By Susan Frick Carlman email@example.com April 8, 2012 7:10PM
The City of Elgin's Facebook app for the iPhone. | Steve Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
City social media
YouTube: youtube.com/user/cityofelgin Aurora
Updated: April 8, 2012 8:29PM
Naperville is the most social-media savvy city in Illinois, a recent study has concluded. And Aurora and Elgin aren’t far behind — meaning area communities are working hard to keep their residents informed.
Nadja Lalvani, Naperville’s community relations manager, wasn’t surprised that the study found her town is one of the online best.
“I think Naperville is a municipal government that really does embrace new technology and new ways that we can provide efficient services for our residents and businesses,” she said.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago ranked cities based on their online interactivity, transparency and accessibility, including citizens’ comments allowed on blogs and social networks and online information about budgets, neighborhood issues and city council meetings.
Study co-author Karen Mossberger, head of UIC’s public administration graduate program, said that among Illinois’ 20 largest cities, Chicago ranked No. 2 behind Naperville because Naperville had more information online about how to contact officials, the workings of government processes and policies and the amount of information that people could access. Elgin came just behind Chicago, and Evanston and Aurora round out the top five.
Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall said Facebook, backed up by Twitter, has been an “amazing tool” for enhancing the interchange between the municipality and its inhabitants. It has proven especially helpful by offering two-way communication when a water main breaks or a resident needs a service call.
“It just allows citizens to be engaged in community on a whole different level,” Stegall said.
Kevin Stahr, Aurora’s public information coordinator, said the city’s website is now an integral piece of its communication network. The recent redesign of the site and the launch of its Twitter account late last year enhance civic engagement.
An Aurora Facebook page also was added recently, after an earlier incarnation was taken down in February 2010 amid concerns about prospective legal complications.
“It’s another way that we can reach our audience,” Stahr said. “It obviously helps us interact more with our residents.”
A web-based mode of communication has been a priority in Aurora for the past decade or so, he said. The social media features broaden its reach.
“We offer residents a variety of ways to communicate,” Stahr said. “So whatever platform they’re most comfortable using, they have a way to receive the information they need.”
Friends and Tweets
The UIC report found that even as local governments are becoming more open to social media, some continue to post files on their websites that require special software to download or e-publish budget information that’s difficult to understand.
Naperville appears to have worked out any such bugs, and that may be a function of time. Lalvani said the city was one of the first municipalities to tap the possibilities offered by Facebook and Twitter when its accounts were established in 2008. The newly launched networks each drew about 650 followers in their first year. Today the town counts nearly 2,500 Facebook friends, and more than 3,500 people are following its Tweets.
“We immediately recognized social media as one of the key items in our toolbox to help us communicate with our residents,” Lalvani said.
“What’s unique about social media is that there is the two-way communication that enables us to receive feedback almost immediately,” said Lalvani, noting that those capabilities were especially critical when a young Naperville resident was temporarily missing at the end of January. “It becomes a very valuable tool when time is of the essence.”
News releases issued by the city automatically go on its website and are posted internally, added to the message board on the city TV station and are placed on local media websites. Tweets and status updates enrich the communication channel selection.
“If there are issues of immediate concern, sending out messages through a press release isn’t going to be as efficient as using social media,” Lalvani said.
Elgin, which plans to link social media to its 311 nonemergency call system when it launches next year, has found a lot of benefit in social media when Mother Nature acts up.
“We used Facebook and Twitter to great effect during the blizzard of 2011,” Stegall said.
That experience led to more extensive use of the social networks in the far-milder winter just past.
“If it (snows) over an inch or even if it’s icy, we post that, and then we’ll add updates throughout the day,” he said, adding that sometimes residents respond by posting requests for one more pass by the plow.
The UIC study’s findings suggest the local towns are far from unique in the way they have readily tapped into alternate forms of online sharing. Citing data gleaned from figures compiled in 2009, the study found that among the 75 cities studied nationwide last year, 87 percent used Twitter, compared with 25 percent two years earlier; 87 percent used Facebook versus 13 percent in 2009; and 75 percent posted links on YouTube, up from 16 percent in 2009.
“The prior study showed that (although) there are many opportunities online for citizen feedback, such as surveys and comment forms, city websites have in the past provided little for two-way interaction,” the research team wrote. “This is the potential that social media offer.”
Sun Times Media contributed to this report.