Citizen engagement best practices for local government and schools

You’ve published your Transparency Center, now what? First of all, give yourself and your team a pat on the back. Good on you for getting your financials posted in an easily accessible format that everyone can understand. It’s a smart move and one that will more than pay for itself over time, as you start to visualize trends, compare your performance against relevant peer communities, and identify areas for cost savings. Now, it’s time to get residents on board.

Of course, the primary reason for posting revenues, expenditures, and information about ongoing projects online is to better engage interested members of your community. That means once your Transparency Center is live, you need to get the word out to citizens and the local press, so people know exactly where to go to learn more about how their tax dollars are spent. Sadly, the “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” philosophy only works in movies. In real life, after you build it you have to promote it. Then, they’ll come.

Few local governments have the luxury of an in-house communications manager on staff. So, we thought we’d post a few easy steps that really anyone in your organization can take right away to start actively promoting your Transparency Center to residents.

1. Publish a press release

You want to start by casting as wide a net as possible. The press release was invented precisely for occasions like this, namely when you’ve got exciting news to share with the public and you want local newspapers, magazines, and radio to help you spread the word. If you haven’t written one before, don’t panic. Your ClearGov client success manager (CSM) can help you craft the perfect story, using a template that you can quickly customize to announce the launch of your ClearGov-powered site. When your document is ready for release, you can share it with local media outlets and post it on your organization’s website. Be sure to promote the release from your social media accounts as well.

2. Add banners, links, and widgets to your website

In addition to posting your press release on your town or school website, consider adding a permanent Financial Transparency Center banner too. When placed on the home page, it gives visitors to your site one-click access to your financials. You should also place banners, hyperlinks, and widgets on appropriate subpages as well. What’s a widget? Glad you asked. It’s a simple piece of code that enables you to embed ClearGov graphics right on your municipal website. Don’t worry, you do not have to be a programmer to add this functionality to your site. It’s as easy as copying and pasting a line of code and your CSM can help.

The easier you make it for people to find your ClearGov Center the more visitors you’ll get. And, the more visitors you get, the fewer phone calls you’ll have to field down the road. That’s because, over time, people will know where to go for answers to their questions about how funds are collected and allocated, and what projects are happening in their neighborhood. Your ClearGov CSM can help you create and post an eye-catching banner and widget — just ask.

3. Share it on social media

These days, almost every civic and school entity has a presence on social media. In addition to sharing links to your press release, consider pinning a post to the top of your Facebook and Twitter profile pages announcing the launch of your Transparency Center. That way it’ll be the first thing visitors see when they access your organization’s feeds on social media. Pinning is easy: Here’s how to do it on Twitter and Facebook.

Also, every time you post a new capital improvement project to your site be sure to share a project-specific link on your social channels. The easiest way to do this is to click on the Twitter or Facebook icons embedded on the project page in the right-hand corner of the panel you wish to promote. Visitors to the page can do the same. Once you successfully drive interested residents and other stakeholders to your project page, they can easily subscribe to receive automated email updates every time you change the timeline or make other adjustments. That’s valuable repeat traffic and you don’t have to lift a finger to get the word out — it happens automatically.

If you haven’t had the chance to try the Project Communications tool yet, remember it comes free with your Insights subscription and it’s pretty easy to use.  North Reading Public Schools currently has eight projects up on their Transparency Site. Check them out, maybe you’ll be inspired. Again, your ClearGov CSM can show you the ropes and help you publish your first page.

4. Reference it at public meetings

Every public-facing event is an opportunity to promote your Transparency Center. In fact, many towns and districts use ClearGov-generated charts to present budget data to residents at public meetings. Be sure to tell folks where the charts live online and how they can easily access this information and more from the comfort of their own home.

Also, here’s a pro tip: if you’re looking to build consensus for new construction or another project, consider creating a quick page for your Transparency Center using the ClearGov Project Communications tool mentioned above. You’ll be able to link to the page at town meetings and walk council members and residents through the blueprints, projected timeline, budget, and more without having to create a separate slide deck. And, once the meeting is over, people can always refresh their memories or get a closer look at the information online — because it’s all right there on your project page and accessible 24/7.

5. Put it in print

It may be a low-tech way to promote your Transparency Center but print certainly can be effective. You’re already sending information out to your community, right? Newsletters, flyers, tax bills, etc.? Print the URL on every communication that goes out the door. You can even print it on inexpensive business cards and slip them into mailings, or leave stacks on counters at the DMV, tax assessor’s office, and other departments open to the public.

Want more ideas? Look no further than the image at the top of this post. The Town of Acton, Massachusetts recently included this clever insert in their tax mailing and it makes so much sense. If you want people to feel good about where their tax dollars go (or at least understand why they’re writing that check), show them! Interested Acton residents now know exactly where to find the receipts courtesy of this smart insert.

6. Regularly refresh the content on your site

Driving residents to your online Transparency Center is good. Getting them to return regularly should be your goal. And, the best way to keep residents coming back for more is to provide a steady stream of fresh, frequently updated content. Decide how often you want to publish your actuals (we recommend quarterly) and then stick to the schedule. Consider adding a reminder to your calendar to forward your data to ClearGov at predetermined intervals. Then, once ClearGov has uploaded the new data to your site (usually within a few business days), let residents know by promoting the updates in all the usual places.

In addition to regularly posting fresh financials, be sure to publish new project data too, as it becomes available. Why?  ClearGov’s client success team says that towns and schools that post about projects often experience a 10-fold increase in traffic to their Transparency Site. We said it before, but it bears repeating: project pages are a great way to keep interested residents coming back for more.

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