With residents demanding 24/7 access to information online, cities across the state are improving their communications infrastructure, an imperative made more pressing by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their efforts create more than just increasingly sophisticated websites. The roles and duties of city officials are evolving in conjunction with their communication strategies, creating both strains and opportunities for strengthening the social fabric.
When a hailstorm pounded Louisburg in the summer of 2019, out-of-town roofers predictably began descending on the Miami County town about 30 miles south of Kansas City.
While a few went to City Hall to start the process of obtaining a permit so they could replace roofs, many others had permits waiting for them. They had verified they were licensed contractors and completed the paperwork online.
“It made a huge difference,” says Rusty Whitham, director of planning and zoning as well as codes enforcement for the city. “I think we did like 600 roofs last summer. Instead of having a line of people every day, 30 people in line, they had their office email me all their permits (information) and we were able to have their sets (of permits) waiting for them. It streamlined the process immensely.”
Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of Louisburg were able to conduct much of their business with the city online, a must if officials want to serve generations conditioned to expect the information they need to be available 24/7 at the touch of a smartphone screen. Making a phone call or showing up at a help window has become a last resort as Google became the first place many direct a question.
Government hasn’t led the revolution as residents shifted much of their banking, bill paying, shopping and basic research online over the past two decades. But government is increasingly responding to adaptive challenges to meet 21st century expectations.
City websites are growing more sophisticated. Before the pandemic set in and forced meetings to become virtual, it was increasingly routine to see council or commission meetings being livestreamed so residents who couldn’t attend in person would be able to stay connected.
The additions aren’t just bells and whistles added because they’re available, officials say. They reflect a tectonic shift in the way government does business.
That shift was accelerated by the onset of the pandemic, said Megan Gilliland, communications and education manager for the League of Kansas Municipalities.
“Websites became even more important” to have, whether it was to pay bills, get permits or share information about meetings, Gilliland says.
The pandemic forced some smaller cities that didn’t have websites to finally get one, she says. Learning how to livestream meetings was another learning curve.
“Our first and second class cities, a lot of them transitioned pretty well to doing online meetings” and other measures, Gilliland says. “It was definitely the smaller ones who struggled with it.”
It was particularly a challenge for small towns that were used to posting agendas on bulletin boards in cafes and other high-traffic businesses. When those were closed by the pandemic, she said, officials had to find other ways to get information out.
Even without COVID-19, city halls and their digital outposts were becoming not just places to conduct routine business but crucial information hubs that help shape what residents know about their communities and where they’re headed.
Drastic cuts in newspaper staffing in recent years mean that local governments play an increasing role in informing residents about tax increases, maintenance projects, street closings and other matters that impact day-to-day life.
It’s a change with significant consequences. It means city employees must take on another role for the community at a time when they – like other workers, public and private – are being asked to do more without having more time to do it. And fewer resources, too, because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes.
In Andover, a Wichita suburb of 13,000 people, communicating with residents is a rapidly growing aspect of the city’s work, says Jennifer McCausland, the city administrator. When she became Andover’s assistant city administrator in 2010, communications were just a component of that role.
It grew to take up half of a full-time employee’s work by 2017. By the start of 2020, McCausland says, social media were being handled by the city’s human resources director and other communications platforms by the assistant city administrator.
“I can absolutely envision a budget discussion in the next three years where I request a full-time communications director,” McCausland says. “There is no doubt we could do better serving our public with regard to communication.”
Communications work has become essential for the success of city initiatives. Andover has a new amphitheater, but McCausland says it has been a struggle to let residents know about concerts and other events being held there.
“A lot of the traditional places to share that information, people aren’t looking at,” she says. “They’ve cut cable. They don’t subscribe to the newspaper. They don’t watch the news. How do you figure out how to be seen where you’re going to stick in someone’s memory?”
Shifting City Hall transactions and municipal meetings online and having many employees work from home as a result of COVID-19 has led to welcome changes in how things are done, McCausland says.
“Interestingly, we are finding many ways to work that are more efficient,” she says.
Emailing permits is faster than in-person visits. Zoom meetings cut down on travel and idle chatter. Staff members are thinking through questions and issues more before picking up the phone, leading to more productive conversations.
“I won’t be surprised if a discussion comes up in the near future regarding updating personnel policies to allow for alternative work schedules and locations,” McCausland says.
The pandemic has actually led to more public exposure to city business, despite City Hall being closed.
“In order to comply with the Kansas Open Meetings Act, we must broadcast our Zoom meetings on both local city Channel 7 as well as on YouTube,” she says. “All meetings that are open must be broadcast.”
That now includes events such as City Council workshops and site plan review committee meetings, which are open to the public but haven’t been put on television or the web before, she says.
“We only broadcasted our City Council and planning commission meetings prior to the pandemic,” McCausland says.
Generation Y at the Helm
When CivicPlus, a Manhattan-based technology company, began developing websites for local governments about 20 years ago, the landscape was much different. Most smaller city or county governments, if they had a website at all, offered basic information on static pages. Residents still typically had to pay utility bills, obtain information, or request services by phone, by mail or in person.
