An Economic Development Director from a new city, an Assistant City Manager from a huge county, and a Deputy Police Chief from one of the first US cities to go into lockdown. These are leaders with very different roles from very different communities, but they hold one thing in common. All have found it to be more important than ever to safely and effectively connect with residents in this socially-distanced world.
In this video, Polco’s Matt Fulton speaks to local government guests Christopher Pike, Brian Moran, and Chris Hsiung. They share how they are engaging community members even in today’s world.
“Everything We Do is to Connect With Residents.”
At only three years old, South Fulton, Georgia is the newest City in the Atlanta Metropolitan area. It is also one of the fastest growing areas in the region.
“Everything we do is to connect with residents. South Fulton exists because of community engagement,” said Economic Director Christopher Pike. “Our residents voted for the city to exist via a referendum. They wanted us to exist for self-determination. Everything is being created from scratch.”
Pike leads the Economic Development efforts for the City, so takes this unique lens towards South Fulton’s engagement.
When COVID-19 began, South Fulton surveyed businesses to better understand what support they need during government lockdowns. As a result of the survey, the City started a South Fulton United fund. The money raised allowed the City to buy lunch for frontline workers at local mom and pop restaurants.
“These restaurants told us they were able to make payroll because of the orders,” said Pike.
In addition, South Fulton launched a technology assistance grant, which helps local businesses launch websites to be able to take their business online.
Not only do City leaders support business owners with their short-term needs, but also they engage residents in long-term planning even during COVID-19.
For example, community members gathered via virtual meetings to inform the City’s Economic Development Plan and Zoning Rewrite Plan.
And, the City commits to transparency. As one example, South Fulton uses OpenGov to show residents how money is being spent.
“We are open and transparent because we believe our citizens need to see the return on their investment,” said Pike.
Cutting Through the Noise
Baytown, Texas is located in the third largest county in the United States. So how does this impact the City’s resident engagement during COVID-19?
“Cutting through the noise has been one of our biggest goals during the pandemic. This is even more important since we are a City in such a large county,” said Assistant to the City Manager Brian Moran. “How can we best present the information so we follow our Texas State guidelines and Harris County guidelines? How can we redirect people to the right information so there won’t be confusion when trying to find resources and info?”
With the goal of providing clarity, the City focuses on pushing out information from Harris County rather than creating new information. Baytown is also undergoing a website overhaul to make things easier to understand.
In addition, Baytown recognizes that the best solutions address regional and not just City needs. As just one example of Bayton’s uniquely regional approach, the City is working with nearby residents across multiple communities to analyze best practices. The goal of the consortium is to understand how better to implement best practices across the region.
“At the beginning of the crisis, especially, there was so much info from local, state, and federal government. It was overwhelming and contradictory,” said Deputy Police Chief Chris Hsiung.
Early in the pandemic, the mayor appointed Hsiung to lead a cross-department approach to strategic communication related to coronavirus.
The team leads with a strong focus on two-way engagement and a goal to reach people through their mobile devices.
“Government is good at pushing info, but not always so great on two-way communication,” said Hsiung. “We don’t measure our success by how often or frequently we talk to residents but by how often they talk to each other about what we are trying to do. We have a mobile-first approach because that’s where people are engaging.”
To meet its goals, Mountain View leaders updated its platform to be more appealing to residents. They started a hashtag campaign called #TogetherMV. The goal of the campaign is to hear from residents and to build a sense of community.
Mountain View hired someone to create infographics and videos to make the information shared by the City more useful and engaging.
The team collaborates across departments to make sure everyone shares the same talking points with residents.
“Consistent communication points mean we are playing from the same sheet of music,” said Hsiung.
Hsiung also brings this focus on two-way engagement to his work as Mountain View’s Deputy Police Chief.
Every few months the Police Department sends out a simple survey to residents to get feedback on what to do better. The survey prompted the Police Department to share more information with residents about what is happening in neighborhoods.
During the months following George Floyd’s death, the Mountain View Police Department formed a cohort of residents to frequently dialogue about race and the police.
“We see that our role is to create space to have difficult conversations. We said to the cohort that we’re not here to preach at you. We’re not here to tell you how we do anything. We’re here to listen and to answer any questions you have,” said Hsuing.
This approach worked very well for the Police Department.
“Several self-proclaimed activists said ‘you know we really wanted to hate you coming into this, but we really can’t. We didn’t understand what you did until now,’ said Hsiung.
Learn more about other ways local government leaders connect with their residents through the Polco website. Polco’s online community engagement polling platform provides the information tools local governments and other public sector leaders need.