E-Government: City Management Faces Facebook

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Does a City Manager belong on Facebook?

Erasmus, the Dutch theologian and scholar, in 1500 wrote, "In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king." I feel this way in the land of social media — at least among city and county managers. Inspired by the first city manager blog in the nation, started by Wally Bobkiewicz in Santa Paula, California, I began posting back in 2006. Although most bloggers strive for frequent, short blurbs, I've employed blogging to provide a place to get beyond the sound bites (and out of context quotes) in the local press. I seek to provide background, explanation, and context for the stories in the news, along with the trends that don't make the news.

I tried MySpace and Facebook initially out of curiosity. For my first six months, I had only six friends on Facebook. Now I have more than 400, and few days go by when I don't review requests for more. I post at least once a day, usually links to intriguing articles on public policy and photos of my three kids.

While I was finding my way as a boomer in cyberspace, I resisted Twitter...until an invitation arrived from a friend 30 years older than I. If someone in his 80s was interested in tweets from me, I figured the time had come to join the crowd. And although I've never made a YouTube video, several videos of me are floating in cyberspace.

For local managers, all of these social media offer new tools to work on one of democracy's oldest challenges: promoting the common good. What local governments can't do is fall hopelessly behind. The fate of railroads, automakers, and newspapers shows what happens to the complacent. It's time to get online — and reach far beyond the initial step of a city website with links — to lead the effort to build stronger communities and a healthier democracy for the 21st century.

Civic Engagement and Social Media: The Ventura Case Study

Ventura has a civic engagement manager position, but civic engagement is considered a citywide core competency, like tech savvy and customer service. It's not something we do periodically; it's how we strive to do everything.

One of our key citywide performance measures is the level of volunteerism in the community. We look not just at the 40,000 volunteer hours logged by city government last year, but at the percentage of the population that volunteer for any cause or organization: 50 percent versus 26 percent nationally. We strive to raise awareness, commitment, and participation by citizens in local government and their community.

Reports by Council staff not only list fiscal impacts and alternatives, but document citizen outreach and involvement in each recommendation. There are obviously different levels; they recently ranged from a stakeholder committee that held four facilitated sessions to produce rules governing vacation rentals, to a citywide economic summit cosponsored with the chamber of commerce that drew 300 businesspeople and residents to develop 54 action steps unanimously endorsed by the city council at the conclusion.

Effective engagement requires aggressive, fine-tuned, and immediate communication. We address traditional media with a weekly interdepartmental round table that reviews what stories are likely to surface and identifies other stories we'd like to see covered. We encourage city staff to quickly post comments to online newspaper postings to set the record straight, respond to legitimate queries, and direct citizens to additional information on our website.

We have two public access channels — one for government, one for the community — and actively provide both with programming. Our most direct access comes from a biweekly e-newsletter that goes out to 5,000 addresses, linking directly to website resources, including the city manager's latest blog post.

Slow at first to embrace Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, we're closing the gap. One councilmember is a prolific blogger, and another uses Facebook for interactive community dialogue. We make judicious use of reverse 911 to get public safety information out quickly to residents. We've also pioneered "My Ventura Access", a one-stop portal for all citizen questions, complaints, compliments, and opinions, whether they come by phone, Internet, mail, or in person.

Not Your Grandfather's Democracy

Twitter, which allows just 140 characters – including spaces and punctuation – per "tweet", gets a disproportionate share of the social media chatter. After a Republican member of Congress was ridiculed for tweeting during the State of the Union address this past February, Twitter usage exploded 3,700 percent in less than a year. By the time you read this, U.S. Twitter users will outnumber the population of Texas, or possibly California. In just five years, techcrunch.com reports, Facebook users have zoomed past 250 million. A Nielsen study estimates that usage has increased by seven times in the past year alone.

Yet as blogs, tweets, Facebook, YouTube, and text blasts reshape how America communicates, few local governments — and even fewer city and county managers — are keeping pace. E-government remains largely focused on websites and online services. This communication gap leaves local government vulnerable in a changing world. "Business as usual" is not a comforting crutch; it's foolish complacency. Just look at the sudden implosion of General Motors, the Boston Globe, and the state of California.

It would be equally shortsighted to thoughtlessly embrace these new communication media as virtual substitutes for thoroughgoing civic engagement. We're part of a 2,500-year-old experiment in local democracy, launched in Athens long before Twitter and YouTube. Local democracy operated long before the newspapers, broadcast media, public hearings, and community workshops familiar to today's local government managers.

We may live in a hi-tech world, but the basis of what we do remains "high touch," involving what some of the most thoughtful International City/County Management practitioners call "building community." Social media offer new tools to build community, although they aren't a magic shortcut.

This is part one of a two-part series. A slightly different version of this article appeared in Public Management, the magazine of the International City/County Management Association; icma.org/pm.

Rick Cole is city manager of Ventura, California, and this year's recipient of the Municipal Management Association of Southern California's Excellence in Government Award. He can be reached at RCole@ci.ventura.ca.us