Reimagine all the people

The Reno Citizens Institute and Reimagine Reno empower local citizens

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve and city publicist Deanna Gescheider at City Hall.

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve and city publicist Deanna Gescheider at City Hall.

Photo/ERIC MARKS

For more information about the Reno Citizens Institute or Reimagine Reno, visit reno.gov and reimaginereno.us.

“For the people by the people” is an admirable notion, but it doesn’t stand for much when public trust in the United States government is at an all-time low, according to annual Gallup polls. And there are many reasons for this beyond just the political—including the improvement of research tools to collect such data—but it’s not hard to see this perception at work in a politically divided country.

This perception trickles down into local governments, where a city’s inhabitants feel excluded from the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives. As such, there’s an ongoing movement to make government more horizontal, largely spearheaded by millennials (but not exclusive to them). Government is participatory and voluntary by the general public in ways beyond voting for representatives. In essence, it’s an anarchic idea, and not necessarily a new one, but technology has enabled more people to participate in what researchers refer to as “open government.” “Open,” in this sense, means inclusive and collaborative. This term originally referred to “open source” software, which referred to software that was free to use and required the contributions of its community to survive.

Notably, the city of Boston launched an open government strategy in 2010, which put in place a long-term plan to research its constituents and increase citizen engagement—giving the people responsibility and agency over the decisions made in their city by directly involving them in the process. Reno is the latest city experimenting with open governance through several facilitated efforts by the city of Reno, combining technology with traditional mediums to encourage better communications and action between the city and its citizens.

According to the Open Government Guide, which researches the impact of open governance, “citizen engagement is what open government is all about.” The Guide, www.opengoveguide.com, in compliance with the Open Government Partnership, “requires openness to citizen participation and engagement in policymaking and governance, including basic protections for civil liberties.”

The case for open governance is the inclusion of unique viewpoints and skill sets that normally aren’t accessed within a community. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), open government helps to strengthen the trust a community has for its government, and it lets people directly hold governing bodies accountable.

“Good decision-making requires the knowledge, experiences, views and values of the public,” states the Open Government Guide, citing the OECD. “Implementing difficult decisions depends on citizens’ consent and support. … People around the world consistently indicate that they are not content simply to engage with government through periodic elections. But they are discouraged by the real and perceived control of public decisions and decision-makers by small political and economic elites.”

Although the Open Government Guide acknowledges that the word “citizen” can seem exclusionary to those who aren’t of voting age or aren’t naturalised, the term really refers to “all inhabitants of a country or locality.” And open government is a way to involve people who can’t yet participate in the democratic process.

Quantifying the impact of civic engagement is the focus of many research organizations, including New York-based nonprofit Next City, which held it’s annual leadership Vanguard conference in Reno earlier this year. Held in May, the Vanguard leadership rallied 40 urban leaders under the age of 40 to participate in discussions about the future of city design. It was the first Next City conference hosted in the Western United States. Reno was chosen because Next City dubbed it “a growing city now experiencing a surge of new cultural and entrepreneurial activity.”

The conference shared global trends in urban planning and engagement with locals, with the intent of enacting these ideas in the community. Entrepreneurial activity is not the only goal that open government seeks to achieve, although it’s a large draw for cities like Reno, whose technology culture focuses on entrepreneurship as a way to enact change. But other topics that cities face, such as economic disparity, literacy, and environmental issues are often policy-driven.

There’s an inextricable link between technology and the surge of open government worldwide, but effective citizen engagement is part digital, part analog—ultimately, action must also occur in the real world. An effective partnership between city and citizen comes down to access, outreach and education.

Deanna Gescheider, director of the Office of Communications and Community Engagement for the city of Reno, says, “Reno is a progressive city with lots of new folks moving to town. We need to use innovative tools to reach more people, but traditional mediums are still important.” The city is taking a “comprehensive, multi prong approach” by exploring all channels to “target the masses.”

This means giving the public a chance to follow and get involved in city programs through traditional and new media outreach strategy—a combination of print, television and social media. The city of Reno has social media accounts on all major networks, including Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google Plus, Facebook and YouTube. And yes, people follow them on all platforms. Combined, they have more than 35,000 followers. And while there’s some overlap with some of the same people following the city on more than one network, it provides the city with a direct link to the public, and an interactive approach to including people in city happenings. It’s also a way to gauge how residents and visitors feel about the city.

“Reno has had a lot of perception problems,” says Gescheider. “[Social media] allows us to tell a different story.”

Everybody’s talking

Gescheider credits social media with a sharp rise in community engagement. It’s not just digital engagement, either, because the result has been higher attendance and participation for citywide projects. For instance, this year’s State of the City address on September 1 drew a crowd of more than 500 people in person—and an additional 500 people who watched the live stream. Previously, the talk would attract crowds of 50 or 60 people, Gescheider says, which was then perceived as great engagement. But this year’s enthusiastic crowd showed the city what was possible when new strategies are implemented.

The response and activity on social networks gives the city analytics about who participates and what they’re interested in. For instance, asking people to use hashtags like #Reno and #RenoLens allows the city to track those particular hashtags across networks. On Instagram, #RenoLens results in more than 1,800 posts from people who live in or are visiting Reno. It’s a completely crowdsourced vault of data and insight from the public.

It’s also a matter of literacy. Gescheider says that making city news “more conversational in tone” helps break down the perceived hierarchy between officials and the public. This includes making government and public policy literature more approachable. One effort is to document more accessible prelights and highlights of City Council meetings; these are more readable explanations of the issues discussed in the meetings.

