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  • Implement online platforms to improve your city

    Whether you’re a municipal employee or ordinary citizen, delivering feedback to your local government—and getting it from your fellow locals—can be a challenge, but online platforms are proving to be one good solution. Learn how one community in Kansas is getting online to put their ear to the ground.

    Setting: Citywide

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    Organization/people involved

    Cynthia Berner Harris, Director of Libraries
    Activate Wichita
    Wichita, Kansas, U.S.A.

    MindMixer
    Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.A.

    What they did

    Activate Wichita, an “online conversation about the future of the Greater Wichita metropolitan area,” was created to address an issue identified by the city’s mayor and manager: in-person focus groups and community forums were no longer working to help local government stay in touch with citizens. Few people, and usually the same people, attended these events, and the city sought a larger and more diverse representation of the population. They decided to turn to online options and launched Activate Wichita in 2013; since then, it’s become a rich source of feedback from the community. The Wichita Public Library, given their existing engagement with the community and their role as a trusted resource, was charged with spearheading the project. The next year, they won the national LibraryAware Community Award, in large part because of this leadership.

    The platform the library chose to power the website is called MindMixer, a low-cost online engagement tool used by communities and institutions to gather feedback or ask for ideas. Over 700 entities have so far used MindMixer to bring the concept of a town meeting into a digital space and enable many more people to participate. Other communities have crafted their MindMixer website to be a space for improving the city generally (like San Francisco’s ImproveSF) or a way to express support or dissent for legislation (see Arizona Voices).

    Besides Wichita local government, other related departments and some nonprofits have also been able to use Activate Wichita to seek feedback: during a drought, the Department of Public Works and Utilities posed a question about what people would be willing to do to conserve water; Parks and Recreation asked people about their aquatics program; the Department of Finance shared a list of budget issues to see which ones people wanted to preserve; and the Tallgrass Film Association used the platform to get feedback on their programs.

    How you can do it

    Impact

    The impact of Activate Wichita is probably best measured by the process changes it’s engendered. For one, the city’s government used to propose a plan to the community, then ask for feedback. If feedback pointed to any desired changes, they’d either have to go back to the drawing board, or else report that the changes could not be made. Now that they invite the community to think through issues collaboratively, people can be involved at an earlier stage, allowing adjustments to be made as the plan develops.

    Another result of the platform’s implementation is evident in how feedback can quickly affect offerings. For example, Activate Wichita asked the community about changes they would make at the public library, and heard from working parents that they preferred night and weekend children’s programming so they could attend with their kids. The library made that change and is now seeing better event attendance.

    A third impact is more conceptual. Cynthia tells us how Activate Wichita has changed her thinking about her field. “Librarians struggle with what the library of the future will be like,” she says. “Will there be physical buildings? Will there be books? Then we had an epiphany; the answer is as simple as this: the libraries of the future will be those engaged with their community. It’s not a question of buildings or books, it’s about the library doing more to interact and be engaged.”

    Also, keep in mind that an online platform brings a variety of people to the table who might not otherwise attend an in-person event—because of scheduling conflicts, shyness, or something else. Not everyone has time to attend a two-hour town hall meeting, or feels comfortable asking questions and giving their opinion in that kind of public space. Working online can help level the playing field.

    Big takeaways

    Don’t be afraid to take the leap. Some people in government might be afraid to ask questions because they fear the answers. But if you’re afraid, you’re probably not doing all you can do to create value for constituents.

    Photo credit: Wichita Public Library

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