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Gilbert, Ariz., Capitalizes on Viral Innovation and Justin Timberlake

The chief digital officer in Gilbert, Ariz., is using digital media savvy to communicate with citizens and show the world what the community has to offer.

When Justin Timberlake put out a call for videos of fans dancing to his hit song Can’t Stop the Feeling, Dana Berchman, chief digital officer (CDO) of Gilbert, Ariz., saw an invaluable opportunity for her community.

Berchman knew the quick-hit nature of the Internet meant that she and her staff had about 48 hours to strike. So, they issued a call on social media for dancers to meet them, and they rushed around their Phoenix suburb with a camcorder, bumping the catchy JT tune from a Bluetooth speaker while shooting video of city staff, police officers, firefighters, kids at the park, sanitation workers, seniors, a guy who dressed like Chewbacca (for some reason), and the list goes on. Throughout, they showcased Gilbert, from its parks to its city center to its small businesses.

The effort paid off. Justin himself tweeted a link to the video, with the caption “Gilbert, AZ!!” plus a praying hands emoji. The four-minute clip accumulated nearly 100,000 views on YouTube, and a comment section filled with people talking about the town. With views through Facebook and Twitter, nearly 500,000 people saw it. Berchman even got a call from a recent retiree in Oklahoma, saying he saw and loved it. He’d been wanting to move to Arizona but hadn’t picked a city. Could she please send him some info about Gilbert?

“It was just crazy. It was a year ago at the end of May that this happened, and still I go places and people are like, ‘Did you guys make that Justin Timberlake video?’” Berchman said. “Something like that takes community pride, and people really love it, and then they share it and say, ‘This is where I live! This is where I work!’ It’s really an amazing, amazing tool, just using video and social media.”

The viral video, however, is far from the only forward-thinking tech initiative within Gilbert’s local government. The city laid out a digital road map two years ago, its technologists host a weekly podcast and they’ve all but eliminated traditional communication models, instead putting the vast majority of correspondence with citizens online.

Gilbert has accomplished this through a near-ideal combination of circumstance and personnel. In terms of circumstance, the town has a double punch of factors enabling efficient use of technology. It’s a young community, with a median age of residents between 32 and 33 years. It has also grown significantly, from around 50,000 residents as recently as the '90s to about 240,000 today. Its young population is primed to embrace tech, and the recent growth means the local government is not saddled with many outdated systems or staid ways of doing things.

Meanwhile, Gilbert’s political leadership and its city manager, Patrick Banger, fully support models in which the first method of interacting and communicating with citizens is digital, and Berchman herself is a secret weapon of sorts for Gilbert.

She spent years working in the media in New York City, first during the reality boom at MTV and later with NBC News, where as a producer she helped Andrea Mitchell, one of the program’s anchors, embrace social media.

In five years as CDO for Gilbert, Berchman has built a significant social media following for the town, opened data channels with the fire department and police, and built an expert seven-member team of digital and multimedia journalists, among other accomplishments.

As a result of some of her video-driven efforts, she now fields calls from others in government wanting to know what production company she uses, and she regularly hears stories about larger cities spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on flyers and mailers to reach residents, hoping to foster even a small fraction of the interactions her department gets with a well-timed tweet.

“We’re using video and social media in a lot of ways I don’t think other cities are because they’re still stuck doing printing, or other old-school methods,” Berchman said. “It’s hard in government to make change because of that, because that’s the way they’ve always done it. You hear a lot of that. We’ve been at the forefront of being innovative but also being lean and cost effective.”

She said key to that cost efficiency has been keeping her department small while hiring the right people, which she has accomplished by expanding hiring efforts to places like Indeed and LinkedIn rather than the usual government boards.

Another common question asked of Berchman is whether she plans to jump to a larger city, maybe to nearby Phoenix. Her answer is a stern no. Berchman grew up in Gilbert, and helping the city forge digital channels of communication with residents as it grows is personally rewarding.

She remembers the days where the most notable thing about tiny Gilbert was that it was the hay capital of the world (this is no joke, look it up), and she remembers being teased by kids from larger towns who asked if she ever rode a horse to school.

“Honestly I never would have seen myself working in government and I was very apprehensive,” Berchman said. “I thought, I don’t know if I’m cut out to work in government, but it was the best decision I ever made. I’m here because it’s Gilbert, I’m from here, and I love this community. It’s so gratifying for me to see the place where I grew up grow up too.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.