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L332 - Session 1

Page history last edited by Julie Steele 14 years, 1 month ago

Session notes



(aka: Small Town Engagement)


Discussion Leaders:

  • Nick Grossman (@nickgrossman)
  • John Osborn (@johnatlarge) 





  • Triggers that get people involved
  • How to increase participation in town meetings
  • Bridging the gap between new technologies and old habits/laws




What are the triggers to getting people involved?

  • Kids are a big trigger for people to get involved (e.g., there’s toxic sewage leaking near the school!).
  • Another big trigger is personal frustration.  When you’re angry, you want to open your mouth (and sometimes before you know it you’re an elected official!).
  • Life changes: having a baby, and all of a sudden you care about the future in a new way.  Buying a house (zoning).  Getting a new job (transportation). Lifestyle issues that trigger newspaper readership also trigger citizen involvement.
  • Taxes and fees.


The trigger could also be a positive experience: maybe someone is given responsibility for something, and either is successful or is close enough to success to taste it. 


The power of asking and prodding people for their opinions:

Sometimes people just need to be asked: to donate blood, to attend town meetings, etc.  They might not jump in on their own, but if you ask them they will participate.  (This goes to a sense of community: if you don’t feel like you’re alone, you’re more apt to participate.)


Also, there may be a process or a progression of awareness.


Sometimes there are meetings and meetings and meetings that are publicized and nobody comes.  They only show up afterwards to complain.  Then no one is happy: the planners solicited input and didn’t get any, and the reactors feel like something was sprung on them.


So how do you get people to show up? 


Delivery method: you could post meeting times on the website and then post videos of the proceedings afterward, but many small towns don’t have broadband.  In a small town, there is a vast chasm between the wired technorati and the entrenched (often older) folks who can barely use a computer.  How do you bridge that gap so that people can participate whether they are in the room or online or somewhere else?


Mobile: regardless of online connection, nearly everyone has a cell phone.  Offer text message alerts maybe.  The cost of putting on public meetings that no one comes to is high; the relative cost of sending SMS is low.  


Offer a small amount of information.  Allow the individual to make a decision based on that: “Am I interested in this or not?”  And then provide a way for them to get further information if they answer in the affirmative.  Provide a point of contact without overwhelming people with things they don’t care about.


Dedham has a Code Red system: like a reverse 911 that allows the municipal government to send out emergency alerts to the citizens. The town administrator is careful not to overuse it though, because he doesn’t want people to start ignoring it.


Managing these systems can be a job in and of itself.  You may need to choose different categories of information that constituents can relate to and allow them to opt-in or personalize what they receive in order to avoid information overload.  Those categories need to be carefully and thoughtfully chosen so that they’re meaningful.


For someone who’s interested in summer programs for their kids, a short SMS could say: “Summer programs are starting up!  Check the town website for more info.”  Then a website could contain further information.  Use different mediums in different ways.


There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that’s not being harvested.  Offering people a little bit of information can give them the gateway they’re already looking for.


You can’t really sensationalize town meetings.  A good first step to picquing people’s interest would be to provide an agenda: you can’t just say “come to the town meeting” – you need to say why and what will be discussed.


People’s fears are a major motivating factor.  But we need to harness those fears in a positive way.  We must answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”  The answer may be positive or may be negative.  Maybe we need both: the carrot and the stick.


There’s a bike path that was recently put in Chelmsford and people in Lowell were concerned that folks would come down that path to rob their houses.  Fear could have killed that project: “Not in my back yard” is something that motivates people.  Use that motivation constructively.


Idea: harness a lot of creative people and pair them with governments to make information more attractive.  Maybe form a “Design Corps.”  Times New Roman on an 8.5x11 page is not going to attract people.  On the other hand, we need to balance the required formality of government and the casual feel of popular culture.  (Is the social aspect a function of government or is it extra-gov?)  The consensus in this group is that there IS a role for government to speak in a more personal way.  There is a way to balance personal and professional.


Idea: take the Mass DOT bus iPhone app and use it for school buses.  Nope, can’t do it because there are layers of security and bureaucracy to protect students and you can’t really give out a lot of information about student locations and where the bus is going.  (Need to bear in mind positive and negative ramifications of public information.)


Back to disseminating information and getting people involved in town meetings: Right-to-Know laws and formal procedures for alerting people are really behind the technology.  Do we need to do a newspaper ad or can we just put a notice on the website?  A lot of officials feel that because they’re satisfying the Right-to-Know laws, they are “informing the public.”  These laws should be a floor, but are treated as a ceiling.  Also, unions can make it hard: it took two years to figure out if a town could post jobs on their website.



Follow-Up Items

  • Notes

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