The Voting App. Image courtesy of ThinkVoting.
The Voting App. Image courtesy of ThinkVoting.

A mere 12% of San Antonio’s registered voters went to the polls in this year’s mayoral election. This was (sadly) a huge victory for San Antonio? — ?the largest voter turnout in a municipal election since 2005. It’s good to see voting on the rise, but will it continue?

The #SASpeakUp campaign was another civic engagement improvement for our city. This effort was initiated to further include citizens in the FY2016 budgeting process. More than 2,300 comments were officially submitted to the SASpeakUp website, a tripling of last year’s 700 comments.

City Council actually followed through on citizens Speak Up suggestions. After the budget was proposed, more than half of the comments received through #SASpeakUp reaffirmed the Proposed Budget’s focus on quality of life services. Almost $50 million were appropriated to streets/sidewalks, drainage, parks, library, social service programs, animal care, and code enforcement.

These small wins for San Antonio civic engagement still leaves me wondering if major innovation in civic engagement is coming. I’m looking at our leaders to utilize new technology to deepen their connection with citizens.

Why Civic Engagement is Failing in SA

  1. The representation gap is widening. Each City Council member represents more than 140,000 constituents and planners expect the city to grow by one million people by 2040. Are we increasing the number of representatives to reflect that growth? Or are we increasing the power of a small group of individuals? If you think it’s difficult to get through to City Hall now, it’s only going to get harder.
  2. Our San Antonio leaders are not engaging us on platforms that we use every day. San Antonians don’t want to email or call our civic leaders and we don’t need to set up time-wasting meetings. Our leaders need to start engaging us on more communication-efficient platforms like Facebook, Twitter, NextDoor, and Reddit. The technology exists to drastically improve communication, but it’s not being utilized in a pro-active manner.
  3. Very little sharing of public dialogues. Our leaders should be doing more public Q&A’s and having more open discussions that can be recorded and shared with all citizens. NOWCastSA has stepped up to fill this void but there is still a lot of discussions that aren’t be distributed.
  4. Civic engagement efforts from the City are weak. The SA Tomorrow online discussion community is no more than a bank of surveys written by the City. SA2020 has listed Civic Engagement as a main objective, but are city leaders doing anything to make a difference? The SA Speak Up campaign was a bright spot in civic engagement, but 2,300 citizen comments is only a sliver of our population.

While I do believe shortcomings in civic engagement are shared by City officials and citizens, it’s the responsibility of elected officials to serve as agents of change, specifically by embracing technology. They should be introducing the tools and methods that can improve communication and make our civic processes even more effective.

SA Civic Engagement Technology Solutions

  1. The City needs its own civic engagement platform. SA Tomorrow’s mind mixer provides a limited feedback loop. The City should open up the Mind Mixer community to allow citizens to propose topics. City Council and city officials then need to engage users on the platform to collaborate and solve problems together.
  2. The City should engage new/existing technologies for voter engagement. The General Election in May and runoff election in June was aided by the Think Voting App, a platform for candidates to fill out simple profiles of themselves and post their answers to the League of Women Voters‘ guide questions. While mayoral candidate Leticia Van de Putte and others seeking that and other offices filled out the information for the app, several candidates, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, did not.
  3. Citizens and City Council should utilize This citizen-driven online community (and my contribution to SA civic engagement) allows anyone to submit an idea to improve the city. You can also vote/comment on others’ ideas to effectively crowdsource the best ideas for San Antonio. If City Council members engage citizens there, we could see real, open communication happening between citizens and leaders. Mayor Taylor encouraged citizens to use the platform in her inaugural speech, but she has yet to log in and comment.
  4. City leaders need to use social media more authentically. Sure, every City Council member has a Twitter account, but how many are posting authentic messages and responding to citizen replies? More time spent on social media and discussion communities would make San Antonians feel more connected to civic leaders.
  5. Record and share more live events. Let’s record and broadcast more town hall meetings, Citizens to Be Heard, and other live events to give everyone access to them. Most B-session tapes are buried in the CoSA website. Local media, City officials, and pro-active organizations like Tech Bloc could be doing more.

Opportunity for innovation

The good news about civic engagement in San Antonio is that we have a real opportunity to be innovators. There is so much room for improvement. San Antonio is among the fastest growing cities in the country. Before we get too big, our leaders need to set the stage. With one million new residents headed this way, the best preparation we can make is to improve how we use technology in civic engagement.

*Top image: The Voting App. Image courtesy of ThinkVoting.

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Paul DiGiovanni

Paul DiGiovanni is an independent web marketing professional. He is the founder and discussion moderator of Ideas for CoSA.