The Best City Websites for Online Engagement

Local government sites increasingly embrace social networking, but is it working?

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Our cities are tweeting. Of the 75 largest cities in the U.S., 87 percent are using Twitter to engage with their citizens. That's the same percentage that are also active on Facebook.

Before you dismiss these figures as unsurprising, keep in mind that they represent a dramatic jump from just a few years earlier. A recent report [PDF] from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago compares the websites of the 75 biggest cities in 2009 and 2011. Over that time, Twitter use increased 62 percent, Facebook use by 74 percent and YouTube linking by 59 percent.

Open data – sets of publicly accessible data about city properties, budgets and permits – is still a nascent development in city governments, with only 12 of the 75 largest cities offering such portals. Being a relatively new development among cities, open data wasn't tracked in the 2009 report.

With this increased emphasis on online engagement comes new challenges for city governments. As I discussed in a recent article on mayoral communications offices' approach to handling public input on Twitter and Facebook, dealing with the deluge can be difficult, especially after controversial decisions or unpopular moves. But the trend seems to indicate that city governments are willing to take the possible flak.

The data for this report was collected between March and May 2011. Based on the rapid changes reported between 2009 and 2011, the actual figures likely have changed even more since then.

The report also scores cities for their overall online civic engagement, based on 94 criteria (90 for governments without city managers). New York City and Seattle tied for first place in the ranking, with a score of 93.33 percent.

City Score
New York 93.33%
Seattle 93.33%
Virginia Beach 90.43%
Portland 90%
San Francisco 89.36%
Kansas City, MO 87.23%
Denver 86.67%
Mesa, AZ 85.11%
Louisville 84.44%
Philadelphia 84.04%
Long Beach, CA 84.04%
Sacramento 84.04%
San Jose 82.98%

 

The previous study in 2009 used slightly different metrics, and only those shared between the two years are used in this analysis. Nevertheless, the results speak to the rapidly changing makeup of government services outreach efforts today. And some cities are making these changes very rapidly. In 2009, Denver ranked 20th on the list. Now it's fifth. Kansas City, Missouri, jumped from 23rd to fourth.

Two cities not surprisingly in the top 10 are San Francisco and Philadelphia. As this recent article by Emily Badger explores, these two cities are thinking about how to use technology to better engage with their residents, and one way they're doing it is through a new city official called the Chief Innovation Officer. "Some cities now are realizing that what I really need is someone to help me advance digital quality of life for my city," Philadelphia Chief Innovation Officer Abel Ebeid told Badger, "rather than just keep a bunch of servers warm and running in a closet."

A few other interesting stats from the report:

  • 8 percent of cities have "virtual townhall meetings."
  • 22.7 percent have blogs for individual elected officials.
  • 10.7 have blogs for the city as a whole.
  • 74.7 percent have a comment or message box, which is a drop from the 80 percent in 2009.
  • Only 2.7 percent have only discussion boards.
  • 100 percent offer subscriptions to email newsletters or updates.

But as the report notes, all the attention paid to social networking and better city websites isn't necessarily improving government:

Local websites play an important role in making basic information about cities available, including contact information, government policies and processes, government organization, information about council meetings, and important policy documents, such as budgets. This improves transparency and offers citizens information that could help them to intervene on issues if they so choose. As in 2009, however, local governments generally have not used their websites as a venue for citizen participation. Social networks pose some potential for this, but a scan of activity on the websites doesn’t indicate much active discussion.

In other words, most of the online engagement cities are offering isn't exactly a brave new world. Anyone who's subscribed to a city newsletter can attest to that. But from a city's perspective, even this sort of no-brainer, low-impact outreach can achieve some goals. Cities know that not everyone wants to log into Facebook to leave a comment about the latest ordinance proposals, which is why the more ways to engage with people the better. But if cities are only providing an online format to have the same type of participation they could in City Hall, the ball of progress hasn't moved forward all that much.

Top image: basketman23 / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.