I am a firm believer that the prime responsibility of parks and recreation operations is to serve the needs and desires of the people.
Last year, as the City of South Bend started work on a new master plan for our department, I set a lofty goal: the most community-driven parks master plan in the City of South Bend’s history. Worthy challenge, huh?
I ran into a problem that’s not unique to my department, or even my city. Government has difficulty getting representative, actionable feedback from the community. If you are familiar with the “community meeting” (and if you’re not, watch an episode of Parks & Rec), they aren’t always the best place to be heard.
Day-time community meetings happen while people are at work. Night-time meetings often require planning childcare for families. Residents with mobility issues have trouble getting to both. People who do show up often have a very determined single-issue axe to grind.
21st Century Public Meetings
How do we take advantage of new technology and ways we communicate today to remake the public meeting? In 2013, a team of Code for America Fellows worked with the City of South Bend to create CityVoice. CityVoice gives government a simple, easy – and more cost-effective – way to listen.
On behalf of our partners at Code for America, I’m proud to announce that CityVoice is in nationwide beta, which means you can use CityVoice to get resident feedback. It’s easy to setup and free to use during our pilot period.
How CityVoice Works
We used CityVoice to complement the focus groups, public meetings and community surveys we typically use for feedback. We deployed CityVoice across the City’s twenty most popular parks, the city’s trail systems, and throughout the majority of our facilities. CityVoice made it easier for people who use parks, the people with the biggest stake in the new plan, to call in and take two or three minutes to voice their needs. They answered short questions that helped us better understand how they were using the parks and services and how they envisioned them being improved.
Most importantly, the combination of physical signage and a call-in survey let us meet residents where they are, offering them a way to participate at the time and place of their choosing, with simple technology that everyone has access to – the phone.
More Voices. Bigger Impact.
The results were nothing less than astounding. Not only did more residents call in to CityVoice than attend any of the roughly 30 public input meetings, but the residents who used CityVoice gave us much richer, more useful feedback.
What made it better? The feedback was location-specific. Because CityVoice responses are tied to locations, we were able to more precisely pinpoint needs or concerns to specific parks. Some people said their neighborhood parks needed more benches, other parks needed restroom improvements.
CityVoice also enabled us ask the open-ended question, “How would you improve this park?” We heard people articulate their needs in the same way they might speak to a neighbor or friend. Instead of their feedback reduced to a quote in a city report, the CityVoice companion website presents their opinion for neighbors, city employees, and elected officials alike to share and even comment on.
How You Can Use CityVoice
We’re going to keep doing this, and we hope other Parks departments will join us.
Like all Code for America projects, CityVoice is open-source and available on Github. There’s a simple web flow to guide you through the process of setting up a survey, recording questions, and printing signs to place in parks. Learn more >