Old ways of local government communication not enough in today’s tech-driven world

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Recently, I was having lunch with a city council member who shared a litany of comments about the outstanding job the city and its staff does in all areas of city operations. She remarked on how little the public understands about all the city does and how efficiently it’s done.  She also lamented the fact that all she hears from the public is complaints.

Having been on the city council for 12 years I was surprised she did not have a deeper understanding of the relationship between citizens and their local government. The purpose of local government is to provide the basic infrastructure for society to function; adequate water and waste disposal, public safety, building inspections, transportation systems, clean environment, recreation opportunities, education, maintenance of public space and land use management and development.  Citizens expect to go about their lives and not worry about these things, so when one of these areas intrudes on their consciousness it is usually because of a glitch of some sort. One cannot expect a citizen to educate themselves about city operations when an issue bubbles to the surface like sewage from a manhole.

I asked her, “What does the city do on a regular basis to educate citizens about the many wonderful, exciting and cost effective services the city provides?”

The answer was typical. “We put reports on the web site and include the information in utility bills. We publish the budget on the web site as well. The staff is always available to meet with citizens, and we always allow citizen comment at Council meetings.”

My response was along the lines of, “Well, whoop- tee-do!”   People do not want to take time away from their careers and families to research and educate themselves on city operations and finances.

My suggestion was to consider investing in technology that will allow the city to communicate information about city operations and their costs to citizens in an easily understood and accessible manner. Some things for her to consider were:

  • The first requirement would be for the technology to be able to integrate performance and cost data from city operations, and clean that data so it represents reality.
  • Second, the technology would need to support a wide variety of business reports in varying formats that can be tailored to the operational area.
  • Third, the technology should be used to create dashboards and scorecards that visually display performance and cost information on each operation or program.
  • Fourth, the technology should present this information on maps so citizens can relate the information to their neighborhood.

Information should always be available and updated frequently, so citizens understand material without having to subject themselves to a crash course every time they have a question.

I also told her this commitment to technology will help elected officials be better informed.  Staff will have access to data that will help them identify and solve problems to improve their operations. My friend, the elected official, walked away from our lunch happy and assured of her re-election (which was her major concern anyway.)

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About Author

Bill Coleman

Advisory Industry Consultant

Bill Coleman works with SAS local government customers across the US to understand best practices and solutions. Coleman applies his more than 30 years of experience as a senior leader in city and local government to guide SAS product and marketing management. From 1994 to 2008, he served as Town Manager of Cary, NC, the seventh-largest municipality in the state with a population exceeding 130,000. Coleman was responsible for planning, organizing and directing municipal operations, which included more than 1,000 employees and 11 departments providing a full range of municipal services. Under his leadership, Cary was the first municipality in North Carolina to work on performance enhancement system. The system was designed to help the town maintain its high quality of life by improving resource allocation and operational efficiencies throughout town government, beginning with the areas of public safety and development services.

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