Topeka’s New, Nimble Newsletter Sparks Engagement
When the city of Topeka decided that its weekly report From the City Interim Manager’s Desk needed a digital upgrade, it transformed the report from a PDF to an engaging, interactive, multimedia webpage.
The publication shares up-to-date information on the city’s budget and future plans, reminders of important city events, fundraising and grant opportunities, meeting recaps, links to resources, and the occasional adorable birth announcement from the Topeka Zoo. Until recently, however, the items in the weekly report were displayed like a bulleted list in a long memorandum. Delivered via PDF to the city council members and other officials, and available for download on the city’s website, it wasn’t as engaging as the Topeka team knew it could be.
Stories with Substance
Fortunately, the team had a plan. “One of the things we’re trying to do is to put out useful information,” says Sherry Schoonover, Topeka’s Deputy IT Director. “Our intent is to do away with PDFs in all areas and provide a more interactive way of communicating.”
“Our intent is to do away with PDFs in all areas and provide a more interactive way of communicating.” —Sherry Schoonover, Deputy IT Director for the city of Topeka
Using Socrata Perspectives, an easy web-page builder, the team had already brought the city’s monthly finance report online. The data is dynamic, allowing anyone to access, filter, visualize, embed, and query it. “People liked the monthly financial reports once we put them online. Instead of flat information, you can see charts and what’s trending,” says Schoonover.
The same Perspectives tool was next used to bring the weekly report to the website, with a new layout and design, and new functionality to bring the city’s stories to life. In March, the new weekly report From the Interim City Manager’s Desk was launched with more dynamic content, including bigger, bolder images, embedded videos, and advanced visualizations to make insights more accessible — not just to government insiders but to the community as well. “It really allowed us to tell a story with a lot of substance,” says Schoonover.
For example, in March, the report put out a call for applications for the city’s summer employment program for teens: Topeka Way to Work. In addition to a link to the application and a news release about the program, the item includes a two-minute video about the experience of being involved with the program, featuring interviews with participants as well as city officials. The video, part of the city’s ongoing Topeka in Two series, was created by a graduate of last year’s summer employment program.
Publishing online allows the team to include different kinds of functionality and to build context around a story. In April, one of the weekly editions included a spotlight on Topeka’s performance numbers, powered by Socrata Open Performance. The article describes a goal to reduce the number of property citations each year. The good news? Of the 10,000 outstanding violations, 6,100 were handled voluntarily. This is a big win, Topeka’s team explains, because “it means property owners are fixing the issues themselves, rather than us having to use taxpayer money to do it.” The story provides context and then an embedded graphic link to Topeka’s Open Performance portal, with a full-page, in-depth view of the goal, up-to-date tracking of the city’s progress, stats on voluntary compliance vs. prosecutions, local code information, and articles about the issue.
At the end of every weekly newsletter, there is a reminder that the report is produced through the open data portal, and that there are many ways to connect to work being done by the city. From city finances to capital projects to general performance goals, Topeka residents have access to millions of rows of data and details.
While the city did not track the number of reads the weekly report had in its PDF form, it is happy to be reaching an audience of between 800 and 1,000 readers each week with the redesigned version. “We received some very positive feedback on how it is easy to read and on the overall look and feel,” Schoonover says. “So we think we made a good choice.”
If you’re looking for ways to make reports more engaging and improve your government’s communications, we can help. Reach out to our team at Socrata to discuss Perspectives and other solutions. We’re happy to brainstorm ideas — to get the conversation started, send us an email.