Blogs for Local Governments

It is a very small investment in terms of time and money, with a positive return in encouraging citizen participation

by / May 6, 2005
When was the last time you heard something like this from a citizen/constituent?

"Thanks for explaining the situation. I had misunderstood the way things work, and didn't realize how easy it actually is to get someone to help me with my problem."

Probably not very often -- or ever.

Governments and their agencies at all levels, from the smallest township to densely-populated states, are trying harder than ever before to be more approachable, and accessible to the residents of the area they serve.

In the past, public meetings and traditional media were the mainstay of communication. Unless there is a "big" issue affecting a lot of people, these meetings are sparsely attended by the general public. Public information officers and departments work hard to see the public is informed on the operations of government, and traditional media (the papers, the TV and radio stations) do the best they can to cooperate.

Outside of election years, and those times when those "big" issues emerge, the public pretty much goes about their business, blissfully unaware of the workings of their local governments. Those times when everything is working well, and it's not an election year are the times when you're least likely to hear from citizens, even though this would be the time when governments could best educate and inform.

Web sites have gone a long way in making government more accessible. Los Angeles County has put most of its public documents online, saving everyone time and money, and you can get birth and death certificates from most states by filling out forms online. There are dozens of examples of ways to do business with a state or local government online, not to mention the ability to contact elected officials and various departments with questions or concerns.

Here in Yuma AZ, one of our County Supervisors, Lucy Shipp, holds monthly luncheons at a local restaurant to make herself more available to her constituency, as does City Council member Scott Johnson.

While these are great ways to even out the spaces between times of crisis and times when the public "forgets" about their governments, there is still more that can be done. Blogs can make a difference here. Not only elected officials, but various departments could also use a blog to explain what's going on and how things work.

Elected officials can make themselves available for questions, and ask questions of their own of a segment of the public they perhaps could not have reached before. Those who can't attend public meetings in person, or even those who do, can see why a City Council member voted the way he did on an issue, straight from the horse's mouth. The official could also choose to use their blog to show their more-human side, talk about their hobbies or families, or conduct informal discussions on issues they feel need to be addressed. All of this is done without the filter of media, and their own restrictions on airtime and page space.

Government departments could use blogs to explain how things work, and how their jobs fit into the larger scheme of "keeping things going." For example, somebody from the parks department could talk about why we have parks, how things like playground equipment and restroom facilities have changed over time, and why that is. A staffer from Administration could explain how things like local ordinances and laws come about, and how citizens can take a more-active role in this process. Each department has its unique perspective on their part of the work of government; who better to inform the public than the experts themselves?

In this election year, some localities are giving candidates for local office their own blogs, for the purpose of giving the public a better way of learning their positions on issues, and their intentions for the future. It's an ongoing Q&A session, conducted more efficiently (and at far less cost) than a series of local meetings or newspaper profiles could ever be.

These ideas are just the beginning of the variety of ways governments can use blogs. Remember, a blog does not require any specialized abilities. It's not one more job for the already-overloaded IT department. It's not a very big job for anyone. Once the blog is established it takes no more time than writing an e-mail. They don't need to be updated every day or every week, and they don't require lengthy entries, or even that all entries be the same length. Because a blog is so easily used, your designated bloggers can make blog entries themselves at any time of day or night, when it fits their schedule.

It is a very small investment in terms of time and money, with a positive return in encouraging citizen participation.

Reprinted from Global PR Week.

Trudy W. Schuett maintains Yuma County's Yuma Technology Consortium blog.

Her main blog is WOLves.