Have you ever had the experience of going through a lengthy process to develop a new plan or project only to have a few vocal community members publicly oppose the project at the last minute, claiming to speak on behalf of the wishes of the larger community?
You know the outcome - Facebook and other social media suddenly explode with information (and misinformation) about the proposed project. City leaders rush in with additional information in an effort to sway public opinion, but with mixed results. Residents are left with the impression that their input isn’t valuable to their elected officials. City leaders are frustrated, as they attempted to distribute information earlier in the process via their website and newsletter with little success. What can a community do?
Technology is changing the landscape of civic engagement. In the past it was acceptable to communities to have their elected officials made decisions with minimal input from citizens; today many community residents want to have a more active role in their local government’s decisions. Social media has enabled groups to discuss issues, often times without all of the relevant information. This can lead to a bias against an issue or an agenda to (mis)inform other residents about the dangers of a particular decision before the board.
Some communities have responded to increased engagement by responding to posts and regularly scanning social media, resulting in a drain on staff resources. Others shun social media, hoping that residents will use traditional methods of engagement such as calling their elected official or attending a board meeting. But a number of communities are now using Community Snapshots as a way to test the waters on a potential policy or proposal, allowing a way to gauge feedback early in the process and proactively engage residents in the policy making process.
At Polco, Snapshots are the results of questions you’ve posed to your community. They not only provide you high level results, but break down demographics and the geography of your respondents, giving you a full picture of how effective your engagement was.
Snapshots offer the opportunity to build consensus as plans and policies develop, resulting in outcomes that policy makers can be sure reflects the needs and wants of their entire community. Proposals can be drafted with data gathered from community input, leading to a more streamlined process and plans that they can be confident will be welcomed by the community.
Imagine if your locality took the following Snapshot: “The city is looking to develop Parcel A in the downtown area. Options include a) a multi-family residential unit, b) numerous small retail stores and restaurants, or c) a mixed development unit including residential, retail, and restaurants. Which option should we pursue?” By opening this dialogue you have shown your willingness to work with the community and given your residents a simple way to engage. Ultimately this will lead to opening channels of communication regarding the priorities of the community, and an understanding of who your engagement does and does not reach.
The use of Community Snapshots as a tool to facilitate civic engagement connects City Hall with residents to assure understanding on the overall direction for their community.