn’t have to start making cool TikTok videos or Instagram Stories, but they will start telling your department’s story. They will inform your community just how much work goes into getting you that drop of safe, clean water from your reservoir to your faucet, or why not every sidewalk can be fixed by tomorrow. Your communicator will humanize your department and tell the story of the transit driver who goes out of their way to help the community. Then, when there is a change or an emergency, your community will understand how important this change is or why this change might be necessary. Your communicator will be able to attend a neighborhood meeting or event, talk to the community about what their department is doing to help them, and then listen to what the community wants.
This post is inspired from my participation the ELGL’s Water Cohort. In this Cohort, we took a deep dive into issues that surrounded water. From my observation, most of these issues presented during our cohort either involved communication or could use additional communication support. In a report by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) on the “State of the Water Industry”, in a survey done in 2020, only 27 percent of water utilities responded to having a fully implemented customer communications plan. This AWWA report highlights the importance of building education around the value of water as an essential component to a utility’s success in order to get investment and engagement from their stakeholders for making the necessary improvements to their infrastructure.
Communication will not solve all of a department’s problems. In the world where information is everywhere, why does it always feel like the community doesn’t have any information about your local government or your department. However, We must not be afraid to share our department’s stories to help bring a community together.