Before the internet, local governments weren’t held to the same level of accountability that they are today. Processes like requesting information about municipal budgets or filing a complaint about a burned-out street lamp were a pain for citizens.
Today, that is not the case. You can hop on Google and find out anything you want in the private sector—and now, people are looking for that same functionality from the public sector. Citizens want to establish a level of trust with the municipality in which they reside. (In fact, some city managers have been leading the way in that process by connecting with their citizens via Twitter.) So, is your city doing everything it can to foster relationships with residents? To that end, here are two methods of increasing transparency in local government that you should think about.
1. Transparency With Strategic Management
Strategic performance management entails defining your long-term goals and creating and a clear plan to achieve them. For example, you may create a number of projects that allow you to track quantitative progress toward a particular part of your citywide goal. Monitoring your strategic performance and tracking citywide progress is important for every municipality, but if you don’t communicate the results of these efforts to residents, the strategic management process holds far less value.
Current and prospective citizens and business owners want to understand:
- Is the city organized?
- Is the leadership capable of executing strategy?
- Is the city well-managed?
- Are members of the leadership fiscally responsible?
Some municipalities believe that publishing loads of data sheets online (i.e., “data dumping”) is useful. The Open Data Index defines open knowledge as “any content, information or data that people are free to use, reuse and redistribute—without any legal, technological or social restriction.” They stress that “open knowledge is what data becomes when it’s useful, useable and used” and explain that the data “must be available as a whole” for it to be considered open.
But is that really what the average citizen is looking for, or is that simply too much information to easily digest? We acknowledge that publishing data online—in any format—is a step in the right direction, but whether or not that data fosters transparency and citizen trust is up in the air.
We’ve found that transparency is best fostered when citizens can access and read through the information in an easily-accessible format. Why? Because your citizens aren’t all working in performance management or municipal government! They want to know where their tax dollars are going, how safe their city is, and more generally, how well the city is performing. If they have to wade through a bunch of data to figure this out, it can be frustrating and time-consuming.
When a strategic plan is added online in plain sight, citizens feel more comfortable that their local government is on target for short- and long-term growth. They can appreciate the numbers in context, see the trends over time, and understand the municipal strategy far easier. This is where performance management software comes in handy. Municipal leaders can create scorecards and dashboards and can display the designed results right on their city’s website.
To demonstrate why strategic management is so important, take a look at this ClearPoint software case study:
Durham, North Carolina
Durham, North Carolina, didn’t have a strategic plan for many years. Once the economy took a hit, they knew implementing a strategy would be a good idea. Using performance management software, Durham city officials were able to create and publish their dashboard and display their strategic performance measures for citizens in an easily digestible format. This helped foster a better sense of local government transparency:
“Since implementing the strategic plan, there’s been more of a collaborative effort. We’ve seen better communication between departments, a stronger partnership with the county, and more opportunities to engage with our residents.” Jay Reinstein, former Strategic Plan Project Manager (Durham, North Carolina)
2. Transparency With Citizen Interaction
One major part of transparency is strategic city management, or how the municipal leadership conveys information. The other major part of transparency is how the city responds to citizen interaction. More often than not, this interaction is in the form of citizen feedback.
Current and prospective citizens and business owners want to see what the municipality does when:
- The power is out in a neighborhood.
- There are potholes all over a particular street.
- There’s an abundance of garbage in a public park.
- There’s a crime spree in a neighborhood.
Many cities used to monitor a customer service—or “311”—phone line to take down citizen concerns. But today, no one is interested in dialing a phone number—they’d rather jump online or use an app. As an answer to this, “311 software” has become very popular.
Citizens are able to write directly to their municipality to describe a problem or mention an issue—like overgrowth at an abandoned lot, for example. The municipality can then work to resolve the issue and even respond to the person once the issue is resolved. This is a win-win for municipalities and citizens, because the city is able to keep up with issues around the city, and citizens feel as though their voices are heard.
The top municipal customer service (or 311) software applications are:
Cities should take advantage of all available channels that would allow them to better connect with their citizens—and social media is one of the best ways to do so. Why? Because transparency and engagement are intertwined through social media. In other words, social media platforms allow citizens to both hear the municipality and make their voices heard.
When cities are engaged, citizens notice. They’ll learn quickly that accessing your municipal Twitter account will give them the latest information on weather, road closures, citywide events, sign-up details, and more.
For examples, take a look at the nine municipalities in this article. They all do a great job at using social media to gain trust and foster a strong citizen-municipal relationship. We also spoke to three city managers and recorded their thoughts on how they’ve made social media work in their respective cities.
While having an updated web presence is critical, some citizens prefer to be involved in a more hands-on manner. For these individuals, it’s critical to hold public forums or town hall meetings to bridge the gap. These meetings should offer a review of your strategic “big picture” and key initiatives, as well as a candid look at your shortfalls. Take a look at this article for specifics on what else you may want to cover.
A lot of municipal websites are extremely outdated. Not only does the branding seem behind the times, but the user interface is often not well thought out. If citizens must spend excessive amounts of time parsing through their city’s website to find the data they’re after, they certainly aren’t going to feel as though their city is being open and transparent. Citizens need to see that you’re making a concerted effort to put the information they want to see in a natural and easily accessible area of the web. One way to help ensure you’re doing this is making sure you have a responsive website design that works on a variety of browsers: for desktop, tablet, and smartphone.
Remember, the more channels you take advantage of—and the more interconnected you are on those channels—the better chance you have of being perceived by your citizens as transparent.
At this point, you may be wondering, “These both seem like big undertakings. Do I really need to create a solution for municipal customer service and strategic performance management?” The answer to that question is a resounding yes. If you want to truly drive local government transparency, you need both. But don’t get overwhelmed—keep in mind that with the tools listed above, becoming more transparent with your citizens can be a pain-free.
For more examples of local government transparency, take a look through the websites of Vaughan, California, and Charlottesville, North Carolina. You’ll likely walk away with a few ideas on how to connect with citizens and manage your municipal strategy.