It's the Network

The National League of Cities launches the National City Network, giving local governments a new outlet to share information.

by / May 2, 2006

Local governments do a lot for their citizens so the National League of Cities (NLC) is creating a new way for governments to get the word out on successful projects.

In December 2005, the NLC announced the National City Network (NCN) at its Congress of Cities in Charlotte, N.C.

Anthony Williams, mayor of Washington, D.C., and immediate past president of the NLC, set the wheels in motion to create the NCN, which is designed to be a gateway for cities and towns countrywide to learn about city issues and share information.

The NLC's goal is to use the NCN to deliver city-related news content and other articles via a Web portal -- content that includes policy analysis from respected think tanks, upcoming events and topical news stories from sources across the country.

Let's Get It Started
The NLC started a "Pilot Cities Program" in late January in which it enlisted nine cities to participate and provide initial content, said Dan Goodman, director of the NCN.

"There are a few other cities that have expressed interest, but we're asking for quite a commitment on their part," Goodman said. "They have to clear it with all the different folks -- especially in the bigger cities -- that would be involved." Despite the commitment required, the number of participants had grown to 11 at press time. The NLC is not only asking cities to test and evaluate the components of the NCN site, he explained, but also to contribute to its content.

"A major focus of 2006 is going to be the development of video programming, which we'll distribute both on government access cable channels and also make available via Web streaming," Goodman said. "We want cities that can both commit to contributing some programming of their own that we can piece together, and also commit to redistributing the video programming content on their own local government access channels."

NCN TV, the multimedia and Internet TV component of the NCN, will handle the video component.

The NCN and NCN TV are meant to complement existing government access cable TV channels, not replace them, he said, explaining that though these channels fill a definite role of informing local residents of what's occurring at city hall, many smaller cities and towns need more programming content.

As an example, Goodman said, smaller cities and towns often use their government access channels to display static bulletin boards to disseminate information. It's not that the NCN is going to offer a revolutionary new mechanism to add content, he said, but it can help smaller cities take advantage of the Internet -- especially given several years of ongoing discussion about converging the Internet and TV, and the delays in making it a reality.

"I think we're really starting to see the enablement of that," he said. "If we can take some of these programs that could be of national interest and not only distribute them on the cable access channels but also make them available in a searchable format on a Web site, then we think we're really furthering the mission of the NCN -- which is to promote communication about good government between and among America's cities."

Ending Information Overload
In an age of perhaps too many means of communication, it's fair to argue that the NCN could become just another medium that gives people more information than they can keep up with.

Raleigh, N.C., is one of the nine cities that participated in the NCN's Pilot Cities Program. To city officials, the NCN is by no means information overload.

"The concept excites us because so many cities across the country have certain things in common, and we can benefit from each other, get together and share programming and other experiences," said Michael Williams, Raleigh's cable administrator, especially when the programming targets particular issues, such as downtown redevelopment efforts.

"The clutter is generic overload of information," Williams continued. "In this case, it's going to be specific information that deals with specific things. It will help clarify and identify things that could be of assistance to other cities."

Raleigh is building a new convention center, he said, and the city's cable programming division compiles regular updates on what's happening with the convention center.

"Other municipalities may be considering, or are somewhere in that process also, so sharing information along that line or additional programming along that line provides a good, rich source of information," he said. "This works at a couple of different levels. For government employees or elected officials who are considering certain things, this could be a good source for them to get additional information to help in the planning process."

Best of Both Worlds
NCN TV's video content will be broadcast both on its Web site and participating cities' government access channels. NCN Director Goodman said he's devising an editorial calendar, which will define the programming schedules and overall context for the network.

"TV programming is one component, but there are also Web seminars we're hosting," he said. "We're aggregating policy analysis and examples of good city programs that we'll make available on our Web site. We want to feature a set of each of these on a monthly basis, corresponding to a given theme -- citizen engagement in the democratic process, for example."

For that particular theme, Goodman said he envisions a TV program consisting of five- to 10-minute clips featuring what several cities have done to promote citizen engagement. Those clips could be highlights from a town hall meeting or profile a citizen group that lobbied for a particular change to public policy.

In a different month, perhaps the theme could be city government at work, and in that case, programming could feature city council meetings.

"We might work toward an archive of city council meetings that people could search through," Goodman said. "California is on the leading edge of archiving city council meetings by using closed-captioned text that's then searchable."

This would allow a viewer to search and unearth any city council meetings that discussed municipal broadband or other topic.

Data Exchange
The NCN is suited to help cities exchange information, rather than produce original content for those cities, Goodman said.

"A lot of cities, including small cities, are very proud of what they've done, and are looking for an outlet to get the word out about what they're doing, whether it's for economic development purposes or attracting people to move to their cities," he said, adding that these cities primarily produce their own programs for government access channels.

NCN TV could become a way for citizen groups working with a municipal government to show homemade videos of success stories in their neighborhoods or communities.

That presents a couple of problems, however.

"We need to be able to scale a business model to accept all that content, to review it and to make it available," he said. "The model that's out there, video blogs, is something we want to look at. The second hurdle we need to clear is that, to the extent that we're serving different audiences, sometimes those audiences want to communicate between themselves."

Goodman said he'd like to see the NCN devise a way for mayors to communicate directly with each other, or neighborhood groups to directly talk among themselves and perhaps share documents and files. Currently the NCN offers a general chat function that isn't organized by groups.

Eventually Goodman said he wants the NCN to create social networking opportunities for municipal governments -- similar to LinkedIn, which bills itself as a way for people to manage their professional relationships.

"Some are really serving a great purpose in the business community, and I'd like to do something like that for city government and people who are working at the local government level," he said. "Politicians are by nature networkers, but city administrators may be less so. And citizens working in a neighborhood who may be interested in banding together with similar groups across the country, they're even less so."
Shane Peterson Associate Editor