Connecting Sammamish: Online Hub Overhauls Outreach and Engagement
An open-minded approach to local insight and community buy-in, Connect Sammamish draws on a cross-organizationalcross-organisational culture of engagement to enhance outreach and create value for community and decision-makers.
“We never would have envisioned the site being where it is right now and I credit that to our open-minded approach. We listened to our colleagues as well as the public and it grew organically from there.” – Doug McIntyre, Transportation Planner at the City of Sammamish
Nearly a year into the life of the new online engagement hub at the City of Sammamish, Connect Sammamish has seen over 22,000 visitors with around 400 registered users, 536 contributors, and 3000 informed participants. From information on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to transportation planning, flood management, and priorities for the City’s digital presence, Connect Sammamish is a place for the community’s current and crucial themes.
When it comes to talking about community matters, Connect Sammamish makes place for what matters to the community, in a space designed with its needs in mind. Doug McIntyre, Transportation Planner at the City of Sammamish, notes that “Our goal has been to have a constant stream of traffic (on the site), which means that we need to keep the site fresh and useful for residents.” For digital engagement in Sammamish, staying connected, bringing more participants to the table, and fostering greater engagement goes hand-in-hand with creating value for participants to have their say.
And there’s much to talk about. A decade of growth in this region of King County, Washington has nurtured a community that is keenly invested in its collective issues and shared future. Outreach efforts at the City needed to be able to respond to rising interest from a growing community and had previously relied mostly on resource-intensive face-to-face engagement. The City’s online engagement hub gave decision-makers a way to transform outreach and make information and conversations more accessible to the community. As a result, Connect Sammamish has become a digital go-to where the City’s expanding community of residents and stakeholders can get together to address the issues that shape their collective journey.
OrganizationalOrganisational buy-in: enabling a culture of engagement
McIntyre suggests that a cross-organizationalcross-organisational culture of engagement sustains the City’s commitment to community engagement. In addition, he notes that openness to potential and local insight can be valuable. “Be open-minded about where the site will go. We never would have envisioned the site being where it is right now and I credit that to our open-minded approach. We listened to our colleagues as well as the public and it grew organically from there,” he says. This approach delivers value in the pragmatic sense of allowing engagement to come alive as a dynamic, responsive practice. This openness also addresses the democratic values that underpin participation. And Connect Sammamish is a collective exercise, both externally and internally.
Online engagement at the City of Sammamish is powered by a core working group with representatives from various departments. The range of skills brought to the table by different departments contributed to a speedy and smooth launch and generated a pipeline of projects going forward. The site continues to build on a culture of engagement supported by sustained communication and cooperation between internal stakeholders, and a cross-organizationalcross-organisational cohesion, with all parts working together to support the whole. These collaborative ways have had a strong practical component: for instance, skills from the IT department went into improving the visual and functional aspects of the project pages. Similarly, project managers have an active role in managing the strategies and structures for the site.
Engaging around COVID-19
Responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Connect Sammamish provides a variety of resources that speak to the many ways in which the crisis has affected community life: the public health emergency, the economic consequences, and the social and psychological dimension. The City of Sammamish COVID-19 Information and Resources section combines updates, local resources, directions to multilingual and regional resources from King County, and opportunities to direct questions and relate experiences to staff. The section outlines the City’s response to the crisis and highlights community partners and agencies looking for and providing support at this time.
In collating these resources, the section amplifies and leverages local and regional resources on dealing with the multiple dimensions of the crisis. For instance, the section includes links to information on utilities, which can take concerned consumers directly to information published by utility providers, where they can learn about payment plans and relief strategies. This direct linkage connects the community to resources maintained and updated by the providers and eases the pressure on Connect Sammamish in managing so many moving parts. Similarly, the Newsfeed tool on the site amplified information from community partners on how and where the community could help in such matters as donation drives.
In dealing with the rapidly developing information and news around the pandemic, Sammamish has also had to consider how to make different kinds of information easy to find and understand. Engagement planners also had to ensure that the community had a place to ask questions, and leveraged the ‘Q&A’ and ‘FAQ’ tools on the site. “Even with having all our information up somewhere, it can be hard for people to find,” says Kate Langsdorf, Communications Manager at the City of Sammamish. She continues:
We’ve had questions about things like how to report violations, if parks are still open, etc. and those become our de facto FAQs. Even though we put together our own FAQ widget at the onset, that was really our best guess of what people would want to know. The ability for residents to ask questions publicly and to have us answer them for a wider audience gives us the opportunity to QA our FAQs in real time.
