In both the Atlanta metro region and beyond, Decatur, Georgia enjoys a reputation for smart growth and good governance. But it’s not an arbitrary assessment. Since its landmark 1982 Town Center Plan, the city has earnestly and continuously sought the input and contributions of its residents and has, in turn, acted on their collective will in the form of policy, programs and growth regulations.
In short, they ask what residents want, then do their level best to get it done.
In 2000, the city convened a roundtable process to map out its goals for the next decade. By 2010, with 85% of the action items crossed off the list and a strong level of trust forged between residents, city staff and elected officials, it was time to develop its follow-through successor: The 2010 Strategic Plan.
Faced with the challenge of now meeting residents’ justifiably high expectations, the city hired PlaceMakers to manage the initiative’s community engagement, promotions, and educational sessions and materials. Augmenting a traditional program of outreach — including advertising, posters, mailers and one-to-one contact — designed to ensure participation by all segments of the population, the firm developed an online strategy built around emerging behaviors in this highly educated community. At its center, a branded iCharrette web portal was created to serve as the heart of the project’s promotional efforts, allowing PlaceMakers to orient citizens in the history of the Strategic Plan process, and remind them of its practical results and benefits in the 10 years that followed. Taking that forward, we produced and posted video interviews with each of Decatur’s elected officials, who promised citizens they would follow through on 2010 citizen recommendations just as they had in 2000. And we took our cameras into the homes and work places of Decatur citizens, who shared their hopes and concerns for the city’s next planning steps.
Making the most of its interactive capabilities and links to social networking tools, the website allowed for online participant sign-ups for round table discussions, for comments and questions addressed directly to city officials, and for staying connected to evolving content via Twitter, Facebook, and content syndication. PlaceMakers communications specialists were on hand, as well, when the round tables began in the spring of 2010, chronicling meetings and the evolving community consensus, all of which was published on the website.
Working together with TSW & Associates, the firm crafting the plan itself, PlaceMakers helped propel a process that ultimately engaged upwards of 2,000 residents. By the time the process wrapped up, citizens had online access to a vast archive of background data and personal perspectives from their leaders, their neighbors, and themselves. Singled out by Governing Magazine as an innovative effort, it’s the very essence of public engagement in the new communications era.