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  • Success Story
  • Fairfax, Virginia

Combining Digital Tools Helps Fairfax, Virginia, Expand Community Engagement

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Overview

While Fairfax City, Virginia, is only 6.3 square miles in size, the City’s Communications and Marketing team found that community projects were not engaging residents in the way they anticipated. By bringing together the combined power of govDelivery and EngagementHQ (now by Granicus), the city was able to create a new and inviting hub for project information and provide the tools to increase outreach that drew attention from both residents and internal departments.

I think the platform really facilitates the connection of neighborhoods, even in a smaller city. Digitally, it’s useful to have a good way to provide a timeline of information and connect residents around topics.”
Matthew Kaiser, Communications and Marketing Director

Metrics

  • Doubled Subscribers in first few months online
  • 1,100 survey respondents in two days
  • Increased cross-departmental involvement
  • Expedited Implementation through CARES Funding
Must have Granicus Solutions
Situation

Hidden Pages Means Lackluster Engagement

When Matthew Kaiser joined Fairfax City, Virginia, as Communications and Marketing Director in 2020, he set an immediate target of increasing engagement around community projects. But the first thing he had to do was make access more visible.

“The engagement platform I inherited was hard to find,” he recalls. “It wasn’t easy to locate from our homepage. And the project information was usually a blurb, a graphic, and a link back to the same information on the city webpage. So, it wasn’t a true opportunity to engage with project updates, or find out how a project was going to impact residents.”

And the data confirmed it. Kaiser remembers that when he took over the role there were fewer than 100 subscribers to project-related emails, adding “I think 30 of those were internal email addresses.”

One reason that might have led to the lackluster engagement with project information was a lack of ownership. Kaiser noted that the pages and information weren’t being created by the project teams, leaving a piecemeal approach to gathering information.

“The team didn’t really have any buy-in or say,” he said. “It was just a focus on the content of the city webpages because that’s what they could control. That’s what they could see.”

But in a city that takes up a mere 6.3 square miles, the impact from different projects can affect residents on a daily basis, as well as overlap other concurrent projects. It became all the more vital to Kaiser to create a functioning hub that not only published information, but engaged conversation around the projects.

“I don’t like when I hear people say, ‘no one told me’ or ‘what’s this about?’” he said. “Just to have that resource that we can push out and point people to for that self-education and really genuinely ask for their feedback on some of this stuff was a goal.”

And with an increasingly digital population, Kaiser also saw the opportunity to better engage with a broader spectrum of the Fairfax community, especially those who might not be as familiar with the city council and other elected officials.

“New families, we know that they're busy,” Kaiser said. “We know that coming to the meeting at seven o'clock to hear about something is probably not going to work out for their schedule, with having to take care of a family or take kids to sports. So, we found a different platform that is accessible, on their time, and is useful for tapping into to their ideas.”
Solution

Combining the Engagement Power of Two Tools

Kaiser’s vision of bringing more people together gained early momentum, ironically, thanks to the COVID pandemic forcing separations. With funding from the CARES Act, Kaiser was able to look at bringing together govDelivery from Granicus and EngagementHQ (now by Granicus).

“We had all the influx of federal money that hadn’t really been assigned to anything yet,” he said. “Being able to tie a little of it to digital communications during a pandemic, when everyone was at home, made a lot of sense.”

While Kaiser first spoke to Granicus about the ability to expand engagement by accessing govDelivery’s network of subscribers, what Kaiser called a substantial improvement over other email solutions being used, the team from Granicus saw the possibility to leverage the combined engagement power of EngagementHQ, as well.

“We have a print newsletter, of course, but we were really missing the impact of a digital option,” Kaiser recalled. “And when I spoke to Granicus, they said ‘Well, if you like this, you should check out EngagementHQ as well.’ And I’m glad we did.”

Kaiser was drawn immediately to features that put digital engagement front and center, such as third-party moderation of public comments.

“Being able to make a publicly-visible comment in the guestbook makes such a difference in how people see engagement and are encouraged to continue engaging,” he added.

Results

Increased Awareness for Residents as well as Staff

Thanks to CARES funding, Kaiser and the city’s IT staff were able to get govDelivery and EngagementHQ integrated quickly and conveniently, without having to wait for budget approval or case studies that may have delayed implementation, he said, possibly up to two years.

“CARES funding just opened up the door to allow us to get it right away,” he added.

And the results have been immediate, as registered participants have more than doubled in the few months that the new combined system of govDelivery and EngagementHQ have been in place for Fairfax City. While numbers haven’t been crunched to determine if the desired impact on demographics have been borne out in the new strategy, Kaiser said that engagement with projects has certainly expanded in the variety of voices participating.

An early project, a racial and social equity initiative called “Connecting Fairfax City For All,” required a platform that provided an element of anonymity while dealing with sensitive subjects related to the city’s Civil War history. By using EngagementHQ’s Places Tool, users can drop pins in different locations to pose questions around historic markers or street names and begin conversations.

“We’ve been able to look at these conflicts and carefully shine a light on it,” Kaiser said.

EngagementHQ also provides an easier way to create the project hub that Kaiser envisioned, combining information about ongoing projects with schedules of upcoming meetings, as well as videos of previous meetings into one convenient source for project-related information.

In a nod to the combined impact of govDelivery and EngagementHQ, a recent embedded survey related to bicycle plans as part of a larger city transportation plan significantly outpaced previous engagement efforts around the subject. Where an earlier survey had garnered 800 responses over two months, the new outreach saw more than 1,100 responses in only two days.

“It was an eye opener for staff,” said Kaiser. “And I think it helped get people to adopt EngagementHQ and see the value in it and the difference from what we had before.”

While resident engagement continues to grow, Kaiser is also proud of the impact that the change has made internally. Thanks to email notifications from EngagementHQ when comments are made on project pages, Kaiser said that it is easier to keep these project pages front-of-mind for departments. And the flexibility of govDelivery’s group mailings makes engagement even easier than before.

“The connection of govDelivery is awesome,” he said. “Being able to automate sends to a group and not manage an email list in Outlook? That’s a big deal.”

The combination of digital solutions is also seeing departments more willing to work together thanks to the capabilities to combine various forms of media, such as short videos integrated with project information.

A recent Traffic Circle Visioning Project included a video of drone footage shot by the Fire Department to highlight existing conditions from an overhead perspective not frequently seen by residents.

“It gets people’s attention and ties it together for them,” Kaiser said. “Then we can put that on YouTube and social media to bring them back to the project page and continue that conversation. They might see it in one place, and then see it another place and that awareness just grows.”

“Communities are getting millions and millions of dollars in the ARPA package. These kinds of projects and products are perfect because they’re solutions that people always wanted to see and have a need for but couldn't afford. With ARPA funding, you can purchase things that are beneficial to communications and enhance the experience for residents.”
Matthew Kaiser, Communications and Marketing Director