Online networks are growing and evolving. Computers, smartphones and tablets offer convenient access to these online spaces and allow busy people to connect. As a result, ‘high-tech’ tools can be used to expand public involvement in planning.
There are many online tools that can be used to encourage public engagement. These include: Website Features, Social Media Platforms, Mobile Apps, GIS Applications.
User-friendly local government websites are invaluable as they support governmental efficiency and service delivery. Online bill pay, access to forms/codes, community calendars, and links to non-emergency requests for service, and other pertinent information give citizens better access to government services electronically. The Center for Digital Government annually awards city, county and state governments for outstanding portals and websites based on innovation, functionality, productivity and performance.
Social media offers fast, easy, affordable access to established communities and diverse communications tools. Using social media yields worthwhile rewards such as increased event registration, improved data quality, and strengthened stakeholder relationships.
Variety is the key to success according to Creating the Social Media Game Plan. Local leaders can reach the broadest network of citizens by creating an online presence in several of the following categories.
Social networks can be used to transmit brief messages along personal or local networks. News Feeds (blogs, RSS feeds) offer regular delivery of polished content to subscribers. Visual/Audio Media platforms (YouTube, Vimeo, podcasting) distribute graphics, video and sound files. Data-gathering accounts (Google Analytics or CitizenScape) collect, analyze and display online data.
Smartphone use is becoming ubiquitous in the United States. This provides an opportunity for local governments to use mobile apps as a way to respond to the needs and concerns of their citizens in real time. A Government Technology article on “Building Additive Mobile Apps for Citizens and Employees” cites examples of cities, like Philadelphia, that are using 311 apps. Citizens and visitors can use this form of mobile technology to report issues such as broken meters or potholes, submit photos of graffiti or abandoned vehicles, track local buses, and browse listings for local events. for citizens to report problems, such as potholes, and submit pictures of graffiti or abandoned vehicles that need to be removed. Users get an immediate acknowledgement that the city has received their request, and they can track progress on resolving the issue. Other cities are using mobile apps to better manage municipal parking by allowing drivers to select parking facilities, view directions and pay for parking on their devices. The Delaware Department of Transportation has recently seen success with its DelDOT App, a real-time traveler information system, which advises travelers to travel delays, road conditions, and estimated travel times among other capabilities.
Many of the features of mobile apps feature GIS connectivity, providing app administrators with the locations of reported problems. GIS applications can also be used create story maps, identify community assets, and to effectively illustrate a community’s zoning restrictions.