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How Roanoke Rocks Civic Engagement

The city proves that a “one-man show” mixed with a little creativity and innovation is sometimes all it takes to connect with the public.

When a city of 90,000 has 180,000 followers on Facebook, it's doing something right. Roanoke, Va., is that city.

One of the hazards of a long life and career is the necessity to keep up with the times: learning new things, obtaining new skills, exploring new horizons and so on. As a city planner for more than 40 years, I've seen some things. Early on, letters were typed individually and mistakes required something called "white out." We made multiple copies of our reports using mimeograph machines and arrived at meetings with stinking stacks of slightly damp paper and purple fingers. Then along came fax machines and computers and cell phones – ushering in a brave new world of digital technology.

Every transition tested our willingness and ability to change. I have a friend who bought a fax machine and was so timid about adopting new technology that he never took it out of the box. Fortunately, he no longer needs to -- but perhaps I've made my point.

Cities are like people. When times change, they must change as well or risk being left behind.

The mayor of Seattle recently spurred some political buzz when he announced it was time to change how cities engage with their citizens. For decades, Seattle has been the undisputed model for neighborhood organization and citizen engagement. The city’s formal system involved citizen councils with memberships, neighborhoods with defined boundaries and regular public meetings. 

Back in the ‘80s, I was part of a delegation that traveled to Seattle to steal its good ideas. When I saw the city’s impressive neighborhood engagement system, I came home with a copy of the playbook and proceeded to implement it faithfully and almost verbatim in my own city, Chattanooga.

Following a dustup in Seattle last fall, I wrote a piece for City Accelerator on the topic. My take on the mayor's dilemma is that Seattle has seen the future and has already started down that difficult and politically dangerous path toward embracing progress. Times have changed.

From where I sit, Roanoke, Va., also appears to have moved on from the tired, old way of engaging citizens. The city is utilizing social media tools in new and innovative ways. In that mid-sized Appalachian mountain community, a special office has been created with a modern purpose that is succinctly stated on the city's website

The Office of Citizen Engagement brings government and citizens together to foster collaborative conversations, build positive relationships and create new, innovative ways to get citizens involved. Through the use of social media, other digital platforms, neighborhood collaboration, customer service, public outreach, and other special projects, this office provides a one-stop-shop for engaging with the public.

The impressive accomplishments of this new undertaking are outlined in the office's 2016 Social Media Annual Report. Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • The city's website links with 53 social media pages and has an estimated total reach of 25 million.  
  • The city's main Facebook page generated 16,000 new page "likes" in 2016 with 1.5 million video views and 2.9 million "likes, comments and shares" in the same period.  
  • The city makes heavy use of photos and videos with appropriate recognition for contributions sent in by the public.  
  • During a snow storm in early 2016, the office posted regular updates and snow photos from citizens. In that time, the city's weekly social media reach "topped one million for the first time," according to the report. Note: While it's often tempting to pass over links like these, I highly recommend this brief, well-documented and colorfully illustrated report.

Let me emphasize once again that Roanoke is a city of 90,000.

The Office of Citizen Engagement is admittedly a small office (it’s in fact a one-person operation within the Office of the City Manager), but its size does not limit its effectiveness or impact.  Timothy Martin, a former reporter and news anchor in broadcast media, is the city's citizen engagement officer. He is a graduate of Radford University with a degree in journalism and focus in media studies.

Martin often speaks of the difference in communicating "to" the public and communicating "with" the local population. He has a "radio voice" and the calm, friendly demeanor of a seasoned public personality. When talking with him in his office, he described how they have used Facebook Live to broadcast city council meetings. Twitter is used to report and deal with minor emergencies such as potholes. Other social media applications have other uses -- and they apply them all. They are attempting to tap into the whole social media spectrum.

In times of greater emergencies, the Office of Citizen Engagement has been known to set up at the scene and broadcast live on Facebook or other social media channels. Having a city employee (Martin) with the essential credentials needed and skills and ability to get on the inside and keep the public (and other media outlets) informed is a clear advantage. "We had a fire in one of those underground utility vaults that knocked out power in a good part of downtown," Martin said. "Using social media, we were able to keep everyone reassured about the situation just as it was happening."

The office also believes in a good sense of humor. The 2016 report includes information on the city's April Fool’s Day activities -- especially outlining its bid for the Olympics, including illustrations of how proposed new sports facilities would fit into downtown Roanoke. Martin said the city also has proposed such things as shifting to autonomous vehicles in the city fleet and using drones to pick up garbage. Humor makes the social media numbers jump, he added.

Martin stressed that there is a larger, overarching framework. Roanoke's Office of Citizen Engagement bases its work on three guiding principles:

  1. Promote the city
  2. Engage the user
  3. Inform the citizens
Roanoke is making rapid advancements and exploring exciting new territory along today's still largely uncharted digital frontier. If the city hasn’t yet laid hands on the Holy Grail of civic engagement, at least it seems it may have found the Rosetta Stone -- interpreting the new language and protocols of mass communication and employing public interaction in useful ways applicable to all cities. These are ideas worth stealing.

At the risk of dredging up and paraphrasing one of today's most overused lines, let me say as a long-time observer of local politics that it seems the charming city of Roanoke, Va. -- through its Office of Citizen Engagement -- is "making democracy great again."

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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