Citizen engagement in my town

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

I'm not sure if I can be more engaged with my town than I am right now. A few months ago, I was asked to join a technology task force created by the town of Cary. For the last few months, we've met bi-weekly to help the town map out a plan to use technology to better serve citizens.

We have about six months to hash out a plan, and time seems to fly by. Luckily, we decided to spread out responsibilities, so we split up the task into these categories:

  • Social media
  • Website
  • Video
  • Citizen engagement
  • Open data/APIs
  • Mobile apps

I am in charge of exploring citizen engagement for our task force. Actually, if you think about it, citizen engagement could be an umbrella topic covering most of the items in the list, above. Because that's true, i stayed very high-level in my research, focusing on creating a brand, focusing on specific goals, and ensuring the town follows through with feedback to the citizens they engage.

If you're familiar with sunshine laws, you'll know that some of what we're doing with out task force might be considerd groundbreaking. I know it is for the town of Cary. I mentioned before that our time is short with this project and we need to make progress quickly. Also, most of us are used to deliberating or sharing information over social media, etc. We are ued to sharing ideas with our social circles and the public at large. Sunshine laws in our state prohibit us from deliberating outside of our sanctioned meetings. And those meetings have to be publicized in advance so the public has time to make plans to attend.

So, if someone found a great article about an effective engagement tool or an incredible research resource, they'd have to save it until our next meeting. We immediately started using BaseCamp to post some of this information. At least we could share it with others even if we couldn't discuss it. That wasn't really enough, though. We also wanted to get the public's opinion, but BaseCamp is definitely not a tool for that kind of engagement. And using our own Facebook or Twitter accounts to conduct research also didn't work.

So, we created something that I'd been researching as a citizen engagement tool. I have been looking into sites like MyStarbucksIdea.com and SpeakUpAustin.org as examples of focused ways to use a website to push and pull information publicly. I know it seems obvious, but the sunshine laws hadn't really been challenged locally before we started asking questions.Now we have a Wordpress blog where TTF members can post ideas and ask for citizen feedback (we can't deliberate in the comments section, however. So TTF members have to refrain from posting anything in the commnets that sounds like we're making decisions on something outside of our regular meetings).

I've written a few posts for the blog, and people are reading them and responding.

We also decided to open our meetings to the public. From now on, all TTF meetings will be broadcast via WebEx. And we've already gotten several folks who call in to watch the meetings in progress.

We've made so much progress, but there's still a lot to do. I definitely feel the pressure to get it right since I'm representing the citizens of Cary. Stay tuned!