“Agendas are so confusing and hard to read, and how can people be engaged if they don’t understand the policies?” she says. “The prelights and highlights are effective for communicating policy on a community level.”

Making the reno.gov website more easy to navigate was also important, since it’s where most residents go to get information about government, emergencies, programs and developments throughout the region.

“There are more than 1,200 pages on the website,” says Gescheider. “That’s a lot of information. How does a citizen not feel overwhelmed? Updating the website is part of our integrated approach.”

As such, two ambitious projects are underway by the city of Reno: the Reno Citizens Institute (RCI), a seven week program that teaches community members about local government, and Reimagine Reno, a digital platform facilitating focus groups and data collection.

RCI began in 1999.

Assistant Reno city manager Kate Thomas addresses participants in the Reno Citizens Institute.

PHOTO/ASHLEY HENNEFER

“It was something directed by the City Council, who wanted to provide a forum to citizens to learn about the city and how it works,” says community liaison Barbara DiCianno. “They found that as people learned about the different departments, it helped them understand why things happen the way they do and why they see their local government focus on certain things.”

The city employs more than 1,100 people, according to Matthew Brown, communications manager for the city of Reno. RCI is a way for the public to get to know the people behind city management. RCI hosts one two-hour class each week for seven weeks. Participants graduate from the Institute and receive a certificate. Each class focuses on a different department, including Parks, Recreation & Community Service, Public Works and Police and Fire Departments. They also take field trips to these departments, receiving tours of places like the Regional Public Safety Training Center.

Historically, the Institute was annual, and DiCianno says “we would probably have around 20 to 25 participants.”

And this year, the demand was higher than ever.

“The popularity has just skyrocketed in the past few years,” says DiCianno, who attributes this, in part, to new members of the City Council and mayor Hillary Schieve. The success of the most recent RCI session encouraged participants to share their experiences—on and off social media—and recruit their friends to join.

The RCI session held earlier this year hosted 62 participants, and 64 people are participating in the latest session, which started on Sept. 15 and is the “biggest course ever,” says DiCianno. RCI will now be held twice a year for the foreseeable future to accommodate demand.

“At one point we thought this program was dwindling,” said assistant city manager Kate Thomas at the RCI’s opening class. “It’s through your actions that we’re able to do this,” she told the crowd.

DiCianno says the participants span all age groups and professional backgrounds.

“It really runs the gamut,” she says. “There are senior citizens who are retired and have extra time and want to volunteer. Some want to assist the police department doing different things that don’t require a uniformed officer. A lot of business people [participate], business men and women who are becoming more engaged and looking to learn more about how their community works. I think people are really interested in what they can do to help the community.” Several high school and college students are on the wait list for the next RCI.

The Institute does require an application process, but it’s mostly for managing the amount of participants RCI can handle at one time. DiCianno says having too many participants lessens the quality of the experience, although the city is willing to hold an additional institute if demand reaches that point.

Ultimately, RCI serves as “the nexus between how things work and how you can work with the city,” says DiCianno. The experience is “empowering,” she says, to know how you can “make changes and improve your neighborhood.”

Plan ahead

Another component to the citywide engagement efforts is Reimagine Reno, reimaginereno.us, which is a “multi-year effort to prepare a new Master Plan,” as the website states. That wording may seem ominous, but the “Master Plan” is really an “evolving, long-term planning document that provides a vision for the built environment of a city.”

Reimagine Reno is a website that serves as a hub for facilitating focus groups on topics such as local impact of climate change, the LGBTQ community, the Latino community, and regions of the city (including downtown and midtown). There’s also a survey that asks people what they envision Reno to be like in 20 years.

“Reno’s practice has been to do a master plan update every 20 years, and this was about the 20 year interval that we would have been doing this kind of an update,” says Maureen McKissick, assistant to the city manager and lead on the project. “The council decided, along with the manager, that this would be a really serendipitous opportunity to do community visioning and get, more or less, the community input on what kind of town they wanted to live in as we go through and create new policy to reflect that. So Reimagine Reno was born from that.”

Although it’s been a few years in the making, the timing for a project like this is perfect, says city planner Brianna Wolf.

“It could not be a better time to be thinking about Reno’s future,” Wolf says. Both her and McKissick agree that the economy helped spur a new philosophy toward civic involvement in public matters. “We had a major reset with the recession and we’re emerging from that, and we have so many opportunities coming our way, and we want to be prepared and we want to respond so that we grow and we really want to be aligned with our community’s vision and values.”

The data collected through the survey is vital to this, and it lets people voice their opinion even if they can’t attend the in-person meetings. More than 1,700 responses have been collected, but they’re aiming for more to get a comprehensive data set and identify trends. The raw data will be posted on the website after the survey closes in late October, and the public is invited to access the information and do what they want with it. A summary report will be released at the end of the year.

McKissick says that more focus groups will be held next year and will continue to cover a variety of topics, which are determined by community input.

It’s part of the process. “You go back to the public, you engage them again,” says McKissick.

This year’s efforts are “phase one” of the Master Plan, which is expected to take about two years to complete.

“Phase one really is consensus around community visioning,” she says. “As we move into phase two, which will be the policy work, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty of what policies should be, and this may get into some conversations about what our values are and what our tradeoffs will be.”

All of these efforts are intended to bring in everyone with a voice, and change is imminent.

“People feel it, people are excited,” says Wolf. But it’s the combination of digital and real-world outreach that has been the most effective and empowering. “I think through social media and online we’re able to reach a good number of people through the survey, but I think what we’ve been most surprised about are the people who come to our in-person meetings and how valuable they find that. We get feedback that it’s just so nice to talk face-to-face and interact with the community. So that seems to be a yearning that people have.”