While chatting with a city manager at the recent Florida City and County Managers Association (FCCMA) Annual Conference, we were introduced to some cool phrasing for a concept we are well familiar with: the STP. No, no, not the great 90s rock band. This STP is the Same Ten People that show up to your town hall meetings, call city hall enthusiastically, and comment with gusto on your city’s Facebook pages. The challenge of the STP is that all too often, they are some of the only voices that council members have a chance to hear. In fact, sometimes the STP represent the few directly engaged citizens with whom the city actually interacts. This makes the STP a small but powerful group because more often than not, cities are making policy decisions based on the feedback of a truly minute percentage of their residents. The STP are active constituents and shouldn’t be disregarded, but they often have a much louder voice than the number of people they represent.
We like the phrase STP because it isn’t just anecdotal or a cutesy acronym. Researchers already identified, well over a decade ago, that town hall meetings were on the decline and were no longer representative of anywhere near the majority of residents. In 2014, the National Research Center re-confirmed that attendance rates at town hall meetings and citizen engagement with local government, generally, was continuing to drop. In its 2014 study, the National Research Center found that almost 80% of citizens reported that they had never attended a town hall meeting over a 12-month period. Furthermore, the study noted that besides the usual “cast of characters” who do attend meetings (that’s your STP), non-participatory residents are usually only incentivized enough to weigh in on an issue if that issue negatively affects them. Finally, the study found that residents under the age of 35 are much less likely to somehow engage with local government than residents above age 35.
With these kinds of bleak numbers and ever decreasing rates of democratic participation on the local level, cities are asking, who do we listen to when the loudest voice in the room (the metaphorical and literal room) doesn’t necessarily represent the rest of the community? How does a city make decisions based on resident input when most residents aren’t engaging with the city to provide their input?
How can a city rise above the noise?
In stark contrast to citizen engagement through channels like town hall meetings, the Pew Center released new statistics on social media use in the United States three months ago (March 2018), finding that the majority of American adults use social media. Pew reported, by age group, that about 88% of 18- to 29-year-olds are social media users. For those 30 to 49 years-old, the number is 78%; 64% among those ages 50 to 64; and finally 37% among Americans 65 and older. Additionally, not only are Americans using social media, they are using it on a regular basis. Across all demographic groups, the study reported that approximately 75% of Facebook users are daily users. What does this mean for cities? It means that unless your city is composed of only residents above the age of 65, a vast majority of your community is on social media.
If cities can tap into social media and begin to understand and analyze what their communities have to say in the channels they are already engaged in, the city can learn a whole lot. Effectively, the city can identify when the STP is really speaking for the community at large, and when a disgruntled citizen with either too much at stake or too much time on their hands is representing only their own interests, as loudly as they may be doing so.
Cities must find new ways to engage with their citizens and connect with the otherwise silent or passive majority. Social media is one way to engage. Beyond acting as a platform to communicate with residents, social media is also a good place to listen to residents. If we know Americans are online, and we know they are communicating, often daily, using social media, why not leverage what they are saying? Why not extend your social media knowledge beyond your own city managed Facebook pages and Twitter handles (which again, are often frequented by their own version of the STP) and gauge community feedback from across the social web.
Every minute, 3 million new Facebook posts are generated, 510,000 comments are shared, and 455,000 tweets are tweeted. This kind of social media content provides a wealth of information for cities, and with the help of technology, these millions of data points actually become manageable. In a day and age when the STP may have a disproportionate influence on policy and decision-making in the city, it’s hard to discern what the rest of the community thinks amongst all the noise. Now is the time when cities should use social media and technology to rise above and engage with their residents in new and innovative ways.