This strategy allowed engagement managers to, quite literally, respond to community requirements.
Langsdorf suggests that local governments making the shift towards online engagement could look at how online tools could help carry different kinds of information with “consideration to what’s a static resource and what’s breaking news and having different hubs for each.” For instance, Connect Sammamish maintains a distinction between information that populates lists of resources and information that goes into news feeds.
With the pandemic having compelled so many aspects of community life to move online, and the City website slated for a planned redesign, Connect Sammamish has also filled the gaps in carrying important information out to the community. Several offline engagement events have been taken onto the platform too.
Creating community buy-in
When it comes to community buy-in, McIntyre points out that online engagement benefits when it responds to community needs and interests. “People need to know how to easily get the most pertinent information for them. If you provide that platform, they’ll buy-in quickly and easily. We’ve found that the information and projects sell themselves,” he says. Responses to projects have varied from issue to issue, with differing levels of interest and critical potential, but closing the loop remains vital to keeping people in the conversation. To these ends, social media has remained a crucial component of outreach efforts.
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Connect Sammamish looks closely at community buy-in to get a clearer picture of the demographic context of input, the impact of outreach, and where it could go further in this regard. The site welcomes registrations with a video outlining the values and objectives of the online engagement tool and provides practical directions on how to participate in the processes. In addition, registrations will eventually inform some aspects of offline engagement, as well as the City’s social media presence.
Moving Sammamish: Transportation Master Plan
Traffic, mobility, and transportation infrastructure are a key area of interest for a growing community like Sammamish, and digital engagement has been quick to reflect this crucial priority. The City is in the process of creating its first Transportation Master Plan, a strategic framework with short- and long-range vision that can address challenges, resources, and priorities for community and planners. Community input from the statistically valid survey conducted on this topic will also inform the plan.
The ‘Q&A’ tool on the online hub has brought a variety of community queries and concerns to the project, McIntyre points out: “We wanted it to be fast, accurate, and transparent, which I think we’ve achieved. It’s also a nice way for residents to interact with us in a way that they feel more comfortable.” He also underlined the importance of the City’s online hub in keeping engagement on the Plan going. “We can still interact with our community without seeing them in person and that’s vital right now,” he says.
Similarly, the SE 8th St & 218th Ave Corridor Improvement Study looks at how the community uses the corridor and where their priorities might rest. Responses from multiple surveys and the mapping tool on the online hub have informed project phases. The community can also have a look at the project timeline to stay in the loop on the process and the input required in that phase. Rori Kirkpatrick, Community Transportation Coordinator at the City of Sammamish highlights the value of having complex information made accessible as “having the project timeline improves transparency by showing the community the entire process behind improving a road.” As she explains, “This page [on the site] has a lot of information and could be confusing for someone visiting it for the first time. Having the timeline allows anyone to jump in, learn more, see where we are at in the process, and see what input we are looking for at that very moment.” Meanwhile, community queries and project updates are enabled by the ‘Q&A’ and ‘Newsfeed’ tools.
The community can also track road improvements and get construction updates on the Issaquah Fall City Road project, a crucial revamp of a major connecting route for the region. Without doubt, improvements to such major infrastructure can have various practical consequences for the community, and they need to stay informed on progress. Kirkpatrick observes that a central online hub for information can keep people in the loop: “I think what works well is having one source for updates. We hope by now that if people are curious about the progress of the project, or have a question about the road closure, they know to check out Connect Sammamish for the information,” she says.
With Connect Sammamish, the community now has a one-stop, central space to go when it needs to find out how to get going, thanks to the Mobility Hub on the site. The Mobility Hub maps public transportation around the City and region and provides information on routes and services. The Hub provides a space for information, where people can ask questions and also get involved. It also connects volunteers for shared community transportation. “Community Van drivers are all volunteers, it could be someone looking to use their time to volunteer, or a group or family that wants to go somewhere and need a larger van and someone decides to be the volunteer driver. The volunteers for this program are true neighborhoodneighbourhood heroes,” says Kirkpatrick.
This is just one of the many ways that Connect Sammamish links community members to decision-makers and City projects, and also to other residents and stakeholders in the region.
Learn more about how the City of Sammamish reactivated outreach for robust conversations with the community.