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San Antonio Deepens Trust With Constituents

Let’s say you launch a constituent engagement initiative and within one year you see a significant rise across various metrics: website hits, comments received and event registrations.

Do you call it a success? For Alanna Reed, San Antonio’s Director of Communications and Engagement, numbers tell only part of the story.

Building on Early Success

San Antonio launched an initiative called SASpeakUp in 2015 to gather better input on the city’s budget and its services. Although the city held public meetings for that purpose, city officials noticed that the same people were attending all of them. Through SASpeakUp, they provided numerous channels for input, including a website, social media and in-person meetups.

SASpeakUp was deemed a success because it increased engagement efforts across the city. The problem was that those efforts, while widespread, were fragmented.

“All of the different departments within the city were really kind of siloed,” Reed said. “They were acting on their own, using different tools to reach different constituents.”

At a practical level, this meant that each department was responsible for building and maintaining its own email database for constituents and stakeholders. Besides being inefficient, this made it difficult for the city to coordinate communications across departments.

The insights gained also were fragmented. Individual departments got good information from their efforts but missed an opportunity to benefit from what other departments were learning, Reed said.

Building a Brand Through Consistency

During the past two years, San Antonio has taken a more strategic approach to engagement.

In October 2021, the city launched an SASpeakUp portal, consolidating activity that used to be spread across departments. The website offers various opportunities for residents to engage, including:

  • Participating in city council meetings
  • Taking surveys about city services or initiatives
  • Attending hybrid or virtual events
  • Reviewing and commenting on the city budget

The website is available in more than a dozen languages, including Arabic, Filipino and Spanish.

By bringing it all together, “we’re representing the city as one voice,” Reed said.

The city also has elevated the role of communications, splitting it off from what was the Department of Government and Public Affairs and creating what is now the Department of Communications and Engagement. It coordinates communications citywide, overseeing media communications, social media, public access TV and public information requests, among other things.

The new department’s name reflects the idea that engagement is as important as communications itself, Reed said. Together, they help create the city’s brand, providing consistent messaging with a consistent look and feel across all channels.

As with commercial companies, a city’s brand is about connecting with people. “In the end, I think the most important part of having a brand, of a consistent brand message, is trust,” she said.

Building Engagement Through Trust

That trust is essential to the city’s ability to achieve its most important metric for success: the quality of feedback. Yes, Reed’s office tracks traditional quantitative metrics, such as website hits, number of surveys taken and comments received, but to Reed, the quality of engagement is the best measure.

“When people have that trust to say, ‘This is something that I’m experiencing’…or ‘This is something that I think you can improve,’ that, to me, is great engagement,” she said.

Know who your audience is. Are you looking for general engagement from everyone in the community? Or are you looking for a specific stakeholder group, or a particular neighborhood? Then tailor your questions accordingly.

Rethink your questions. It might be tempting to ask many questions, coming at an issue from different angles. But short surveys can produce better results. “When you’re being respectful with the community’s time, they’re going to trust you and respect you and give you honest answers,” Reed said.

Be transparent. After completing a survey, share the results and, to whatever extent possible, talk about your next steps. This helps build that trust, so that people feel a vested interest in providing feedback, Reed said.

This article appears in our “Guide to Building Constituent Engagement.” For more ideas on how agencies are improving their outreach, download the guide.

Image by desmarsol from Pixabay

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