Citizen engagement and the Town of Cary

Our focus as Town of Cary Technology Task Force (TTF) members is to determine how the town can use technology to better serve citizens. Based on that definition, our conversations could result in deep dives into the intricacies of data and server redundancies. Sure, we’re super geeks and technology professionals, but we’re also citizens of Cary, Wake County, North Carolina and beyond. And while technology has helped towns store and share data, it is obvious that technology is now a platform that everyone with access can use as a megaphone, a research tool, entertainment or as a method of creating conversations that lead to change.

Times have not only changed, they are changing faster that any one person or government entity can navigate alone. And because of that, we’ve broadened our scope to consider things like open data opportunities and the sustainability of keeping our conversations going beyond our relatively short tenure as TTF members.

(See NYC open data examples, below.)

What is citizen engagement?

We’ve also talked about citizen engagement. According to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, citizen engagement is a way to bring policy into better alignment with public values. At the most basic level, it’s a citizen survey. At an higher level, it’s a two-way conversation with specific outcomes and genuine citizen involvement.(See SpeakUpAustin.org).

We are always looking for feedback and ideas on how we can meet the challenge of being the best managed city in the country.
- The city of Austin

Yes, we’re a technology task force, but even we need concepts like citizen engagement translated into something we can all understand. How about a coffee analogy? MyStarbucksIdea.com is an engagement tool that creates an ongoing conversation between the coffee company and its most engaged fans (or critics, depending on their experience with the brand).

It’s important to note that the site isn’t a free-for-all. Visitors are asked to suggest ideas based on predetermined criteria, and only the most popular ideas will survive to become actual services or products at your local Starbucks. (Focus is very important, by the way. It’s commonly known that when presented with too much choice, we become confused, overwhelmed or shut down.)

Also, our neighbors in the city of Raleigh launched their Innovate Raleigh initiative recently. It is a highly collaborate effort that unites local businesses, universities, entrepreneurs, non-profits, professional groups and local experts and catalyzes them around one goal: to make Raleigh a more innovative city. Also, Raleigh found more ways to engage citizens by connecting government, data and citizens via CityCamp Raleigh.

You might have noticed that design and brand play a huge role in the Starbucks, Austin and Raleigh examples. Their critical role in community engagement could be the subject of an entire blog post. My CliffsNotes version of the importance of brand and design is that it’s important to know who you are before you ask others to like you. It’s especially important for cities to self-identify with specific citizen goals and use brand and design to clearly communicate–and even inspire. We citizens are much more sophisticated than ever before, and having a clearly defined brand (voice and design) are really table stakes for engaging citizens these days. (See my previous TTF blog post on design and citizen engagement in Minneapolis.)

These are tangible, effective citizen engagement stories that we can learn from. Today, engaging citizens is more than sending out newsletters or posting news on Facebook. These two examples created a vision with certain parameters, then asked citizens to engage with the promise that their ideas will hold weight and be implemented as merited.

What do you think?

I’m not sure if you noticed it or not, but you’re being engaged. This TTF blog was created as a temporary form of citizen engagement for the Town of Cary. It features tags that represent different areas of focus like open government, APIs, mobile, website, video, social media, etc. That way, if you’re an open government geek, you can find our posts on that topic and–most importantly–comment on them.

How would you like to be engaged? What issues do you think the town should address directly (and through technology)? Do you have any examples of other cities or initiatives that created a focused, effective citizen engagement initiative?

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