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How to improve Council-Manager communications and citizen engagement

OpenGov's Charlie Francis shares key insights on how to enhance local government communications.

6 min read


OpenGov city hall


Technology is constantly changing the way people communicate. And while most people associate those changes with the way they communicate with family and friends, change is also afoot in how government agencies communicate with citizens. Ahead of the 104th ICMA Annual Conference taking place in Baltimore later this month, SmartBrief reached out to Charlie Francis, the Director of Government Finance Solutions at OpenGov, to learn more about technologies that are changing the way governments gather and share information with citizens. Francis, who was formerly the Finance Director for the City of Sausalito, Calif., will be sharing more of his insights during the “Five Ways to Improve Council-Manager Relationships and Engage Your Residents” session at the ICMA Annual Conference.

How have Council-Manager communications evolved in recent years?

Charlie Francis, Director of Government Finance Solutions, OpenGov

Providing regular and complete information equally to each council member is paramount to effective Council-Manager relationships. Historically, council members would receive citizen input through formal and informal personal contacts (e.g., council meetings, community events, over-the-produce-counter, phone calls, etc.). Council members would express community concerns with City Managers and City Administrators through periodic one-on-one meetings. Public policy-making evolved through physical encounters.

Early technology adopters and generations that grew up with social media are more comfortable and experienced using digital and social media for communications. Increasingly, they are becoming policy-makers who were elected by a constituency of citizens using digital and social media in their influential roles in corporations, associations and NGOs. Personal contact is giving way to digital communication for expressing shared interests, opinions and community concerns. Social media is now providing new openings for influencing public policy.

What will have a major impact on sustaining and improving Council-Manager relationships? The speed at which a government adapts, adopts and establishes platforms and processes to invite social responses from constituents, and then drives and assesses social media listening and finally distills that listening data into learning, opinion and insights.

How have these changes affected baseline expectations for data gathering, financial transparency and the processing of information requests?

Social media can certainly serve as a modern form of staying in touch with constituents, just as personal contact does. Elected officials now expect managers to keep minute-to-minute pulses on shifting public attitudes and opinions by monitoring social media (i.e., listening) to citizens and other entities such as businesses and organizations. They want managers to hear and then share in real time, their understandings of emerging shifts in opinion or specific points of concern. Officials expect instant analysis by geography and demographics, including who the most powerful advocates or detractors are on all sides of the conversation.

In addition, elected officials want their appointed managers to use digital and social media in the opposite direction. That is, to communicate with groups and individual voters.

What kinds of tools are agencies deploying to meet these new expectations?

Contemporary city managers are utilizing three cloud-based tools to meet these new expectations by their elected officials:

Citizen Engagement tools

  • Open Town Hall – By replicating social media sites, but in a controlled and civil platform, this tool enables managers to facilitate public discourse. These mediums can supplement public hearings with surveys, forums, and online meetings. They encourage citizen involvement by making participation easy and convenient.
  • Public transparency – Transforming raw data into charts, graphs, maps, and more makes complex data easy to understand. Citizens can readily consume and utilize data to help drive and influence public policy.
  • Next-generation open data – Open data makes data useful, usable and used. This improves internal access to data and encourages collaboration with citizens, other agencies, and a growing network of developers.
  • Interactive stories – Even transformed data that is easily digestible in charts, graphs, etc. often needs context to deliver powerful messages explaining public policy. Stories, combined with transformed raw data, add valuable context by using interactive web pages that feature dynamic data tiles, images, videos, text, and more.

Operational Performance tools

Knowledge-sharing is the conduit through which solutions travel.

  • If knowledge stays within the minds of individuals, and is not captured and shared across the organization, the service delivery may not be as effective as it could be when knowledge and information is shared. Knowledge-sharing platforms increases effectiveness across the organization.
  • Knowledge-sharing facilitates succession planning! When key staff members leave, organizations lose important institutional knowledge. Knowledge-sharing increases sustainability of service delivery.
  • Knowledge-sharing enables replication and scale. When governments document and replicate successful solutions, when governments learn from failures, then they become more efficient in deliver services to their constituents.

Budgeting and Planning tools

Modern budgeting systems need to address rapidly emerging public issues and concerns. When managers involve budget owners within their government entities, enabling them to have open dialogues, it helps to build alignment around shared goals. This builds better budgets and gets buy-in from citizens, department heads, and elected officials. The results are streamlined, accurate, and inclusive budget processes that transform budgeting and sets government agencies up for success.

What are some of the biggest ways knowledge-sharing platforms can benefit decision makers at government agencies? What about external stakeholders?

There is an unprecedented revival in US citizens’ interest in how their government is financed.  People not only want to know more about how their hard-earned tax dollars are used, but also to have a greater voice in the generation and allocation of precious and limited resources. Existing and emerging collaborative and social technologies are transitioning the way we govern, and more importantly, they enable enhanced transparency in government.

  • Builds Trust – The biggest deficit in government is the deficit in public trust. You can’t have transparency without accountability. There is no accountability without transparency. They go hand-in-hand. And when they do, it re-established public trust in their government, and public trust of elected officials in their constituency.
  • Develops Mutual Respect – Building trust enables mutual respect. Most of us know how to treat others respectfully. But in terms of communication, showing citizens respect also means respecting their time and their choice to engage. Concise fact sheets summarizing government’s big reports can provide quick depth on the topic for time-strapped readers. Limiting tweets and posts and not flooding their feeds with extraneous information, respect government’s citizen followers. Public interaction can demonstrate respect by being available, responsive and honest.
  • Makes Government Authentic – This makes managers, elected officials and their agencies authentic. The most effective government social media accounts have an authentic voice. When your citizen engagement, operational performance and budgeting and planning are managed by real people who genuinely care about delivering effective, sustainable, efficient and accountable government services, the citizens will be fascinated and engaged in developing public policy that meets issues and concerns of the government entity.