But clearly times have changed, even for the smallest cities. As officials have attempted to keep up with technological shifts, one of the factors driving their evolution has been a changing of the guard as digital natives in their 20s, 30s and 40s move into key municipal roles.
Trey Cocking, deputy director at the League of Kansas Municipalities, noticed something at a conference for municipal administrators in southwest Kansas in November of 2019.
“I’m amazed at how many people younger than me were in the meeting,” says Cocking, who’s 39. “There’s less and less gray hair in the room now.”
The generational shift is producing visible changes in city halls throughout the state. When McCausland became assistant city administrator in Andover, she was the only city employee who used her flexible spending account to pay for day care.
In the last six months, so many administrative employees with young children have been hired by the city, “we could have our own day care,” she says.
McCausland is just one of numerous millennials who have assumed authority roles in local governments across the state. But it’s not just happening in government.
“That’s across the board,” says Erik Sartorius, executive director of the league. “We’re seeing it in most sectors of the economy. The silver tsunami is real, and it’s growing.”
The combination of millennial officials and residents in their 20s and 30s have brought new ideas and expectations to their communities.
“They want to be able to go on the website to find out what they want to know without having to interact with the ‘real person’ if they can,” says Katrina Rubenich, communication and information specialist for Valley Center, a suburb of Wichita.
The pandemic made a website vital, Gilliland says, not just a convenience. Those websites will remain essential even after the pandemic eases.
Having an appealing, interactive website is expected for cities and counties hoping to attract residents and even employers, officials say.
“I know that, personally, if there’s a company or a city that I want to go to, if they don’t have a website, it kind of makes me think, ‘Why not?’ and ‘Are you legit?’” Rubenich says.
CivicPlus redesigned Valley Center’s website four years ago, and usage soared.
“It’s really a lot more involved than it used to be,” Rubenich says. “It used to be one page; here’s the basics. Now, it’s really, really in-depth.”
Investments Make a Difference
In the wake of the pandemic, Gilliland says, residents are likely to be even more comfortable turning to a website for answers rather than city staff.
With Louisburg residents able to pay bills and apply for various permits online now, “some of the office staff have wondered if we’ll see reduced traffic in City Hall after we reopen,” says Jean Carder, the city’s communications coordinator.
That trend was emerging before COVID-19 arrived. After Junction City redesigned its website four years ago, the number of calls about basic information fell to about 10 a year, says Jim Germann, information technology director for the city.
When analytics revealed that about 75% of the people accessing the city’s website were using mobile devices, the city worked with a company now known as MunicipalOne to redesign its website to be mobile friendly.
“It was very well received,” Germann says. Junction City reflects another shift already underway, Gilliland says. The goal for government website developers such as CivicPlus, MunicipalOne, Granicus, Revize and Municode is to have sites that support mobile devices and tablets, she says.
“You’re not going to discover a pothole every day between 9 and 5,” Germann says. “You may be out for a walk or a drive in the evening or on the weekend, and that’s when you’re going to see issues.”
Government needs to provide a way for residents to report those issues right away, he says. While changes have generally been welcomed, officials say, they’ve still had to make time for those who eschew digital devices or otherwise do not have access. That can mean manually entering information.
“You will always have your segment of the population that doesn’t want to use the web at all for anything,” Carder says. “Or they don’t have email, so you can’t reach out to them that way.”
But that segment is smaller than many might think, and it’s shrinking.
“The good news is: We’re seeing trends that show the use of social media by people over 60 is increasing significantly,” Gilliland says. “The biggest demographic growth on Facebook is seniors.”
According to research by Hootsuite, the number of Facebook users who are 65 or older has doubled since 2012. More than 40% of U.S. seniors are now on Facebook.
Keeping up with the Burden
While cities are increasingly willing to assume the role of an information hub, it’s a responsibility that produces stresses and strains.
Using websites along with social media networks to promote communities provides exposure unimagined only a generation or two ago, officials say, but it’s also created a demand for keeping information up to date – something small staffs struggle to do.
Most cities around Kansas can’t afford to hire additional people to manage and maintain all of the various communications platforms now available, Gilliland says. That becomes something else added to someone’s list of duties.
“I’ve gotten to where I can’t keep up with it, because I wear several hats,” says Laura Hartman, the city clerk and human resources director for Baldwin City.
Baldwin City responded by adding a communications position to city staff. That person began work in May.
Society now demands instant gratification, Gilliland says, but it’s not unusual for residents to have to wait a day or more to get answers from overwhelmed municipal employees – and they’re no longer used to that. Or happy about it.
Still, local governments have little choice but to make communication a priority if they want to keep residents informed.
“We can’t rely on (news) media to do that anymore,” Cocking says. “There’s a vacuum that’s been created.”
Cities have resorted to sending out newsletters in their water bills, posting information to social media and regularly refreshing information on their websites in an effort to keep residents informed.
