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Making Democracy Work Better (on the Boulevard)

Making Democracy Work Better

My kingdom for an online project page

There’s a nice, tree-lined, highly trafficked, three-mile loop just down the road from my house that attracts walkers, joggers, bikers, and a handful of gazelles (multitasking parents that run eight-minute miles with twins in strollers and dogs in tow — and never break a sweat). I digress.

This loop, affectionately known as “the Boulevard,” also happens to be the main thoroughfare connecting me to my preferred grocery store, coffee fix, and various other essentials. So when I started noticing orange cones and yellow caution tape pop up along my route over the summer, I got curious. And, I did what anyone would do. I consulted my all-knowing smartphone.

A quick visit to both the state DOT and the city websites came up short, so I started playing keyword roulette. I searched by street name, neighborhood, bike paths, 2019 construction projects, capital improvements — you name it, I searched it. Then, after a few frustrating minutes, I gave up. “Forget it. It’s none of my business,” I thought, noting that the guy running with the tricked-out stroller was somehow already on his second loop.

(Of course, you know that wasn’t the end of the story.)

As someone who works for a company that has published transparency profiles for every civic entity in the country, I can’t help but see potential for ClearGov’s solutions everywhere I look. In fact, one of ClearGov’s project communications pages would have worked nicely in this instance — but alas, the city in question has yet to claim their free ClearGov profile. So, back to my story.

Soon heavy equipment and piles of rubble began appearing at every cross street for six blocks. Eventually, over the course of several weeks, it became clear that workers were installing ramps at each sidewalk entrance and exit — all the way up one side of the Boulevard and all the way down the other. “That’s cool,” I thought. “I wonder how long this will take.”

I quickly Googled sidewalk repairs, sidewalk ramp construction, sidewalk improvements, ADA compliance … Nothing. Soon helmeted toddlers on bikes joined the guy with the stroller and the dog — and they collectively sped past me like Swala’s herd in The Lion King. I abandoned my search, picked up the pace, and tried not to look winded, thinking all the while that it would be so easy for someone to just post a project page, like one of these created by the City of Morgantown, West Virginia (Sigh).

A week passed

I made my way to the Boulevard one fine Tuesday morning only to find that one side of the road was being torn up — not just the sidewalks this time, but the road. This. Was. Glorious.

I forgot to mention that despite being home to no shortage of swanky six-figure properties, the Boulevard is riddled with recurring potholes that are both stealthy and decidedly vindictive. Many a Pirelli has met its match on the Boulevard of broken asphalt, so when I realized they weren’t just smoothing over the pockmarked pavement, but actually tearing it up, I got excited. I took pictures. I texted relatives. And then I wondered, “How long will this take? How long will the road be closed? Does this mean that I have to go to the other supermarket?”

Yes, I Googled again. I couldn’t help myself. I mean repaving this particular, frequently traveled stretch of road is pretty big news. Somebody’s earned bragging rights. Surely there are pictures and timelines and maps posted somewhere online. After all, inquiring would-be runners who live off the beaten path in low five-figure homes want to know. Nope. I found nothing online.

Now, maybe I was just searching the wrong terms. I’m willing to admit my search skills may be just as sketchy as my exercise routine, but if I have trouble finding the information, it stands to reason that others do too. Unlike interested citizens who live in the Borough of Crafton, PA, I remained sadly uninformed.

Suddenly, a sign appeared … (cue the dramatic music)

Days later? I don’t remember for sure, but one day an attractive sign appeared at the top of the path that runs up the middle of the Boulevard. It read emphatically, “Improvements Coming Soon!” followed by, “We kindly ask you to please stay off the path at this time” and “Area closed during construction.” To recap, the sign was not about the aforementioned repaving project nor the sidewalk repair project, but about an entirely new project involving heretofore unknown “improvements” to said path.

While there was a lot of good information on the sign, something was still missing. Like, what kind of improvements are coming? How soon are they coming? How long will they take? Who’s paying for all these improvements? And finally, why is everyone ignoring this nice sign (see image above)?

It turns out that the sign was light on details and a bit premature. Improvements to the path wouldn’t begin for another couple of weeks, so everyone (gazelles included) simply walked or gracefully bounded right past the sign until temporary fencing was installed.

There was no website URL posted on the sign, no phone number to call, no QR code to scan for more details (despite the fact that everyone on the Boulevard sports their smartphone like a fifth appendage). In short (okay not that short), what we had here was “a failure to communicate.” Cool Hand Luke references aside this was just another missed opportunity.

The lesson? If you’re a town or school official and you’ve got capital improvements going on, Bravo! You should be bragging about it — not just to the press and not just in town meetings —but also online where most people today go when they have questions about anything and everything.

Your constituents want to know what’s going on. In fact, some (not me) will go so far as to call you. You don’t want people calling you — not about things like bike paths and traffic detours. Anyway, it takes minutes — seriously, just minutes — to populate a project communications page on ClearGov. And, you can create as many as you like. Then, inquiring residents like me can visit the page online and subscribe to receive automatic email notifications every time you update the timeline or add more details. Pretty sweet. And, pretty easy. It’s practically gazelle-like. Check it out.

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September 12, 2019

Chris Bullock

Chris is CEO & Co-founder of ClearGov. He is passionate about helping local governments modernize their processes and communications.

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