This case study is part of our Voice of the People Award series. Most VOP winners are selected based on their results on The National Community Survey (The NCS), a resident feedback assessment that focuses on the foundations that create a high quality of life. Others demonstrate excellence in online engagement.
True innovation takes time and consistency to catch on. With new technology, there is a learning curve for users to familiarize themselves with and integrate tools into existing routines. The City of Rochester, Minnesota, is a trailblazer in incorporating civic tech into day-to-day decision-making. Since 2019, the City has used Polco, an engagement tool for local governments that includes online surveys, polls, and live events.
Rochester currently has over 3,000 subscribers. That’s more than 3,000 civically-involved residents, willing to share their input on planning projects, proposals, event feedback, design, and many other local issues.
One of Rochester's most successful surveys received over 1,500 responses.The City wanted input on public library operating hours. Most residents expressed that the most convenient time for them to go to the library was from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. While changes in library hours are not yet finalized, leaders will be certain to keep the doors open during this time.
“While it’s one tool in the toolbox, the consistency and utilization of the Polco platform as an organization, regardless of the project or program, has helped with that adoption,” said Strategic Communications and Engagement Director Jenna Bowman.
A major part of integrating Polco on a consistent basis was getting the internal City of Rochester team comfortable with the platform, which was fairly simple.
“[Polco] has been pretty easy to use, so usually after entering the first survey or two, teammates have been set to go,” Bowman said.
The City uses other tech for purposes unrelated to engagement, but they stick with Polco as their only survey method. This limits confusion and allows residents to get comfortable using the platform as well.
“Sticking to Polco over time has really helped the community understand the tool,” she said.
Image of Rochester's Polco dashboard. Rochester received over 21,000 responses from community members in the past month.
Improving With Time
Rochester releases about two surveys per month on a large variety of topics. Some of their most recent releases include benchmark surveys like The National Business Survey (The NBS) and The National Community Survey (The NCS), as well as customized open participation surveys that ask for input on topics such as potential redistricting maps and a transportation master plan.
Since they survey so often, Bowman says they try to utilize the data that exists to help temper engagement burnout. Looking at old surveys allows them to scale down on new ones if they already overwhelmingly know the answer. (Note: Repeating standardized questions is important for surveys that are meant to collect and compare data over time.)
“We try to identify where we streamline things and use information that we already gathered instead of going back and asking the community for the same thing,” she said.
Currently, the City is working on two separate park planning efforts happening simultaneously. Some of the questions overlapped, so they were able to cut one park survey down slightly.
“There is the data-driven decision part, but also the awareness of data that exists to continue to turn the wheel of question development,” she said.
Now that Rochester residents are comfortable with the Polco platform, the City wants to reach more diverse groups. Bowman said that Rochester is the third largest city in Minnesota. There’s been a surge of population growth in recent years, and many of the transplants are people of color.
However, most survey responses come from white residents. For example, the City recently posted a survey asking residents about if the city should build new splash pads, when they would use them, and what other amenities they should include, along with other details. Ninety-three percent of people who answered were white.
“Reaching more diverse groups includes making sure there is awareness that the surveys exist,” Bowman said.
They’ve started offering surveys in Somali and Spanish, the two other top languages in the area. Bowman said getting more people involved comes down to building relationships. She said the goal is “for people of color to not only be aware and consistently participate, but to know they’re valued.”
Rochester has made strides in reaching broader age demographics. Bowman said before switching to digital engagement services, people who participated in local government were what you might expect—older and retired. Rochester now sees a high level of participation from people in their late-20s to mid-40s.
“I have also been pretty happy with the 60 and 75-plus age group who are responding [online],” Bowman said.
Younger people are notoriously difficult to engage, but it’s something they’re working on. The City is working on a project with local high schoolers to get feedback on how they would like to connect with local government, with one caveat.
“I refuse to get on TikTok,” Bowman said.
Reaching diverse groups plays into Rochester’s general goal of broadening the user base and incentivizing people to sign up.
“The biggest hurdle is how do we let folks know your voice matters, your perspective matters, and we know you hear from us often but we still need you to engage,” she said. “Even if you are a good local government, there is a level of mistrust that continues to grow. That's the balance—we want to engage with folks, but there has been, and will continue to be, a leariness of government.”