When Chicago City Councilman James Cappleman took office in 2011, his staff almost immediately ran into a problem: constituent communication.
It wasn't an issue of inexperience. Tressa Feher, Cappleman’s chief of staff, had years of experience connecting politicians with their constituents, both in Washington, D.C., and at the Illinois state Capitol in Springfield.
The problem was volume.
About 53,000 people live in Ward 46 on the north side of Chicago, just north of Wrigley Field. Each day, Cappleman’s office received 50 or more phone calls, along with dozens of emails, texts and messages on social media. Feher and her staff were able to manage the responses, but each activity -- combing through Facebook, monitoring Twitter, listening to voicemails, checking text messages and reading emails -- was a separate task.
After four years, Cappleman's office teamed up with a tech company called Seneca Systems to try out a new product they were developing for the public sector. Known as Romulus, it's a dashboard designed to track, compile and sort all communications coming in and going out to the public. Chicago was among the first cities to test it.
“The ways the constituents get in touch with government has exploded,” says Seneca marketing director Maggie Henry.
Instead of all those communications being scattered across internet and phone systems, it’s collected in a single place. Cappleman and his staff can respond within the dashboard, and the response will show up in whatever format the resident originally used to connect with the office.
“It’s been helpful to not only track what’s coming in but our response time,” says Feher.
She says the dashboard has saved her team 20 hours a week of administrative work and also sped up their response times. That's partially because the system can be set to automatically handle certain types of requests in certain ways.
For instance, if a resident notifies the office about a pothole -- whether by phone, text or tweet -- the request can automatically be routed to the city Transportation Department, even before Cappleman's staff has had a chance to respond.
Dashboard systems like Romulus are common in the business world. Media companies use Chartbeat to track web traffic in real time; Salesforce is common among sales organizations and Tableau is a dashboard often used by businesses to create interactives and graphics.
But municipalities have been slow to adopt dashboard systems because they didn't align with the needs of government. Because of the unique requirements and mission of government, Seneca set out to create a dashboard designed for the public sector.
“We really felt that government needed its own category,” says Seneca founder and CEO Nick DeMonner. “Government is not designed to be a sales organization. It’s designed to be a service organization.”
In addition to Ward 46, Seneca has conducted beta tests with city offices in San Rafael, Calif., and with the office of Houston City Councilmember Karla Cisneros. Text messages weren't included in the original version of the dashboard, but after Seneca saw how many constituents were texting their concerns, they added the feature into the next iteration of Romulus.
Seneca Systems moved from testing Romulus to selling the service last year. Cities pay $80 a month per user for the dashboard.
Depending on the laws of a given jurisdiction, constituent contacts within Romulus may be considered open records subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. The encrypted system secures those communications in an effort to keep critical data from being stolen -- but allows users to export the data to meet public records requests, according to Seneca Systems.
Ultimately, DeMonner says that because the communications data is public, different cities could use a dashboard like Romulus to share ideas and best practices.
“We want cities to go into Romulus and see how other cities are doing" on everything from handling constituent requests to setting up farmers markets, he says. "We really see the platform as a collaborative space for cities across the country."