If water bills are going up because of a major upgrade, for instance, “How am I supposed to know about this” as a resident? Cocking asks.
“To a certain degree, I can’t go and knock on every door” to spread news, he says. “People don’t pay attention until they have to pay attention.
“There’s just so many competing outlets for attention” these days, he says. “We cut the cable at my house. I don’t have to watch commercials. I don’t have to watch the news.”
As a city official, “you have to keep on trying method after method after method” to get the word out about issues, “knowing there is not one method that works for everyone.”
But recognizing that digital demands can be a burden both for those trying to stay connected and those now accountable for making that connection is just a first step.
“Change is hard for people, period,” McCausland says. “Change is harder when it comes after having done something the same way for a long time. Often, local government has the double-edged blessing and curse of long-term employees.
“You have people employed, many of whom have been employed for a long time, doing things the same way for a long time. … And that’s a recipe for change avoidance. Local government leaders have to not only be change agents but also must possess strong skills in the areas of empathy and compassion in order to effectively guide their staffs through necessary, demanded change.”
Communication and Economic Development
Yet changes in the way municipalities approach communications can have a larger, much sought-after effect.
As local governments meet the expectations of residents, they’re changing how they market themselves and their efforts at economic development.
Louisburg’s Carder worked with CivicPlus to incorporate information about the library, recreation commission, chamber of commerce and other local entities so people can learn a lot about the community before even planning a visit.
Thanks to Wi-Fi and advancing technology, Carder says, “you can pretty much work from anywhere. I can live in the big city or I can go live in a small town and get away from the rat race. Louisburg is a great location for that.”
While Andover has historically seen many residents commute to Wichita to work, McCausland says, more and more are able to work from home and can get most of what they want or need in or near their hometown.
“The technology piece – that so overlays this discussion, from a resident’s point of view,” McCausland says. “They can get virtually everything they want with a click of a mouse or from their smartphone. What you can’t click and get is a park or a coffee shop. Either you have those or you don’t.”
Those values are reflected in the bigger picture as well, Sartorius says.
When talking with younger residents about how to revitalize small towns, he says, they’re not particularly passionate about beautifying the town square and filling empty buildings with new businesses.
“They say, ‘Get us really good Wi-Fi and a coffee shop,’” Sartorius says.
Such quality of life components are more important to them than bricks and mortar or new sidewalks, he says.
With city officials trying to figure out how to help their communities adapt to changing expectations, communications and economic development have started to feel like complementary efforts in some places.
Take Maize, where city officials last year embarked on a campaign to carve out an identity that would help the community stand out among the suburbs of Wichita and similar cities in Kansas.
Building on Maize’s reputation for quality schools, city officials created the Academy Arts District – a “city center” encompassing the community’s old downtown and the street that links many of its schools. They then held a series of public meetings to solicit suggestions from residents about what amenities they’d like to have in the new district.
“Our community attracts young professionals with school-age children,” Deputy City Administrator Jolene Graham says. “Through the visioning process, it became very apparent that the type of identity that Maize residents lean toward is a celebration of family.
“A lot of grandparents, too, are here who want to be with their family,” she says. “It’s intergenerational, all focused on families.”
The results of the study are helping provide answers to “How do we create a community and an identity that is supportive of and celebrates family life in all its forms?” Graham says.
One of those pieces is a public amphitheater, which is projected to be built by late 2021. The city has received a federal grant to help pay a portion of the project’s cost.
“The public has bought into it so much,” Graham says.
One reflection of that, she says, is private investment. Two new businesses have opened across the street from MOXI Junction, a coffee house that is considered a cornerstone of the new arts district.
The end result, officials hope, will be a vibrant area that helps strengthen community identity and pride. “There’s nothing in Maize that says, ‘Here we are!’” Graham says. “I want that sense of pride in place.”
Maize has been approved for funding through the Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization in 2022-23 for infrastructure work on Academy Street, which will be the centerpiece of the newly developed area.
As much as local government has evolved recently, Germann, the Junction City IT director, says officials don’t appear to be comfortable with disrupting the status quo in ways similar to what Amazon has done for shopping or Spotify for music.
“Local government has, over the years, become reactive in nature – waiting for complaints or inquiries from the citizens to react to issues,” Germann says. “If local governments wanted to start setting trends, they would need dedicated staff who start the conversations with citizens about current and future issues.
“In the news business, the entity that breaks a story normally owns it. Local governments would need to be proactive about issues – even ones that don’t show the city in the best light – and start the conversations about the issues on the web and social media, not wait until the issue has already been released” and then respond.
That’s not likely to happen, officials say, until more cities have the staffing to handle those demands and a clearer knowledge of the most effective ways to connect with their constituents in the digital age.
In some ways, Gilliland says, the pandemic is providing a force-fed blueprint for how to do that.
- What key dynamics do you see influencing changes in how local governments operate in this story?
- To what extent do you see local governments being proactive to the changes at play?
- If money or time weren’t a barrier, how would you like to see local government serve you?
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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