Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Open Letter to Greg Sowell

Greg Sowell

Dear Mr. Sowell,

Congratulations on your hire as the City of Richardson's first director of communications. Richardson is a fine place to live, work, and play. Improved community outreach by the city government can help ensure it remains that way.

After the jump, some unsolicited advice. (You'll get a lot of that.)

First, a word of caution. The critics' knives are already out. You are being called the chief propagandist of the city. They say that you are being hired for spin-control, that your position (and salary) is just another fleecing of the public. You won't have a honeymoon period. You won't be given the benefit of the doubt. Ulterior motives will be suspected for everything you do. Mistakes will be ascribed to malice, not inexperience or unfamiliarity with Richardson. But all is not lost before you even start. On the bright side, the number of knee-jerk critics is small. Your challenge is not to win them over (you probably can't), but to keep them from poisoning the relationship between the city government and residents at large.

Start by picking the low-hanging fruit. For example, I read of your hire on the websites for The Dallas Morning News and Pegasus News. They published the press release issued by the city announcing your hire. Where I couldn't find the announcement was on the city's own website. Why is that? There's a "City News" section on the homepage, but no announcement there. I couldn't find the press release under any of the numerous pull-down menus, either. Maybe it's there, somewhere, but finding almost anything on the website is a challenge. For example, why is "Holidays/Trash Pickup" found under "Resident Interest" but "Brush and Bulk Pickup" found somewhere else under "Services"? A major re-organization of the website is in order. Combine that with better use of emerging social media (email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). The potential to leverage the city's Internet presence for everyone's advantage is significant.

You also have to tackle the harder stuff. The major issue in last year's city council election was government transparency. That meant different things to different people, but common requests were for televised city council meetings (since achieved), an online city checkbook and budget details (status? who knows), and responsive fulfillment of open records requests (growing steadily).

Richardson residents don't want just a spokesman for the city government. Residents don't want a middleman between city government and them. Those 20th century roles are still needed, but technology exists today to open government, to disintermediate government and empower residents to learn and understand what their government is doing for them and involve them in the work. Facilitating that should be your role.

Even if you succeed in opening up all of the government's business to public inspection that doesn't mean the public will avail themselves of the information. You also need a proactive community outreach program, perhaps the hardest challenge of all. All the technology in the world won't substitute for face-to-face interaction with the city's residents.

A recent example illustrates how much work is needed. A recent city council meeting featured a proposal for a long-range plan for parks and recreation, including building a gymnastics center at the RISD's MST magnet school. During the visitors section of the meeting, when the public is allowed to address the council, a neighborhood resident spoke out against the proposal, saying she learned of it only a few days before it was presented to the council. Because of that oversight, the city now must overcome not only neighborhood opposition to the plan (which might have existed in any case - NIMBY is a universal attitude, after all), but suspicion that the city doesn't care about neighborhood opinion.

Your challenge, Greg Sowell, is to step up local government's two-way communication with residents. Representatives of the city should be at every homeowners' association meeting, speaking and listening. The city council and city manager and staff should hold town hall meetings around the city regularly, perhaps dedicated not just to current neighborhood issues but also to issues the city can see coming but maybe the neighborhood doesn't. The city should make more use of polls and focus groups and work groups to listen to residents.

But you don't need me to tell you the tools to use. You've got more than 20 years of experience as a communications professional. The question is to what ends will you apply all that knowledge and experience. The City of Richardson talks about "new communications, marketing, and open governance initiatives." The path of least resistance will be to fall back on producing feel-good marketing presentations for the city. Your team can do that in its sleep. What Richardson really needs is someone who can solve the tough problem of opening government up to the public and forging an active partnership between local government and residents for the good of all. We're counting on that someone being you. Welcome aboard.

Thanks for listening. Now get to work.

With good wishes,
Mark Steger

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