Connecting state and local government leaders
This North Dakota city’s website plays a central role.
“This town is really into the leaf-collection program,” says John Bernstrom, spokesman for Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Residents check the town website throughout the fall. It includes a map that tracks which neighborhoods the leaf crew is working, which neighborhoods it has already visited and which neighborhoods it’s going to work next. Residents want to get the timing just right, so they can rake the maximum number of leaves onto the berm between the sidewalk and the street before the crew comes through and vacuums up the street-long piles of rustling leaves.
The website includes text on how the program works as well as a short video.
“It’s that time of year again,” says in a polite voiceover. “The annual vacuum leaf collection . . . Just another example of how this city works !”
Something about the polite voiceover and the street-side vacuuming technology—a large rubber tube manipulated by a sort of pitchfork attached to a slow-moving city truck—recalls 1950s sci-fi television-style technology, a labor-saving device conceived in the pre-digital era.
But that’s the leaf collector. Communications for Grand Forks, on the other hand, are fully digital and sophisticated in small ways that make a difference.
“There is an attitude in Grand Forks that makes the difference,” says Ashley Fruechting, senior director of strategic initiatives at Santa Monica, California-based Vision Internet , a consultancy that has helped more than 700 state and local governments take their communications online.
“Grand Forks has done a great job. They are motivated and there’s a real evolution in seeing, you know—a view that things don’t have to be done the way they have always been done.”
The Grand Forks leaf-collecting map is a top traffic driver for the city website. The site is mostly a public information portal, but it’s also partly a news and entertainment outlet.
It streams city council meetings, hosts budget documents and job announcements. It offers videos from around town. Communications staff post on Twitter and Facebook every day, and the posts at those sites are tailored to accommodate the different demographic groups those technologies draw—college kids and young-adult males on Twitter and the majority women users between 25 and 44 on Facebook. The Grand Forks website draws an average of more than 65,000 page-views per month, which is very good for a town that’s home to 55,000 residents, the third largest in North Dakota.
Fruechting says Grand Forks did the math. The city knows that the average transaction with the public conducted offline costs $17 and that the average cost of an online transaction comes to $4.
“There’s so much more self-serving going on online, so that, even with a small staff, you have multiple transactions going on at once and so much more bang for the buck. Having a creative, responsive web presence just makes a city so much more relevant to its residents. Most people conduct so much of their daily life now online. Why should government be different?”
Fruechting says that, in her experience, the main factor in a local government that translates to high-end digital communications is a view of government that rates public service as a top priority.
“It’s not the size of the city or the money, even,” she said. “It’s embracing the idea that the community needs to know what you’re doing and why, that the more the community knows the better. There is a sense at the top that it’s the government’s responsibility to share public information.”
Grand Forks spokesman Bernstrom says the city’s ratcheted-up Web presence is centered on an $18,000 website that Vision Internet helped the city build in 2014. The site now runs pretty much on its own, with the city’s three-person communications staff adding features—like the leaf-collecting map—as it feels the need.
“We had this old site, really from the era where you just had to get something online. It had totally hit its limit,” he says. “For years, we had been taking pitches from vendors on how to improve it, but the city didn’t want to spend the money. [City Administrator] Todd Feland had a lot of ideas and he finally just said, ‘I’m sick of hearing ‘No.’ Let’s get this done.’
“So, we pitched a whole new website to the city council. We said ‘What you’ll be paying for is the city’s only 24/7 employee. The site will always be on the job.”
Bernstrom says his office hasn’t phased out traditional public relations. Staff still write press releases and take phone calls. He says he has a regular spot on the radio each week. But he says the news media increasingly is turning to the city social media feeds to find out what’s going on in government.
“We had a water main break this week. We thought we should fire off a press release, but really there were no road closings. It wasn’t a big deal. So we just went out and took a quick video of the crew at work and posted it on Facebook. All of the news outlets were then reporting the story from the video, like, ‘According to the city’s Facebook page.’”
As is the case with employees in all variety of industries today—journalism, public relations, marketing—the communications staff in Grand Forks has found that their job now includes regularly “feeding the beast” that is the Internet.
“Oh, yeah. We’re always working on the site, thinking about what we can post. You can’t build a website and walk away. It’s alive. It’s hungry. But it’s a balance, too. It seems like the more we put online, the less phone calls we get.”
The staff asks city departments to contribute regularly.
“The great thing is that now we can be pro-active. We can say, ‘These roads are closed.’ We can warn of rising rivers in the spring—that’s a big thing around here.”
Bernstrom added that people come to the site for the informal short road-repair-style videos and for the leaf-collection map, but that they stay for the city council video and the budget proposals.
“They come to know that all of that transparency material is there on the website—and traffic for that really ticks up now when hot topics are being debated.”
John Tomasic is a journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.