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Richfield, Minnesota Tests Online Citizen Engagement Tool

Originally published in EfficientGov, by Andrea Fox. December 7, 2016

The city is testing an online citizen engagement tool to make sure it is easy to use and effective in gauging online resident opinions.

Not all residents attend open houses and community forums or respond to mailings, so it can be challenging to gauge citizen opinions on civil decisions. An online citizen engagement tool can help cities reach residents that do not normally participate through traditional channels.

The city of Richfield, Minn., with a population of about 34,000, has been testing digital and online engagement tools for about three years, said Pam Dmytrenko, the assistant city manager.

“It’s a different environment now, and we wanted to be responsive to that,” she said.

Richfield, along with five other cities and government agencies, is participating in a Vision beta test of the new visionPulse citizen engagement tool. The tool integrates with Richfield’s existing content management system, visionLive.

Chief information officers cited engagement among the top three priorities in the trends report from the 2016 Digital Cities Survey by The Center for Digital Government and Government Technology magazine. Vision also found that most local governments it works with believe citizen engagement will have a significant impact on operations by 2020. However, few consider their cities to be effective in gauging citizen engagement, and most the company surveyed in 2016 said improvement is a priority.

According to Ashley Fruechting, Vision senior director of marketing, online citizen engagement generally isn’t happening because most city websites bury polls and topic features.

Government staff struggle to keep multiple systems up to date and consistent because each one requires a separate log-in and administration. Effectively engaging citizens day-in and day-out, year-round requires local leaders to provide information and functionality that citizens value and internal staff can manage,” she said.

Testing Citizen Engagement Tool Functionality

Dmytrenko said other digital polling tools Richfield tested did not provide opportunities to foster dialogue so that decision makers could glean insights from citizen comments. “Residents want to see comments, too” she added.

For most municipal administrations, including Richfield’s, it’s critical that citizen engagement tools be as efficient as possible. Richfield is participating in the Vision beta test because it wants a tool that is:

  • Easy to use and manage
  • Accessible to all departments
  • Integrates with the city website and social properties
  • Allows residents to subscribe to individual topics
  • Provides user-friendly analytics

After Thanksgiving, Richfield launched its first poll about police department community outreach, which is accessible on the city’s homepage in an area called Richfield Connect. In this poll, Richfield citizens are given the opportunity to select the police department’s community outreach idea that would be most interesting to them, and then comment on why, if they choose to.

Resident Mary Stratton wrote, “I like the idea of coffee with a cop. As a recent graduate of the Citizens Police Academy, I found it beneficial to meet many different members of the Public Safety Community. Communication is key to fostering positive relationships between citizens and the Police and Fire Departments,” she said.

While Richfield has received additional poll responses, the city expects it will take about three months to gauge the tool’s overall performance.

How the Citizen Engagement Tool Works

In Vision’s back-end, topic hosts, like Jay Henthorne, Richfield’s police chief, and his staff can set up a poll’s structure and questions, and publish to the city’s website.

Prompts and suggestions help topic hosts and city staff build polls. Hosts can also tag the topics so that the poll shows up in other relevant areas of the website where citizens turn to for various city services, such as to pay bills or find contact information.

Vision’s citizen engagement tool also integrates to the city’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, so poll hosts can set-up posts about new topics right from the city’s content management system. Hosts can also send alerts to Richfield’s website subscribers, or upload a specific contact list for notifications.

As topic host, Henthorne gets email notifications about posted comments and responses, and can answer resident questions. He can also control whether comments must be reviewed before they are posted in the topic on the city’s website.

When the poll closes, he can use the tool’s administrative dashboard for poll metrics, including the number of responses, comments and email activity. Results can be aggregated into reports that can be exported and shared.

visionpulse-poll-dashboard

visionPulse Host Dashboard

 

As Richfield adds more topics, residents will be able to search topics of interest in the Richfield Connect section. Poll topic timelines are displayed visually, so they will know right away if a poll is still active. They can review fellow resident comments and host replies from all polls that stay posted to the site.

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