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The City of Grand Rapids hopes to get social with you

Part of the five year transformation plan, leaders look to social media to keep you abreast of the latest and greatest.
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The City of Grand Rapids is in the midst of a transformation. With five years worth of a temporary tax hike totaling $32 million dollars, they're hoping to overhaul the city's business plan top to bottom. They say a more fiscally responsible government that serves you better is the ultimate goal. There are 74 points in the plan, categorized into six broad areas. One of those is customer service and citizen engagement

City leaders hope citizens have noticed their increased activity across social media as of late. The city has taken to several social platforms hoping to ensure that you're informed of programs, plans, and changes. Assistant to the City Manager Tom Almonte said they're intentionally trying to increase communication as part of the citizen engagement plan. But he also said they're looking for consistency.

"We do communicate a lot, but we're trying to do it in a more intentional way. When you have 200,000 people out there you need six, seven, eight channels to push all of that information out."

Currently the city has two interns from GVSU's Communications Program managing the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. Almonte said these channels aren't really about hearing from Grand Rapids citizens directly. They want this effort to simply be you receiving information from the city.

"My message to the interns running the social media pages is for them to only put out useful information. If people can't use it, don't put it out! People don't have the time to hear 20 messages about how I am tying my shoes," said Almonte. "What they want to know is that we made a change that is going to affect them in how we process income tax because it's due in a week."

Almonte said they launched a separate website known as GRand Ideas 10 months ago. That's where they want citizens to send in their ideas about how to improve Grand Rapids. The platform has about 75 citizen ideas submitted in total over that time.

"That's where we want to have the conversation. The reason why- for Facebook- we just want to send out information, is that we just don't have the resources to engage in a conversation."

The GRand Ideas platform is an example of crowdvoting. Almonte said that when an idea hits 50 votes, it comes to him for his review. He looks at the idea to see if it's not only a good idea, but if it's feasible and decides whether or not it fits within the transformation plan. 

Derek Devries is the Communications Technology manager for the Grand Rapids Community College. He said the city using social media is great in theory as it helps level the playing field. "You can definitely communicate with lots of people in an immediate way for very little cost," he said. At the same time he cautions the city about ensuring their efforts are sustainable.

"To be a social media manager for the entire city, you need to be able to know the city in a very broad way. In some ways, I think this could end up being difficult over time using interns as they tend to be only around for a short time." 

He said that the city may also find itself looking unresponsive as more citizens look for specific answers about their needs from the city through social media, something that most users of social media expect today. For example, a resident may need to know when their garbage pickup is, or maybe a citizen has a problem with their tax or water bill.

"Social media can present issues that are beyond the 'pay grade' for interns," said Devries. "They may find themselves not really authorized to respond to certain things on behalf of the city. That could be a problem over time." 

Devries said his advice for the city would be to look at investing more resources in dedicated staff to create a sustainable customer service oriented solution.

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