Five Easy Ways for Local Governments to Engage Their Community Online

The Internet has made it so much easier now for organisations to connect with their “customers”, and for local councils this means engaging with their residents and other stakeholders. Many councils see the opportunity and recognise the need, and some even want to do this more actively. But it’s not easy to get started.

The good news is that you don’t need to start by investing a lot of time, money and other resources into, say, a Facebook page. If you already have one, great! But if you don’t, it does take significant work to make it effective. And then you have to deal with the ongoing issues of management and monitoring, and of course carefully addressing abuse and misuse.

However, there are plenty of other options available as well. Start with the attitude that your residents are proud of their town, want to help, and will gladly contribute if you make it easy for them.

Here are five examples of how local councils can reach out to their community online.

New York City: Dead Pedal project reports abandoned bikes

Local residents would gladly report things that need council attention if only there was some easy way to alert you. A variety of apps have sprung up to help in this area – for example, Los Angeles residents have an app to report water leaks and wastage. But you don’t need to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of creating your own app.

In New York, for example, the “Dead Pedal NY” project allows residents to use Instagram to report bicycles that have been abandoned (but still tethered to bike racks), so the council can remove them.

This doesn’t require any special technology. The resident just takes a photo, tags it with the hashtag #deadpedalny, and posts it on Instagram. The council simply monitors that hashtag to be alerted of new sightings.

In fact, this project wasn’t even started by the local council; it was an initiative of a local resident who saw a problem and an easy way to address it!

How can you use this idea in your local area to help residents alert you? All you have to do is promote an Instagram hashtag!

Auckland: Residents design street layouts

When you want to share planning ideas with residents for public comment, the old way is to just show them the plans (in print or online) and ask for their comments. That might sometimes still be the only feasible option, but it’s possible that you can tap into existing technology as well.

For example, the Streetmix Web site is a dynamic tool to help users design the layout of a street – showing traffic lanes, cycle lanes, footpaths, bus stops, and so on. It was developed in the USA, but is available to everybody.

For example, in Auckland, a transport advocacy group uses it to blog about proposed street changes and encourage other users to offer their own suggestions. Again, this project wasn’t initiated by the town council, but there’s no reason you can’t start such a project yourself.

And don’t limit yourself to street design. Consider other online collaboration tools like mind mapping tools, online bulletin boards, photo boards, and more. They could all be simple ways to get input easily from residents and other stakeholders.

Heifi City, China: QR code badges help lost seniors

In a pilot project, the local government in this community has issued senior citizens with badges displaying a QR code, so other residents can help them if they get lost. Scanning the QR code shows the person’s ID card number, family phone numbers, and address details. Of course, you could achieve a similar outcome using a business card, but the badges can contain more information, and are made of durable plastic.

QR codes look like complicated technology, but they are dead easy to set up and use. They are simply a way of storing data (or a link to a Web page) in a way that smartphones can read. Could you provide individual QR codes to certain people in your community (it doesn’t need to be senior citizens) to help them in some way?

Monmouth, Wales: Wikipedia town

While we’re talking about QR codes, I’ll mention Monmouth in Wales, which is the world’s first “Wikipedia town”. Online, Monmouthpedia is a mini-encyclopedia about Monmouth, with thousands of articles and photographs about the town. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but the real magic comes with the connection to the “real world”, with QR codes on plaques and labels all around the town, each linking to the relevant online article. That means anybody visiting a place of interest with a QR code can just scan it with their phone to immediately read more about it online.

Admittedly, this project does cost money to create and installing the ceramic plaques. But it’s easy to create versions of this project that don’t cost as much money. For example, the Monmouth Library has added QR codes (in the form of low-cost sticky labels) to some of their books, so readers can scan the code to find out more about the book and author.

How can you use QR codes to give people more information about objects or places of interest?

Create Jauntful city guides

You probably print local guides to highlight places of interest, services and other facilities for your community. However, these guides never cover everything, and different people want to know different things. What if residents could create their own guides, based on their interests, for visitors and locals? The free Jauntful service allows them to do exactly that.

It was designed for consumers – travellers and locals – to create guides about the towns and cities they love. You create a guide that shows a map of the town, highlighted spots on the map, and a short description of each spot. They can use it for anything – for example, favourite restaurants, night life, historical landmarks, shopping hot spots, public toilets, or whatever. Just like a professional brochure, the guide can be printed for offline access (and it’s available online, of course).

Although this wasn’t designed with local councils in mind, you can use the technology yourself. Of course, you could just create your own guides, but an even better option is to invite residents to create their own. Perhaps you could run a competition asking for submissions, and then link to the best guides from your Web site. You could even print the best guides and make them available at council offices, libraries and community centres.

Which of these ideas could YOU use?

As you can see, these are all simple, low-cost ideas for reaching out to your community online – without breaking your budget or overstretching your limited resources. You might not be able to do them all, but I’m sure you could easily do one or two of them immediately. At the very least, do one of them now (just to get some momentum), and then think about other ways to engage your community using the power of the Internet.

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