Thinking More Broadly About Community Engagement in Open Data and Performance Analytics

Like many people (and dogs), it’s easy for cities to rely on old habits and tricks when thinking about their community engagement strategies. GovEx is currently working on its “Community Engagement Playbook,” a guide and toolkit for cities to use to be more thoughtful in their community engagement strategies and learn how other cities are handling the same issues. In the meantime, Let’s explore a few questions and examples to help cities think more broadly about community engagement for open data and performance analytics programs.

Does your city look beyond the “usual suspects” when engaging the community?

It’s a no-brainer for cities to turn to their civic tech and academic communities when looking for input into their open data and performance programs. However, there are many other stakeholders who may be interested in joining the conversation. This might mean making the discussion less wonky and more reachable. For example, consider asking “What information are residents interested in?,” rather than focusing on releasing datasets that are only valuable internally. Or, “What is our city trying to achieve?,” instead of executive-level strategic planning processes that exclude or only nominally involving the public.

Bellevue, WA, conducts an annual resident satisfaction survey focused on feedback about the city and its service provision. The city contracts out the surveying to ensure that it’s statistically sound and representative of the entire community. This enables the city to pinpoint the community’s priorities and feelings about how the city is functioning and incorporate those findings into its decision making.

Eric Costello's South Baltimore Neighborhood Association Facebook comment However, not every city needs to make this type of investment. Sometimes engaging just means looking beyond the typical venues. When I moved to Baltimore last spring, I quickly joined my neighborhood’s Facebook group. Our council member is incredibly active in the group, commenting on posts and responding with links to city resources and information. When the streets in our neighborhood were getting repaved this summer, he posted which streets were being worked on when and their estimated date of completion. His proactive and responsive nature really set residents at ease and certainly lessened the strain on Baltimore’s 311 call center.

Is your city publicizing its community engagement events and opportunities in the most inclusive and accessible way?

Before moving to Baltimore, I lived in a small city in the Bay Area. The city held strategic visioning events to guide the development of its performance management program. However, the city advertised these events only in the local newspaper and three levels down on the website. My apartment complex (about 50 units) received only two copies of the newspaper. If you weren’t quick to the front gate in the morning, you weren’t getting a paper. I only learned about these events after the fact, even though I would have been very interested in participating. The assistant city manager was dismayed that only a handful of residents showed up to the events, but did not realize that effective outreach is the result of strategic planning–it doesn’t just happen by itself. It’s important to be cognizant of these types of constraints and make sure that your city is actively trying to reach all community members, not just the squeaky wheels or regular participants. In addition to planning your own events, this means meeting people where they are–parades, farmers’ markets, school sporting matches, plays, and other community event.

The important aspect is broadening the scope of engagement and involvement, and understanding the best venue to connect with community members. Seattle’s police department is increasingly meeting its residents where they are. As a part of the city’s community-oriented policing plan, SPD and the mayor’s office held Safe Communities Outreach meetings in each precinct to bring police officers and residents together to discuss public safety priorities. SPD also attends neighborhood association meetings across the city and invites residents to its biweekly SeaStat (SPD’s CompStat) meetings in which community engagement is an important part of the conversation.

Is your city aware of the community’s interests and priorities concerning open data and performance?

When talking to local government officials and staff about why they chose a career in public service, I most frequently hear about their desire to make a real difference in the lives of the residents and community they serve. But sometimes, governments think that they know best how to make that happen, missing out on engaging their community in the discussion. As community members (and Millennials in particular) are looking to be more involved and engaged with their governments, open data and performance governance committees provide a great opportunity to give them a seat at the table. Many cities are creating or formalizing internal groups that determine open data workflows and processes, inventory a city’s datasets, connect open data releases with citywide priorities discussed in performance and analytics meetings, and think strategically about how to share progress and successes with the public. These groups really benefit from having resident, business community, and civic tech input.

I received my masters of public administration from UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Government (SOG). SOG and its students are so active in North Carolina local government (researching, interning, consulting, and providing training for government staff) that municipalities are eager to harness that knowledge and public service motivation for their own good. The town of Chapel Hill even appointed MPA students and alumni to various boards and committees. This might be above and beyond what city governments would brainstorm when thinking about how to engage their communities, but has been effective in uniting the academic and Chapel Hill community. Other cities see similar benefits. Jackson, MS, was inclusive when inviting participants to its newly founded open data governance committee. Their committee includes city employees from a number of departments, local and state media representatives, a faith community leader, and even a state senator. By opening up membership to a variety of community groups, Jackson’s demonstration of the importance of using data and evidence in decision making has been far-reaching and effective at changing the way business is done in the city. Residents and city staff alike feel real ownership and pride over the process encouraging the sustainability of the city’s efforts.

Is your city sharing successes from open data and performance analytics programs effectively and broadly?

Cities all over the United States are doing great work and seeing phenomenal successes from their open data and performance analytics programs. However, very few are sharing these wins with their communities and residents in an accessible and understandable way. And so, cities are missing out on a great opportunity to build civic pride or engage community members who might not have known about all the innovative work happening around them. As a visual learner and a public transportation commuter in the Bay Area, I really responded to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s performance dashboard. SFMTA extremely active in soliciting community input revising its strategic plan to promote safe, timely, and customer-oriented service delivery. The organization held public meetings in multiple languages and neighborhoods, and conducted online and in-person surveys. SFMTA also publicly shared its successes online, on street posts, busses, and rail cars. When riding the 38L out to the Inner Richmond for work, I saw when the next community meeting was, learned how much time was shaved off my ride with Muni Forward’s bus-only lanes, and felt pride in  SFMTA’s significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, fuel, and water use, all because SFMTA was sharing its plans, data, and successes widely and visibly.

I have been working with Chattanooga, TN, to share the city’s open data and performance successes both internally and externally. The city hosted roundtables with various departments, using human-centered design activities to determine the most useful way for them to visualize their data. The office of performance management and open data is developing a repository of success stories to share through with the public through Twitter, the city’s website, Mayoral press events, and more. Chattanooga recognizes the importance of informing the public about its open data and performance wins to build support for its programs, and engaging the community members in governing for topics which may seem uninteresting but can have significant impact in their lives.

It’s easy to focus on day-to-day activities and meeting deadlines, but considering these questions in order to engage other groups and community members  who might be interested in your work is an easy way to build trusting relationships and create a common vision for the future of your city.


 

Does your city have an innovative community engagement idea or strategy? Do you have questions or comments? Contact us! Post questions to our Q&A section, or email us at govex@jhu.edu.