West Des Moines, Iowa, residents are busy. As in most towns, public meetings elicit low attendance. Even when elected officials make an extra effort to attend meetings and talk with their constituents, they do not see a large turnout. When City Manager Jeff Pomeranz realized that discussing local issues face-to-face with the community was not really working, he decided to start a virtual discussion “to communicate with residents on their own time,” he says.
Pomeranz launched a blog in February 2006. “My incentive for blogging is to communicate with citizens on a less formal level,” he says. “I consider having informed residents who understand the different functions of a city to be extremely important.”
Through his blog, Pomeranz has finally found a way to engage large numbers of his constituents and not only keep them informed, but allow them to ask questions and make suggestions. For example, in June 2006, Pomeranz wrote a blog entry about the city’s accident analysis reports. “In response to that, a reader inquired about traffic signal delays and why traffic detection isn’t always used even though it’s possible at every intersection,” he says. “I explained what it takes to coordinate a large traffic system and that sometimes, even when a traffic sensor detects you, it is working with other sensors to move traffic down a larger roadway. In response to that entry, a citizen questioned why the city does not use yellow-red flashing signals when traffic volumes are low. I was able to respond to that question as well. [We had] a good conversation about our city’s traffic system on my blog.”
As Pomeranz has discovered, many residents are interested in how the city works, whether or not they attend city council meetings. And, blogging can be a forum for connecting with residents and building rapport that may not be possible offline. “Their understanding makes our jobs easier, and their contributions make our work more effective,” Pomeranz says.
The trend of engaging residents in government through technology is reshaping the way government works. And, the newest interactive online tools are helping executives communicate with and engage constituents.
While a number of national and state legislators have used blogs to connect with voters, blogs are still uncommon among local officials. “We’re at the early stages by any measure,” says David Wyld, Maurin professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University and author of “The Blogging Revolution: Government in the Age of Web 2.0,” a report published by IBM’s Center for the Business of Government. “But five to 10 years out, blogging or other uses of interactive Web tools will just be part of the ratcheted up expectations people have for their governments.”
For most local officials who take the time to start and maintain a blog, the exercise is about much more than simply creating an online journal. In fact, the most effective blogs encourage readers to join the discussion. “In the big picture, blogging is an obvious way to transform the relationship citizens have with their city government,” says Dave Ruller, Kent, Ohio’s city manager. “To contribute to progress, citizens must understand issues beyond the way the media presents them. I see blogs as another step in the evolution of civic engagement. As the means of conversation changes, we as governments must learn the new language and be sure we’re communicating in a way that is relevant and meaningful to our customers today.”
According to Wyld’s report, blogging is growing as a tool for promoting not only online conversations between residents and public servants, but also offline interaction. “Research shows that the people who are engaged online are more civically involved offline,” Wyld says. “If you can promote engagement online, there will be improved engagement offline too.”
Scott Neal, city manager for Eden Prairie, Minn., agrees. “My blog makes me more approachable to citizens because, if they’ve been reading my blog for awhile, they feel like they know me on a more intimate level,” he says. “If they see me in the grocery store, a faithful blog reader will approach me and start up a conversation about something on my blog that almost always leads to another question or concern about city government that I can help them with. The blog serves as a good conversation starter.”
And in Round Lake, Ill., Mayor Bill Gentes finds that when he promotes an event on his blog, it has higher attendance. “Seven years ago, 100 people came to the Christmas tree lighting; and now 500 people come,” he says. “The blog absolutely helps build community offline as well as online.”
To begin blogging, Wyld recommends using widely available (and often free) blogging software and hosting services, such as Blogger (www.blogger.com), Live Journal (www.livejournal.com), TypePad (www.typepad.com) and Word Press (www.wordpress.org). “All you basically have to do is make a series of decisions regarding the basic format and structure of your blog,” Wyld says. “It begins with naming the blog, and then progresses to items such as the screen layout, archiving options, and whether to allow comments or not. This final item is particularly important, because comments provide the opportunity for readers to provide feedback to the blogger.”
