Civic Superheroes Episode 1: What’s Your Origin Story?

Whether brought to Earth in an asteroid, trained as an Amazon on a secret island, plucked off a farm on a desolate planet, or invited to a secret school for witchcraft & wizards, every great superhero has a fantastic origin story.

It’s one of the best moments in a movie: How do the protagonists receive their powers?

What if we, as local government staff, could play a part in the origin story for hundreds of real-life heroes receiving superpowers?

Meanwhile, back on Earth…

To the best of our knowledge, our planet does not have astonishing superheroes capable of flight or shooting lasers from their eyes. Our heroes are those among us who take local actions to make their world a better place: community members doing volunteer creek clean-ups, reporting potholes, serving on boards and commissions. These may not be the heroes we see in the movies, but these are the heroes in our midst.

“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” Batman (Christian Bale), Batman Begins (2005)

If we’re not going to have heroes with a lot of power, then the next best thing is to have a lot of heroes with their own special abilities.

Our communities are full of caring, motivated people. So how can we facilitate their origin stories? How can we empower our local heroes with what they need to make an impact on our communities?

This was the thought behind developing Civic Superhero Training, a fast-paced, fun presentation that runs through many of the city’s digital tools. It’s a quick spin through many of the ways community members can interact with the city  mobile apps, financial transparency tools, an open data portal, surveys and text feedback tools  all within the metaphor of a superhero strapping on the equipment of their profession. This fun presentation equips community members to have an impact on their local government.

Civic Superhero Colin_2 from City of Colorado Springs on Vimeo.

“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”  The Joker (Jack Nicholson), Batman (1989)

With great power…

The purpose of Civic Superhero Training was three-fold:

  • First, we wanted to equip residents to interact with their city government. As a local government, we need our community to let us know where we need to provide our services. We don’t build gizmos into the road to let us know when there’s a pothole. Our citizens are our sensors, and we want to address their issues.
  • Second, we want our community to know more about the operations of their government. Americans don’t know how government works, and that’s a problem. So it’s important to involve and educate our community at the same time as they’re getting their needs met.
  • Third (and this is selfish), we wanted to improve our community’s perception of city government. We needed to convert critics into advocates, breaking the standard perception of government as boring and unresponsive. By surprising attendees with humor and dazzling them with a variety of digital tools we thought we might get them to re-evaluate their perception of government.

With these goals in mind, and with a meeting room reserved in the local library, we were able to host the first Civic Superhero Training event!

She needed a hero. So that’s what she became.

After advertising on city social media and in local gatherings, we had a few attendees at the first event.

Like, six.

But if it could be a worthwhile event, that’s six people who would be able to spread the word that the event was worth their time.

It was worth the time, and they did spread the word. Future events had more attendees, and news went around the community that Civic Superhero Training was the way to have an influence on city government.

One attendee even got a job with the city!

One of our biggest successes in driving attendance was inviting past attendees to create short video clips showing their enthusiasm for the training. City government can say that an event is important or enjoyable, but it’s so much better (one might say, super) when a member of the community says it themselves.

Civic Superhero Chelsea_1 from City of Colorado Springs on Vimeo.

What did we learn from giving dozens of these trainings in the community?

You’ll have to tune in next time, for Civic Superheroes, Part 2: I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me.

Jay Anderson is responsible for digital engagement and public processes at the city of Colorado Springs. Jay holds an MPA from the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, where he also serves as the Chair of the Dean’s Community Advisory Board. Jay focuses on the point of engagement between the community and its institutions, creating programs that give a voice to people who want to have an impact on their government.

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