One question I keep coming back to in my personal and professional experiences is how has small town X not started using Y or Z technology?
Obviously this is an opinion piece, but let me write it down just in case–these are my opinions and do not represent those of my current and previous employers.
This question has come from a laundry list of experiences I’ve had working, driving through, or living in rural/small towns. Most frustrating was my experience with a small city that would only accept payment for traffic tickets with certified checks, ignoring the progress in payment systems that so many places seem to have made. Many cities now accept personal checks, credit cards, or even PayPal. We live in an era where E-GovLink allows municipalities to accept BitCoin. I think this highlights the gap in technology adoption and the digital divide between rural and urban places.
A Digital Divide
Access to computers and technology is still an issue in many places. Kentucky continues to operate its Broadband KY Initiative with the hope of wiring up more homes to the internet. Google Fiber is making progress to offer free internet access to people and non-profits and community organizations. I would have guessed that by 2014 most places would at least have a web presence. Instead, I often search for cities and counties on Google and find that they have zero presence.
One example of the successful adoption of social media and web presence is the Brimfield, Ohio Police Department. One of the most used parts of the City of St. Bernard’s website was the tax department webpage (disclosure, I worked for the city from 2009-2011). The Tax Department offers digital copies of their tax documents and information for residents ultimately lessening the calls the city get about taxes. The City of Cincinnati has made my life a bit easier by offering information through their Public Services Twitter account, connecting with residents to let them know about snow removal efforts, remind residents about winter safety, and posting about snow emergencies. Cincinnati has a whole slew of twitter accounts and Facebook pages, all helping residents connect with and get information from the city.
Social media and web presence are often discussed as mandatory in comprehensive planning efforts. One particularly cool recent example is MyNKY, Vision 2015’s new public participation campaign. Using an interactive game (and what seems a lot like dot voting) participants contribute a quantitative opinion about spending priorities and follow-up with qualitative descriptions in a targeted survey. Not only is it easy, but the quant-qual pairing makes it easy to for MyNKY to demand preferences and then drill down into what those preferences mean to each participant. Not only is it efficient, it minimizes the time commitment to participate.
A bit more complicated than an easy button:
With so many examples of best practices, why don’t more cities use the web and social media for public engagement and information distribution? In my experience it comes down to a lack of available talent and budget priorities. My evidence about the talent needs of cities is anecdotal at best, but most places I’ve worked with that lack these elements also have an institutional attitude with little or no interest in websites, social media, or technology; essentially there needs to be organizational will to make it happen.
Even with the will to make it happen, figuring out how to finance it is not easy. Budgets continue to grow tight and there is no easy way to make room for an IT budget or department (especially in the smallest of cities). Some cities are already facing impending cuts to services or employees and cannot possibly cram in an IT budget.
One of the benefits of my current job with the NKADD is that I get to share my experience with technology, web development, and social media with the jurisdictions in our service area.
That doesn’t mean sharing my experience will always result in successful websites and a social media presence. Social media can require near constant monitoring and some citizens come to expect almost instantaneous response. Setting clear definition about the kinds of communication possible and when that communication can happen is difficult. Websites also need work to maintain them and take time to develop appropriate content.
Even in spite of the financial and labor requirements of having a digital presence, I think it is still worthwhile for cities to pursue. The possible benefit to efficiency, public interaction, and engaging younger generations is too critical to continue to ignore it altogether.