Using Social Media to Engage Constituents Where, When It Matters

The city of Wichita, Kan., dropped its time-consuming, in-person budget meetings (with low constituent turnout) in favor of engaging the public online throughout the city’s six districts.

by / April 8, 2016
Courtesy city of Wichita, Kansas

RENO, Nev. — As the digital world shifts from simply tallying likes and views on social media and dives into measuring more meaningful engagement, one Midwestern city is perfecting the use of popular social tools to better its budgeting process.

For its annual budgeting meeting, the city of Wichita, Kan., pulled back from its time-consuming, in-person meetings with low constituent turnout and opted to engage its public throughout the city’s six districts online — with impressive results.

City officials shared their experiences with attendees of the 2016 Government Social Media Conference (GSMCON) on April 7, explaining the evolution of what has become a useful city planning tool.

When city staff notice low engagement during budget meetings, attempts to engage them in person yielded little to no valuable input, said Wichita Budget and Research Director Mark Manning. Despite hosting targeted meetings across the city’s various neighborhood districts, constituents were either too busy or too disinterested to attend. 

On average, only two or three regular residents would attend, and would often voice very narrow concerns, Manning said. 

4. Tips for Hosting Social Town Halls

1. Build a social media following in advance.

2. Leverage leadership, various departments and the media to promote community engagement.

3. Carefully develop topic questions and provide meaningful replies to participants.

4. Be prepared for controversy and handle it appropriately.

In 2012, the municipality launched a social media town hall meeting through Facebook and Twitter to attract the community input that was so lacking in the essential finance process. 

“The reason we got started is we, at the city of Wichita, care about what our citizens think, but we weren’t really happy with the level of feedback we were getting,” Manning said. “We wanted to hear more from our citizens, and we also wanted to hear from more of our citizens.”

Since the early days of the online outreach program, Lauragail Locke, the city’s strategic marketing manager, said staff has honed their approach from all-day events to tailored live sessions where staff can interact directly with constituents through popular social channels.

A series of between five and seven questions posted to the city’s social pages allows participants to give feedback on the pertinent topics without having to drill down into the daunting 500-page city budget. Questions like, “Should the city keep its police helicopter?” not only guide the online conversation, but also direct the priorities of city leaders and the budgeting process.

During the event, Manning and Locke said city staff gather with city leaders and the media to address the comments they receive online in real-time. While not all of them are on topic or appropriate, Locke said controversial topics are an expected and welcome part of the process.

The online efforts showed promising engagement from the community. Comments through the city’s Facebook page jumped from 671 comments in 2013 to 1,074 in 2015. Page views were also up as a result of the program. In 2013 the city came away with 66,567 views, which jumped to 211,139 in 2014 and more than 172,700 in 2015.

“We’re most happy about the increase in comments in 2015," Locke said. "I don’t know what your public hearings on your budgets are like, but if they are anything like ours, hardly anybody shows up. So imagine if your chambers were packed with more than 1,000 people all wanting to engage with you and give you feedback — that’s a big deal, and social media allows you the opportunity to do that.”

Locke and Manning point to the successes seen through the budgeting process as another use for social media in public service. They advise municipalities to build their following through popular platforms, with partners across the IT and finance departments, and to use the opportunity to collect valuable intelligence.

Though Twitter is not the primary social media platform used by Wichita residents, Locke said they plan to grow and engage a following on the platform moving forward.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.