In the early days of American government, engagement with citizens was composed of letters, spirited speeches at city hall and the occasional revolution. Today, after waning and resurging, waning and resurging, the interactions between people and their government have largely taken a new form.
Today, people are more likely to go online to complain about a service, email their city council members about an issue or look on the city’s social feeds for the latest news. Where some cities have kept their distance as a means of forcing the public to vent through prescribed and predictable means, others have turned into the skid and embraced the new normal.
Cities, like Roanoke, Va., are completely invested in harnessing and prompting their input online and in person. On March 13, officials kicked off the latest addition to the city’s assortment of departments — the Office of Citizen Engagement.
As veteran Roanoke social media guru Timothy Martin explained, this new approach is about better deploying the wealth of resources the city already makes available to its constituents.
Roanoke — a city of roughly 98,000 people — maintains more 50 social media outlets, each reaching and attracting its own share of more than 180,000 followers. Under the newly unveiled structure, Martin said it allows better coordination among the various citizen engagement representatives across all departments.
“You’ve got me kind of leading the main office and you’ve got these employees that are around the organization,” he said. “What it allows me to do is to go in and be a hyper-consultant type for all of these departments to try to maximize resources and engage the public as best we can. This allows me to focus solely on citizen engagement and push that.”
Rather than just leaving it to chatting with the public through Facebook or Twitter, the office is also responsible for maintaining the city’s other online assets, as well as keeping policies up to date.
And the new model does something else — it removes the social media and website tasks out from under the Roanoke external communications office.
“An easy way for me to explain it is, the office of communications is a great resource to communicate to the citizens," Martin said. "The office of citizen engagement is a place where we communicate with the citizens.”
Though the two communicate constantly, the end goal of each differs. From boosting attention to a public meeting to spreading the word about severe weather, Martin said the relationship between the media-facing department and the citizen-facing department is a close one.
And the move is one Martin expects to see more of as cities become more comfortable with digital communications tools.
“I think you are going to begin to see local governments begin to separate traditional communications and non-traditional communications,” he said. “We not only try to get people to go to the public meeting, but also to realize they don’t necessarily have to be at the meeting to give input. We can be there Facebook Live-ing the public meeting. We can be broadcasting, asking for people to give feedback and compiling all of that information for the folks that can’t make it to that meeting.”
For Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill, the efforts make perfect sense — especially as it relates to building a stronger, more trust-based relationship with citizens.
When he first arrived in the city in 2010, the city manager said there was a certain element of civic attachment missing from the fabric of Roanoke. From his perspective as an outsider, he saw the opportunity to capitalize on the characteristics that make the city unique and bolster the connection.
Martin’s use of social platforms made that process much easier.
“Social media gave us a platform to really expand that attachment,” Morrill said. “It was a really efficient and effective way to touch a bunch of people with some fun creative stuff. What that does at the end of the day is make people like living here more.”
Both Martin and Morrill agree that building a healthy online conversation is an essential part of a modern local government that holds other benefits. The city’s fun and creative posts draw and audience and build informational capital for the day a more serious message needs to be heard.
Though Morrill recently accepted another position away from city government, he said he isn’t concerned that his successor will see any reason to roll back the citizen engagement efforts. “I don’t see it rolling back, I see us increasing it,” he said. “That will be the important thing for the new manager, that he or she recognize and support it and continue to be engaged."