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Why Governments Need to Embrace the Lost Art of Storytelling

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There was a simpler time where people knew the history and story behind the communities they lived in. Today, we have all adopted busy lifestyles that in some aspects have drawn us away from the bond between our neighbors and the community around us. With mass participation in social media, we have become more connected to groups that are part of a larger global network, more so than the people who live next door.

In my city, there is something called the Ramona Pageant. It is a play that celebrates the history of the region and was an event the community once rallied behind. Generations of families were in the play as volunteers, there were parades and banners in the town promoting it, restaurants and local businesses posted fliers, and the Chamber of Commerce used it to promote tourism and investment. Even though the play still happens every year, that sense of community is gone. An event that once represented community pride, is now a program that is being held together by a handful of people.

Why are people are drawn more and more away from the local community? We used to shop on Main Street, now we shop online. Neighborhood watch groups and phone trees have been replaced by apps like NextDoor and Ring. Families used to gravitate towards Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) and social clubs, and now they have been displaced by Soccer Moms who are chauffeurs to their kids. Life has changed and yet we still ask why more people aren’t engaged in their communities.

Perhaps the way to draw people into the community is through technology, the same distraction that is drawing them away. It’s time for cities, counties, and states to revisit the art of storytelling. Concepts like storytelling connect people to places and groups along with a narrative that reintroduces a sense of place. Hundreds of communities such as Greenville, South Carolina and Eugene, Oregon embrace the concept of story maps to draw people back to the downtown. The simple addition of story maps reintroduces the art of storytelling and community building.

Visit your own local government’s website and applications, do you get a sense of community, or do you get a list of departments and an opportunity to report a complaint? The closest you will get to community is an overview of the city’s history and general facts. As a citizen, does that draw you in?

A successful website is one that is visited often, is this how you would describe yours? Community stories have become a lost art, but not a lost cause. There are four simple elements of storytelling that can grow your reputation as a destination, strengthen your identity, and improve sense of community:

  • Powerful Storytelling Informs the Public: State and local governments often try to inform the public on important topics and local issues they should be aware of. This can range from drug addition, to crime rates, to how tax dollars are being spent. The city of Boston, MA takes the time to educate the public on how the city works by showcasing the intricacies of snow removal and how they keep the community moving. Pinellas County, FL uses storytelling to communicate how, where, and why taxpayer dollars are being spent. Putting issues into a context of where people live, work, and play, makes them view problems as a community and encourages citizens to tackle them together.
  • Powerful Storytelling Promotes Buy-In & Feedback: Public participation is the earliest form of civic engagement. The activities around this effort sought to gain buy-in for government decisions while achieving the requirement to present the opportunity for feedback from citizens and businesses. In Long Beach, CA, the city is seeking to create noise ordinances based on public input through crowdsourcing.
  • Powerful Storytelling Promotes Your Community as a Destination: What parent can’t stand when their child says “There is absolutely nothing to do here!” Governments need to show people in and outside their community what they want to be known for. What is going on that people should know and care about? Examples can include showcasing "can’t miss" sites in a community, or promoting your area as a craft brewery destination like Sonoma County, CA, or creating a finder for Farmer’s markets in your neighborhood.
  • Powerful Storytelling Builds Community Pride: Community comes about when people feel a sense that they are connected with the culture, history, and social activities taking a place. Community pride moves beyond events and brings the unique story and images of the people that make up the cities and towns we live in alive.  Placing story maps on government websites demonstrate the social aspects and individuals.  This medium demonstrates what the citizen is missing out on.    In Moreno Valley, CA their website shows their support and pride in the men in women in uniform though an interactive map.  Evidence that a person can be outside community but remain connected.

Show people why your area is the place to be. Storytelling is simpler than you may realize.

Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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