While generating feedback and community discussion often is a primary goal of a local official’s blog, handling comments can be tricky. Because of the anonymity of the Internet, some people may make vicious or profane comments. Wally Bobkiewicz, city manager for Santa Paula, Calif., says dealing with comments has been his greatest challenge since he began blogging in 2004. “We have a blog comment policy that I use when deciding which comments to post,” he says. “I recommend requiring commenters to be identified in some way. I am sure if I had started that way, lots of problems would have been avoided.”
While Santa Paula reviews comments before posting them, Round Lake posts uncensored comments. “So I get the negatives, positives and the inane,” Gentes says.
Although it is a brave step to show unfiltered comments, Wyld says such a policy can cause problems. To maintain control, Wyld recommends requiring registration and enforcing comment policies.
Dealing with challenges
Finding time to maintain a blog can be challenging, but many blogging officials say that not only is the time well spent, it actually takes less time than one would anticipate. “If I can do this, anyone can,” says Peter Auger, Davison, Mich., city manager. “I spend about 15 to 20 minutes a day at it. That’s it. It’s rough, crude in language usage, and I try to use real basic examples to break down complicated issues so all can understand.”
“If you do it well, I think it is worth every minute of time it costs to pull it off,” adds Ruller.
Developing the right content is another challenge blogging city officials face. “I try to be conscious of keeping a balance of best practices and state-of-industry types of stories with local Kent stories, but keeping new, fresh stories in the pipeline can be very challenging,” Ruller says. “I’ve always said that the day the blog becomes too governmentally boring, I’m done. So, I work hard to write with optimism and enthusiasm without being Pollyanna-ish. That’s tough.”
Gentes keeps his blog entertaining with occasional human interest stories and always with a sense of humor. A humorous post he wrote about his mother-in-law bringing 27 pounds of butter to store at his house while she went out of town still generates comments almost two years later.
Gentes has been surprised to learn that readers actually find day-to-day government issues quite interesting. “Don’t be afraid to write about something that you don’t think anyone will read. You’ll be surprised,” he says. “I once did a three-part series about stormwater, and people loved it. They were calling to ask what was going to happen, and I had to say, ‘You’ll have to wait and read tomorrow.’”
Officials can blog about local activities, accomplishments and events that are not considered newsworthy by local media. “I can cover topics that relate to ongoing issues or circumstances and don’t have to be trendy,” Pomeranz says. “I can discuss where street names come from or explain our Balanced Scorecard system to residents. These items are part of our core processes and don’t receive flashy attention, but they are extremely relevant to how well we serve our residents and businesses.
“I [also] get to tell stories and say thank you,” Pomeranz continues. “Once, a little boy came into the city manager’s office and purchased, with his own money, several City of West Des Moines items, like a portfolio, paper cube and coffee mug. He actually said he was proud to live here and wanted to show it. It’s not exactly a news item, so I talked about it on my blog. Also, our residents always answer the call when our Human Services Department is in need. It’s nice to be able to report on how generous our residents were, remark on how many people we helped, and express appreciation for their contributions. It’s also nice to recognize my staff when they go above and beyond to serve residents.”
Despite the challenges of keeping a blog fresh and interesting, many officials who make the effort have been impressed by the results. “I was astounded when I got to 50 daily readers,” says Gentes, who started his blog in April 2005. Now, the mayor of the town of 18,000 attracts 1,100 unique users each day to his blog.
Thanks to that heavy blog traffic, Gentes has learned more about individuals in the community and has been better able to identify potential leaders. Of the 70 or so appointments to various boards and committees he has made since becoming mayor, about 30 have been people he became acquainted with through e-mail communication as a result of his blog. “Those are the types of offshoots that are wonderful,” he says.
Blogging also can help officials do their jobs better. “One of the surprising benefits of the blog has been the way it forces me to constantly be looking [at] and talking about what we’re doing, what we need to be doing, what other cities are doing, to achieve our objectives,” Ruller says. “It’s like a daily dose of strategic accountability that makes me continuously reassess the alignment of what we’re working on in the short term with our long-term goals.
“As busy as we get, it can be easy to let the little things take precedence,” Ruller continues. “But the blog creates a framework that challenges me to be able to explain how the little things contribute to the bigger things, and if they don’t, it becomes fairly obvious once I am forced to explain it in the context of the blog. And of course, the readers let me know when we stray too far as well.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is a Florence, Ala.-based freelance writer.