From vaccines to stimulus spending, citizens need a voice

22nd April 2021 Sarah Wray

The complex challenges that cities are facing – from the health crisis and guiding economic recovery to rolling out vaccinations and rebuilding trust in law enforcement – have underlined the urgent need to build a two-way dialogue with residents.

As one city manager said on a recent online Cities Today roundtable: “Communication, communication, communication: everything falls, dies or succeeds on it.”

The last year has highlighted the difficulties, and rewards, of engaging effectively with communities at scale during a fast-moving and critical situation.

City managers at the event identified a common challenge they face as reaching enough citizens in the first place. Many residents do not view government communications or social media channels and the pandemic has closed off in-person options. People that proactively engage tend to be the same ones, and they often have something to complain about.

One city manager said: “Even our most effective method for many of our communities isn’t enough, because they don’t choose to engage until there’s some issue that they want to engage on. It’s hard for us as local governments to compete with American Idol or any other streaming shows that are out there. When [residents] have a choice to spend two hours plugged into Netflix or to participate in a community meeting, it’s not a hard decision for them.”

Others said many city-related issues are simply “not sexy enough” to capture residents’ attention, unless it’s one they have a problem with.

Fighting misinformation

The COVID-19 vaccination programme is an example of an issue that can’t wait and where the loudest voices can drown out nuance.

To maximise vaccine uptake, cities need to mitigate concerns about side effects and efficacy; counter misinformation and distrust in government systems; and clear up confusion about the practicalities.

Tracking citizen sentiment is a growing trend in local government – particularly during the pandemic – to foster a wider, more constructive conversation. Using artificial intelligence (AI) tools, cities can quickly analyse vast amounts of data from sources such as social media, local news and municipal platforms to inform decisions and messaging.

Tech company Zencity has partnered with the Harvard Kennedy School to launch an initiative across 19 US cities and counties, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New Orleans, to help them understand how their residents feel about COVID-19 vaccines. The outreach will pull in organic feedback and proactive resident input from representative community surveys.

Zencity will also benchmark the feedback so that local government leaders can understand how they measure up compared to others.

Assaf Frances, Director of Urban Policy, Zencity, said: “This kind of comprehensive resident feedback analysis will give participating local governments actionable insights into how to get residents on board with vaccinations so we can all move closer to the end of the pandemic.”

Investment support

Sentiment analysis is also being used as part of budgeting decisions in US cities.

As local governments look to economic recovery, putting new stimulus funding to work is a priority. The historic US$1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) provides around US$350 billion in direct funding to state and local governments, with flexibility on how they use it.

“Cities need to get both residents and council members on board with spending decisions and this means understanding sentiment around the issues,” said Frances.

A combination of organic and proactive feedback can help them achieve this.

Assaf Frances, Zencity

For example, in 2020 the City of Decatur, IL ran community surveys in order to build a grant programme around the allocation of its CARES Act funding – including setting specific parameters for business relief grants that reflected the needs of its residents.

After the city announced how it would be distributing grants – based on survey responses – it tracked organic discourse to measure how the allocations were met by the public. The city received 57 percent positive feedback on its federal spending decision-making.

Ongoing engagement is also key to refining messaging and demonstrating transparency.

Frances said that there is an ‘engagement spectrum’ around ARP, ranging from informing residents of decisions, and consulting and collaborating with them on spending options, through to empowering them with money to spend.

Frances said: “A mix of all these methods is important. Alongside ongoing feedback on how your residents want you to spend the money and what they think of the progress you’re making.”

When finalising its FY2022 Budget strategy, the City of Chattanooga, TN, leveraged both organic resident feedback and survey responses to make initial and ongoing budgeting decisions.

In total, 160 Chattanooga residents participated directly in budget input during autumn 2020, with 78 residents attending an online Zoom session and 82 residents completing an online survey. Nobody responded via kerbside paper surveys at Chattanooga Public Library branches. On social media, 18,827 interactions regarding the city budget were captured and analysed.

The analysis revealed that the key concerns for citizens were rethinking investment in public safety; investment in minority and low-income communities; and public education resources and workforce training. The results showed priorities by district.

“Thoughts around equity will play a big role in how residents will be asking their city to spend ARP funds,” said Frances.

Chattanooga also used the insights from the feedback when communicating decisions with residents.

Competing stories

In addition, sentiment analysis can help local leaders back up their recommendations to city councils.

Eyal Feder-Levy, CEO and Co-Founder, Zencity, said city managers are often “competing against a personal story” and that individual stories that the council hears can have a disproportionate impact.

“Gathering broader data can make the case for a particular story, or [help] to prove or disprove a story,” he said.

Feder-Levy pointed out that from mask-wearing and social distancing to rebuilding economies and delivering vaccines, we need to get people to cooperate. “And the importance of communication and putting the right message out there becomes more important than ever,” he said.

Frank Martz, City Manager in Altamonte Springs, Florida, shared his approach to messaging during the pandemic.

Altamonte Springs has developed and deployed a wastewater surveillance model, which Martz calls a ‘Doppler radar’ for coronavirus. It enables the city to predict COVID-19 spikes up to a week in advance and by area.

Innovative as this is, Martz said that implementing the technical solution is only half the task of making it effective.

Frank Martz, City Manager, Altamonte Springs

“We have lots of data,” he said. “But without communication, it’s worthless. And that is really something we learned heavily with COVID.”

This means tailoring the message to different audiences, such as healthcare professionals and scientists; policymakers and advisors; politicians; and, of course, residents.

For example, while Martz would talk to healthcare professionals about “prevalence” and “wastewater” to help them prepare resources for surges, citizens respond better to explanations about “cases” and “sewage”. And rather than talking about droplet digital Polymerase Chain Reaction (ddPCR) testing and RNA sheds, Martz talks about testing “the pieces of the virus that are left over after the sewage breaks it down”.

He said it had been important to stress to residents that data is depersonalised and noted that TV is a more effective medium than print for getting the message out on COVID.

Several cities said they welcome more data to help them understand their residents, and their next priority is using it to improve front-end communications.

One delegate said: “Communication is our number one challenge but it’s absolutely true that communication leads right into engagement.”

Image: Tero Vesalainen |

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