Erika Benitez-Gill had no idea she would have to fill potholes as a producer and host for Miami-Dade (Fla.) TV, but that's exactly what she does - and more - on the Inside County Jobs TV show. She also repairs cracks in sidewalks, unplugs storm drains and fixes stop signs.
Inside County Jobs is a local equivalent of the Discovery Channel's popular show Dirty Jobs. Like Dirty Jobs, the local Inside County Jobs details often-unseen, gritty tasks, but with a focus on Miami-Dade County workers. With slick production and editing, Benitez-Gill learns about and participates in the jobs of some of the county's 28,000 workers.
The TV show is part of a larger effort by county officials to use social- networking trends and strategies to educate citizens about and increase their participation in local government.
"We know, working in the county, that there are so many things county employees do that the public is unaware of," said Judi Zito, director of the county's Government Information Center. "The idea of the show is to raise awareness of county services, but then also feature county employees, because we're like any other organization - we have our own characters and people. It's a way to showcase employees from a more internal point of view, but also to showcase some of the services that go unnoticed by the public."
In 2006, Miami-Dade TV merged with the Government Information Center, which handles the county's 311 online services, print graphics, translations, marketing and advertising. Soon after the merger, Miami-Dade TV committed to Internet programming by making its shows available on demand from the county's Web portal. Previously government meetings were aired exclusively on the government cable TV channel.
The proverbial light bulb illuminated when Miami-Dade TV host Benitez-Gill produced a seven-minute show detailing training exercises with county firefighters. With 45 pounds of firefighting bunker gear strapped to her petite frame, the show revealed just how rigorous fire rescue training can be.
"When Benitez-Gill and her crew returned from the shoot, we realized there was much more to this than a one-minute news story," said Donn Patchen, Miami-Dade TV's station manager. "We were in awe of what firefighters need to do regarding their constant level of training." The idea for Inside County Jobs developed from there.
"I had no idea what type of things firefighters do, and with the new team I'm working with, I'm learning a lot as I go," Benitez-Gill said. "It's really interesting to see how much pride employees have with their jobs - even if it's filling up potholes, they have a great sense of pride. They're not just doing their job but helping the community."
With thousands of different county jobs to choose from, Patchen, Benitez-Gill and the rest of the Miami-Dade TV crew aren't short on material. The pilot episode was the firefighting training Benitez-Gill participated in and produced. The second episode featured her working with the county's Neighborhood Enhancement Action Team (NEAT), an agency that finds and fixes problems on county streets.
The show can be viewed at the Miamidade.gov Web portal, or its YouTube channel. The county portal features other educational and informative videos, including the County Connection show that offers short episodes on a range of issues, such as how to get rid of old Christmas trees, information about farmers markets and traffic problems.
programming's purpose is not only tied to community outreach and education, but also helps county employees' sense of pride. In a time of budget cuts and dwindling government budgets, Zito said boosting employee morale can be challenging.
"Internally we've already seen, after one episode, county employees with pride and excitement about the opportunity that somebody is putting out there what county employees do every day," Patchen said. "We've been contacted by five different departments interested in being profiled. We haven't seen this kind of interest internally after one episode since I've been here."
Rhonda Buroker, a NEAT crewmember featured on Inside County Jobs, was excited to be featured. She said the program shows the work county officials do that typically goes unnoticed by the public.
"The show absolutely gives me a great sense of pride for my job," Buroker said. "People see the county as such a large employer, with nearly 30,000 people who work for the county. Inside County Jobs reveals what we do for the people we serve."
The county continues rolling out new episodes. Benitez-Gill visited the Snapper Creek Trash and Recycling Center, which handles more than 1 million pound of trash weekly.
Miami-Dade County has also used its Government Information Center for other purposes, such as producing interactive forums that garner public participation in government and county employee participation in meetings.
For example, the center produced an interactive forum for a Charter Review Task Force, which sought public input on potential revisions to the county's Home Rule Charter. The county gathered opinion from its Web site, 311 calls and e-mail, while producing live webcast video of council meetings. The county is now updating its strategic plan and is seeking public input.
"I think it's interesting because people who might have previously had to come to County Hall at night, now they have the choice to stay at home and engage in what's going on in government," Zito said.
In 2008, Miami-Dade used the same interactive technology for employee-only meetings, using streaming video to connect county workers in different offices. In a countywide strategic plan meeting that was called the biggest staff meeting ever, county leaders solicited input from employees on how to trim the budget. Some employees were selected to meet with the county manager, and it was webcast online. "It's a way to pull people together and get messages out to the top, rather than send memos," Zito said.
Miami-Dade County plans to continue using new technologies progressively after recently contracting with a vendor to provide bandwidth, storage capacity and streaming video capabilities for three webcast channels - one to produce and archive public meetings, the second for Miami-Dade TV original programming and the third for an internal channel for staff meetings that's expected to go live February 2009.