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.
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
Get the right people at the table. It will depend on your project and goals, but generally speaking, you’ll want to have the city manager, mayor, council members, planning firms, and consultants involved. In essence: all major stakeholders and anyone else who wants to have a say. Wichita was lucky that elected officials and the city manager were on board from the beginning, pushing the idea through and asking staff to come along. If you don’t work in government, get in touch with your local representative to start. Remember that most elected officials wouldn’t oppose this—it’s a win-win to provide more efficient, alternate ways for citizens to give feedback.
Have specific goals. You should have something specific you’re looking to accomplish, even if it’s simply: we want to get more feedback on what’s happening in local government. Thinking through what you want is an important step.
Start planning. Keep in mind that the platform is central to your work, but its promotion and success will largely take place off-platform. Think about how you’ll want to promote and measure success, how you’ll want to invite and engage the community, and who should take the lead with these endeavors. In Wichita, it made sense for the library to be the hub, but it might be different in your municipality.
Pick the right platform. There are other software options out there, but in Wichita, the best choice was MindMixer. Most important for them was a platform that was simple to set up, easy to use, quick to maintain, provided data, and had strong customer service. You may want to consider these things as well, in addition to whatever other priorities you have.
Make sure your approach is right for your community. Many communities around the world are beginning to use platforms like these, and what you might notice is that they can be quite different. That’s often because the most successful platforms are very specific to the needs and “vibe” of that community. What you create should feel applicable and authentic to your fellow citizens.
Decide on a point person (or people). As you get started, you’ll want to decide who will be responsible for the platform’s day-to-day maintenance. In Wichita, a small band of hard-working interns was assembled to answer questions and spread the word.
Get buy-in across local government. To cultivate a sustainable platform that works long-term, you’ll need the support of everyone on staff. Department directors in Wichita were charged with engaging their staffs, but the library team also dispatched their interns to talk to others in government about how it would work. Staff who worried that it would be a huge time suck were pleasantly surprised when they launched their first question: they found that the opportunity for 24/7 participation allowed for information gathering on a scale they wouldn’t otherwise have had the resources to achieve.
Think about how the offline work will continue. While an online platform is very useful for gathering feedback, it might not be the only way you wish to connect with your fellow citizens. Wichita has continued to conduct in-person meetings and uses the platform as a complement. In particular, working online can provide a great way to drill down and learn more about specific questions.
Spread the word, and be clear about your goals when you do. When you’re ready to launch, you’ll want to make a big splash to get your community’s attention. The folks at MindMixer suggest a press conference where you can talk about how feedback will be used; this makes people more interested in getting involved. But whatever you do, you shouldn’t be passive. Think about all the places where people in your community might be—festivals, food events, bowling alleys—and put yourself there. Activate Wichita went to places that weren’t necessarily connected to the library but were germane to questions being posed on the platform, such as a downtown chili cookoff.
Offer incentives. At these events or separately, giveaways and raffles are also great for promoting registration on your platform. MindMixer offers a “Rewards Store” function that allows users to collect points and win useful items like gift certificates and e-readers by upping their engagement on the site. Also think about how you can leverage social media or other traditional marketing methods, too. A few good approaches done in concert is usually most effective.
Keep up the momentum. After your site launches, you’ll want to keep your online community engaged. The best way to keep up momentum is to have a diversity of questions on myriad topics—with an eye to how you ask the questions, too. Your tone should be fun and engaging, and your questions simple to answer. Consider planning your questions and topics ahead of time, to coincide with events on the calendar, such as budget season.
Share your successes. Platforms like MindMixer enable you to report back to users who suggest an idea or responded to a question, letting them know that their comment was heard and what happened as a result. MindMixer can also generate reports you can share with any partner agencies or departments you have. But no matter what format your results take, letting people know that their voice mattered and that together you accomplished something is paramount.
Don’t be discouraged! Lastly, remember: it can be hard to get people involved, so don’t be too hard on yourself if turnout is low, especially to start. Getting more people to share their feedback, even if it isn’t as many as you’d like, is still useful.
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.
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.