Topeka Becomes a #TopCity for Citizen Engagement

Customer: Topeka, Kansas

When it comes to government, citizens usually want to know about two things: spending and outcomes. The city of Topeka, Kansas set out to proactively address these issues, not only by transparently providing this information to its citizens, but also by finding new and innovative ways to get citizens to pay attention to it. Topeka’s adoption of an open data platform was an easy win with local administrators, but the city’s greatest success may lie in getting citizens interested and engaged with government.

The city’s open data program started as a clear directive from a city manager in 2015 to do something about transparency, says Sherry Schoonover, Topeka’s deputy IT director. Schoonover knew well the frustrations caused by siloed data in city government. Though information was available to anyone who asked, “we were reactive rather than proactive,” she says. This directive from city leadership provided just the push Schoonover needed to help the city map out an innovative plan.

Providing More Dynamic Data

The first step was adopting an open data platform, but not one that provided data for data’s sake. Schoonover and team were looking for something that didn’t have the one-dimensional limitations of a PDF, and didn’t “require a degree in accounting to understand,” says Schoonover. Instead, the goal was to share dynamic data, with graphs, charts, and trend lines that help deepen the understanding of a data set. Most importantly, the platform needed to be simple and easy for the average person to use. “If you can buy a ticket online, you can figure out how much we’re spending on X. That’s what we were looking for,” Schoonover says.

Socrata had the tools that fit the bill. The city developed a pilot project using Publica and Open Budget to bring the city’s proposed 200-page budget online. In just five months, the city had everything online matching what was once on paper. And, it was an instant hit for staff. All proposed and adopted budgets are now routinely shared on the city of Topeka’s open budget site.

Next, the city added Capital Projects Explorer, a site that details the city’s many infrastructure projects, including budgets, status, timelines, and images. This information is updated daily from a project management application. Currently, over 170 active projects are displayed.

Topeka started using Open Checkbook to provide access to information on exactly how the city spends money - which vendors are paid, for what, and how much. The site was another success, particularly among city and regional government workers who use the database as a handy source of truth when looking for vendor payments and planning expenditures.

Most recently, the City added Open Performance which allows it to track and measure goals such as new miles of sidewalks and bikeways.

Commenting on the broad range of data published, Schoonover says, “It’s more than putting finance data out there, it shows what we are actually completing and accomplishing. This is how many tickets we have closed. This is how many miles of road we’ve paved. We establish goals and strategies and post those goals and strategies along with actual measurements that align with the city’s performance goals and budget priorities.”

Encouraging a New Level of Engagement

But having the data online and accessible was only the first part of Topeka’s strategy. The next goal was to get more residents engaged with it. Thinking like a customer-service organization, Schoonover’s team began using creative tools to encourage access in ways that reach the community.

For example, a weekly digital newsletter, “From the City Manager’s Desk,” has been a central way to share city updates. Originally, it was built as a PDF then placed online for download and attached to an email sent to city council members. Using Socrata’s Perspectives, a web page builder that helps put data into context, Topeka’s team brought the newsletter online to create a broad communications tool that’s easier to read and share. The weekly report has important announcements, safety messages, and regular updates on budgets and capital projects. Because it is online, it provides even more resources and stories related to the data, using dynamic links and bold images to encourage interaction with the information.

“[Perspectives] really allowed us to tell a story with a lot substance,” says Schoonover. Readers have responded to the new look and feel of the report. Launched in December 2016, it gets between 800 and 1,000 views each week.

The city also creates videos for a series called “Topeka in 2.” Each episode is around two minutes long and focused on a specific topic -- from evergreen subjects such as emergency planning and carpool programs, to more timely event promotions, holiday safety tips, and a regular Topeka month in review. With each new Socrata tool added to the city’s Open Data site, a video is created to help citizens learn more about how to interact with the latest features, and to show, as well as tell, the story behind the numbers (Ex: Topeka in 2: Open Checkbook).

Among citizens who prefer the immediacy of social media, the city of Topeka has found interesting ways to capture an audience of nearly 7,100 followers, who often use the handy hashtag #TopCity to tweet about things they are seeing around town. Regular “tweet-alongs” showcase charming staffers exploring worksites in the city, such as a firehouse, the forestry department, and a water treatment plant (where the intrepid reporter could not get past the terrible odor).

Twitter is also a great way to get feedback about the city’s open data programs. A series of tweets ask Topekans to fill out a survey about the city’s Open Government Initiative. Fans of the movie “Office Space” and would appreciate the humor in this one.

And, Ryan Gosling seems to find himself in every corner of the internet. Topeka’s Twitter stream is no exception. “Ryan Gosling cares about parking and so should you!” says Team Topeka, inviting citizens to take a survey.

Addressing the Specific Needs of the Community

In general, feedback from Topeka’s citizens has been crucial to determining next steps in the city’s strategy. In addition to reaching out online, Topeka’s goes out into the streets to talk directly with constituents. The city developed a series of “Coffee on Your Corner” discussion sessions in various parts of the city to discuss different topics and ask citizens what kind of data interests them most. They have also begun working with consumer groups and citizens from different demographic groups, such as entrepreneurs and small businesses, to understand their unique needs.

Another goal was to reach out to citizens who may have had less-than-great experiences with government in the past -- specifically, those with outstanding fines for tickets or warrants for missed dates in Topeka Municipal Court. “These are not big crimes,” says Schoonover. “But if you don’t watch it they can turn into bigger problems.” By offering these folks the opportunity to restore good standing in court, the city hoped it might have a better chance of engaging them in their local communities. The team at city of Topeka created a Clean Slate Day, an amnesty program designed for people in need of new options for payment, new trials, or expungement, along with free financial and legal aid resources.

Topeka’s first Clean Slate Day was held in October 2016. While there was some initial skepticism and worry that the program was designed to make arrests or impose greater fines, the city’s straightforward communications plan helped to ease some of that worry. A simple, informative website created using Socrata Perspectives had more than 8,000 views. Plus, after the first event, the program was buoyed by its initial success and word of mouth. “Around 370 people came the first time. The next time it doubled,” Schoonover says. The second event held in May 2017 had an approximate attendance of 700 residents. The second Clean Slate Day results include about 100 expungements, 130 warrants recalled, and 47 pleas entered and sentenced on pending cases. It was a success that helped improve the lives of citizens, and allowed law enforcement to clear old cases and focus on more severe crimes.

As much as the city of Topeka has achieved already, Schoonover says there is much more to do. She sees the open data sites having a big, positive impact on economic development. “Now we have all of the tools and all of the different objectives, we need to take it to the next level. It’s important and here to stay. We just need to get better at it,” says Schoonover.