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Community Engagement Strategies for the Modern City

Rajiv Desai | October 15, 2021

3 Minute Read

Local citizen using city's mobile app.

Helping residents stay engaged and informed is essential to building a healthy, vibrant local democracy. But the average person has a lot of competing demands on their time and attention, and civic involvement rarely tops the to-do list. When municipalities use outdated community engagement strategies, reaching busy residents becomes even more difficult. Not every citizen can physically attend a meeting to learn about proposed development in their neighborhood or even find a quiet moment to dial 311 and report a pothole on their block.

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Luckily, they don’t have to. When local leaders adopt smart, effective community engagement strategies that make use of the technologies at their disposal, it becomes easier for community members to learn about events in their area, request city services, stay compliant with codes and ordinances, and make their voices heard. Keeping government accessible and responsive is a continuous process, but with the right tools, interacting with your city can be as simple for residents as shopping online.  

Updating 311 for better community engagement

Beginning with Baltimore in 1996, cities across the country have established centralized numbers to route incoming, non-emergency calls. The widespread adoption of 311 hotlines was a major step forward for community engagement, from the days when citizens had to peruse long directories for the right department to handle their questions or service requests.

But technology has come a long way since the nineties, and the basic hotline system is now due for an update. Today, many everyday tasks can be taken care of with just a few taps on a smartphone, from buying groceries to getting directions. Residents expect interacting with their local governments to be just as seamless, particularly younger residents, or those with hearing impairments or language barriers that make phone calls a challenge.

While a number of cities have launched mobile 311 apps to complement their hotlines, many of these platforms still aren’t living up to their full potential. Without smooth user experiences and wide-ranging functionality for both citizens and staff, these services still lag far behind the consumer platforms the average resident is accustomed to using.  

The best contemporary 311 systems are personalized to each resident, offering not only a space to report issues on the go, but also a digital portal where citizens can easily take care of municipal tasks and find information that’s relevant to them. Los Angeles residents, for example, can open the MyLA311 app or LADWP web portal to quickly pay a utility bill, find a nearby park, and follow updates from City Hall about issues they care about, in addition to making service requests.

As these systems continue to empower citizens to digitally engage with their government in more ways, we believe they’ll soon evolve into Virtual City Halls. Citizens will be able to turn to them first for a wide variety of needs through a wide variety of communication channels, while physical offices begin to take more of a support role. With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the adoption of virtual interactions, the time is right for cities to embrace the Virtual City Hall concept.

Codes and permits are community engagement, too

When the average citizen interacts with their local government, it’s often because they need a license or permit, or to pay a fine, or to get information about keeping their property up to code. If they’re met with a web interface that’s confusing, stalls or crashes, or makes them search through several pages to find what they need, they’ll likely leave with a bad impression of the website itself and their local government overall.

High-quality community engagement software makes it quick and painless for residents to take care of tasks like licensing, permits, and code compliance. The best software solutions will come with intuitive, personalized citizen portals where residents can submit applications, check their status, make payments, get updates on local ordinances, and issue complaints, all from one streamlined, easy-to-use platform.

When residents can handle their municipal business without a lot of unnecessary frustration, they not only feel better about your website, they feel better about their city as a whole. For that reason, it’s worthwhile for local governments to consider these points of contact a part of their community engagement strategies, and to invest in modernizing their community engagement software if the current system is out-of-date. 

Social media’s place in a good community engagement strategy

Every day, the average American spends just over two hours on social media platforms – presenting local government with a unique opportunity to meet citizens where they are already engaging and connecting with their community.

Local governments using social media is nothing new. However, as divisive political rhetoric on social platforms has grown, many cities are even more hesitant to embrace this channel. Still, with close monitoring of social profiles and careful attention paid to post content and citizen response, local governments can effectively use social media to engage citizens as well as gather sentiment as to how city stakeholders regard the community and more specific programs or services.

To reach the greatest number of constituents across a diverse pool of ages and interests, make sure your social media strategy includes smaller, niche platforms, in addition to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. If you want to get information to residents in a particular neighborhood, try posting to the relevant NextDoor group for that area. To engage younger residents, consider having local leaders take part in an “Ask Me Anything” session on your community’s page.

Good community engagement builds better communities

When cities make engaging with citizens a priority, communities feel cohesive, inclusive, and responsive to everyone’s needs. With the right community engagement strategies, local leaders can make it easy for every resident to stay informed, get involved, and take part in their local democracy.

To learn how improved community engagement software can help you reach more citizens, more effectively, check out this guide.

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