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Using Technology to Increase Access and Transparency in Local Government

Today’s public administrator is facing challenges to inform and engage the public about the issues that confront our cities, counties and agencies. Citizens have to balance the demands of work, family and the many life choices around them every day. Frankly, watching and attending the traditional, structured and sometimes drawn out processes of government agencies is not a priority for many people. As a result, the public often tunes in and out when it comes to the proposals and projects in their community at a time when we as public managers desire their full attention and participation. So the question is how do we compete for their attention in today’s world with many competing information sources and work/life events?


New Tools

The good news is that today public managers have many tools and technologies at our disposal to increase access to information on what’s happening at City Hall and other levels of government. Many agencies have moved on from traditional methods like mailed notices, periodic printed newsletters and legal ads in newspapers to more interesting and lively approaches. Let’s take a look at how one agency, the City of San Carlos, has used these tools in a “multichannel” fashion to better engage and inform the public.


Web Sites and Email

In the mid-1990s, cities and government agencies began to develop colorful websites. These sites offered features like headlines of what’s going on at the City, electronic service request forms, quick links, email and phone contacts and program and project updates, all available 24 hours a day – long before and after City Hall opened and closed each day. In short, a revolution in convenience and access. In San Carlos, the city’s website at www.cityofsancarlos.org has grown from one page in 1993 to over 10,000 pages of information today – providing information on every city department and almost every city program and proposal available to the public.

During this period, cities also employed email list serve software on their websites. These programs let the public select from a menu of meeting agendas and minutes, project updates, news and announcements of interest. Once the selections are made, cities can email updates knowing that the intelligence of the list serve software will direct them to interested resident subscribers in a matter of seconds. At the City of San Carlos, subscriptions to the City’s eNotify email list serve have grown from 25 subscribers with 5 subscription options in its first week in the mid-1990s to more than 8,400 subscribers with more than 40 document types today. Ironically we find that more people learn about City events through email today than through other methods – even though it was one of our earliest and most basic efforts at information sharing through technology!


Indexed Videos and Document Management

In 1999, new companies sprung up that offered cities new ways to communicate with and inform the public by offering videos of public meetings. At first these systems focused on live streaming of public meetings and events, enabling residents to watch what was “going on at City Hall” from the comfort of their own home.

The systems then added indexing so that each topic or meeting agenda item had its own time stamp or link. This made the archived video of a meeting much more relevant and friendly. Instead of watching a 3 to 5 hour public meeting, residents and interested parties could now “jump” right to the item of interest, watch that 15 to 30 minutes of discussion and skip the remainder of the meeting. The public applauded and offered kudos to cities like San Carlos that offered this service. Citizens in neighboring cities asked – and even demanded – similar services from their city.

Taking it to another level, cities worked with document management firms to link current and past meeting agendas, minutes, staff reports and attachments to the online meeting notices and archives. The result is today interested parties can not only receive a meeting agenda, but also all of the reports, maps and attachments that the City Council, Commission or Board will have at a meeting in advance of the meeting date.

Web portals like the www.epackets.net site from the City of San Carlos show how all of these technologies can be used in a compelling manner to provide full information and transparency, offering complete meeting packets for every Board, Council, Commission and Committee at the City. In some respects, this can be a mixed blessing since the City has made it so easy to learn about a meeting without attending the meeting that one could argue we are making attendance a disincentive.


Social Media & Web 2.0

In 2006, new tools like Twitter and Facebook came on the scene. Cities soon began exploring how to use these systems as new ways to reach the public. In San Carlos, we found that the audience using Twitter and Facebook were different, requiring different approaches to writing and formatting information on each service. On Twitter, the city focuses on instant updates and short briefs while Facebook emphasizes parks and recreation and community events with colorful pictures and images. The result has been reaching residents who do not use the city website and email services. And the services continue to be popular – we’ve seen a jump in participation from a small group of tech fans at the start to almost 3,000 fans on Facebook and almost 4,500 followers on Twitter today.


Web Based Services

We should also mention the growth of web based city services. In San Carlos, the most popular corner of the city website is our online recreation class and program system, www.recconnect.net. Using a vendor’s recreation software and linking it to this branded portal, the city has seen online recreation registration jump from 25 percent when it was first offered to more than 79 percent today. Allowing residents to register for summer camp for their kids and sign up for courses for themselves from the comfort of home, or their desk at work, without ever setting foot in City Hall is what some residents say is “what I really want from the City.”


The Future

Additional services are coming with the advent of smartphone apps, low cost touch based tablets, laptops and computers and many other innovations. The experience in San Carlos tells us that agencies would be wise to explore, experiment and then adapt these new technologies to keeping the public aware of city information, programs and events. If you do, the result will be a better informed and engaged community. A recent citizen satisfaction survey in San Carlos showed an amazing 98 percent positive rating for the city’s quality of life. This shows that sharing information and focusing on transparency leads to many happy and engaged residents, something we all aspire to have in our communities.


Author: Brian A. Moura has over 30 years of experience in City, County and School District Management. He has a M.P.A. degree from Cal State University, East Bay and a B.A. degree in Political Science from UC Berkeley. Brian was a keynoter at the Super Session on Transparency in Government during ASPA’s 2010 Annual Conference in San Jose. He currently serves as the Assistant City Manager at the City of San Carlos. Email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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