You’re probably familiar with the buzz term “open government,” the principle that citizens deserve access to the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. That concept is clear enough, but what are some tangible examples of how local governments effectively implement this principle? And how do you translate the budget details into stories for the average citizen?
Disclosing information is just the first step; providing the stories is the next. I interviewed Greg Burris, City Manager for the City of Springfield, and Cora Scott, Director of Public Information & Civic Engagement, to discuss their storytelling methods that have proven successful—as evidenced, for example, by their award-winning public service announcements. Their successes in these endeavors are worth sharing with other local governments for the purpose of best practices and a more engaged citizenry. And these storytelling methods can be applied by local governments that seek to demonstrate how their grant funding, and other revenue streams, are benefiting communities.
Drawing Out Stories from Finance
With a population of approximately 160,000, Springfield is the third-largest city in the state of Missouri. To help tell the story of how the City spent its money during 2013, Scott and her team decided to produce a year-in-review report of City services, working side by side with the finance department to draw the stories about the expenditures (“How the City Spent Its Money”):
“One of the things I do on a regular basis is work with our finance director,” said Scott. “Because in essence, those numbers are individual stories. We work hand in hand to interpret what those financial numbers mean in terms of value of services provided to citizens.”
The finance department determined what those revenue streams funded across categories ranging from Environment to Transportation to Quality of Life. Narrating the Transportation portion of the pie graph, for instance, the report details the supermajority support for a capital improvement sales tax, the regional economic impact of the local airport, and a bicycle and pedestrian safety program for elementary school students that was initially funded by a Safe Routes to Schools grant in 2009:
Some stories can be summarized by a sidebar, and some deserve full-page narratives. In another report, the City published a story of a woman with a mental disorder who was able to get back on her feet again with the help of a mental health justice program. Eventually, she was not only no longer a problem for police and citizens, “but also became a benefiting member to society,” said Scott.
Connecting City Employees and Citizens
If you’re in local government, you probably know some great stories of good deeds by civic employees that go unsung. Springfield was aware of this and helped pull together stories about workers connecting with residents. In one such story, a couple in their nineties had lost an heirloom ring down the sewer. A week later, they called to see if there would be any chance of recovering the ring. Springfield employees took it upon themselves to locate the ring and eventually found the item 300 feet down the line.
“And if you were to ask them why they did that, they’d say they were just doing their job,” Burris said. The video account of the story went viral soon after, with Buzzfeed and Yahoo picking it up. You can see the viral video, “The Robertsons’ Ring,” at the City’s website.
“We have really great employees like a lot of cities do,” added Burris. “And part of it is getting them to understand and recognize a great story so that they can tell their supervisor who can then tell Cora and her team—they can help tell it.”
And once that story’s been defined, the team works to maximize its impact through multiple mediums: written, audio, and particularly video.
“It’s one thing to publish a story, but it’s another thing to … hear the husband talking about what it means to get that ring back in their family,” added Scott. “That hits people in the heart.”
Producing Powerful PSAs
The term “public service announcement” brings to mind hokey, stodgy messages. With this in mind, Scott’s team has produced PSAs that are as entertaining as they are useful. Indeed, these PSAs have been so successful that they have competed with local and state advertising agencies. One of their award-winning videos is a PSA parody on speeding in neighborhoods.
These and other efforts by the City “are all part of a broader strategy to build trust with our citizens,” said Burris, who ended our interview with this: “If [citizens] trust us, we can do anything. If we lose their trust, we can’t do anything.”
What’s Your Take?
How is your city telling the stories behind the numbers and working to improve communication and transparency with residents? Share your stories with us by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leaving a comment below.