How One City Embraced Transparency and Reimagined Public Engagement

November 28, 2017 - (4 min read)

This is a guest post by Rebecca Wage, Customer Success Manager at Socrata.

Context is key to accurately understand and leverage information.

That’s why the team at the City of Williamsburg, Virginia, recently retooled the way they communicate and present their monthly operating reports. The goal? Improve transparency and engagement with their city council and residents.

The city has a long history of sharing performance data with the public in a way that is easy to understand. Keeping in that tradition, the City recently decided to upgrade how departments communicate monthly metrics to citizens and city council members. Many city departments were still generating reports that were dense and difficult to understand.

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As Mark Barham, Director of Information Technology for the City of Williamsburg explains, “We’re really good at taking this data and putting it in charts and graphs, but you have no context for it. You don’t know what this data means to you and this is where a narrative is going to help you to better understand that data.”

A Fresh Perspective

The solution? Give that data context and use it more effectively by telling the story around it. Using a web-page building tool called Perspectives, designed by the software company Socrata, each of the 11 departments now have a Monthly Operating Report page that tracks the department’s performance across key areas. The data is refreshed on a recurring basis to provide the most up-to-date information to the city council and public.

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Williamsburg now offers Monthly Operating Reports offered across many departments.

The web pages for each department include multiple charts and graphs while also providing explanations of the data and its importance. The metrics and data represented tie directly to the city council’s goals, initiatives, and outcomes. Each page is also personalized by including a photo of department employees and contact information for each department head so people can feel free to reach out with questions.

This improved storytelling approach is designed to help staff and citizens better understand data while also identifying areas for improvement across the city. For example, Barham notes the data has helped to clarify demand for emergency services. “We’re able to have people not only understand the response time, but the types of calls that firefighters are going on versus EMS calls,” he says. “When you take a deeper look at that data with that added bit of context, that allowed us to see that a higher percentage of our calls are EMS only. Why are we sending a fire truck? Or why are we hiring firefighters when what we really need is EMT-type personnel?”

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Moving Toward a More Digital Government

Besides the launch of departmental pages, the City of Williamsburg is making further strides toward becoming a digital government. Case in point: monthly paper reports have now been completely replaced with Socrata Perspectives stories shared in presentation mode on iPads during city council meetings.

As Barham points out, supporting data transparency through accurate storytelling and citizen engagement is all a part of staying on the cutting-edge. “The one thing that government has is significant amounts of data. To use that to better make decisions, better impact people’s quality of life, to better impact economic development–-that’s a game-changer right there,” he says.

socrata4About the author: Rebecca Wage is a customer success manager at Socrata. She works with a variety of cities, counties, and states making sure their data programs operate successfully.