Success stories

How Bear Valley Springs Improves Engagement, Crisis Comms with Digital Tools

registered users from 5,500 community residents.
visitors to Tax Poll content
contributors to Crisis Communications survey
“random” questions about community projects
Nestled in the Tehachapi Mountains in Central California’s Kern County, Bear Valley Springs offers an idyllic home to 5,500 residents. With demographics ranging from older residents to young families, Bear Valley Springs sought a solution to improve engagement over issues affecting the community and get feedback on crisis communications.
“This tool gives us everything. It puts the project in one spot and we have all the tools there to engage… It is a complete package.”
Megan Clark

Improving Crisis Management and Public Engagement

When it comes to her town, Bear Valley Springs Communications Specialist Megan Clark likes to keep things close to her vest.

“I don’t know if we should let the secret out,” she said. “This is the best place to live. We’ve got a great community here. It was designed as a weekend resort community. So I think my favorite analogy is for all of the kids who live here, it’s like growing up at summer camp.”

Originally developed as a second-home destination in the early 1970s, Bear Valley Springs also formerly housed a large retirement community. The population still reflects that evolution today, with spikes in the summer as residents enjoy the cooler mountain air, and a number of older residents who enjoy the serene environment year-round.

“Because of that, we have a significant population that may be medically fragile, or they have trouble coming down the mountain in the evening to attend meetings,” said Clark. “We’ve also got a lot of younger working families who can’t make it to workday meetings.”

Meeting the diverse needs of the community when it came to engagement on topics and issues affecting the community was a challenge for Clark.

“We needed a way to give everyone a chance to participate, whether they were at work or at home,” said Clark. “For whatever reason they can’t make it to the meetings, or they just don’t enjoy coming to meetings. We wanted to give them a voice.”

Clark’s team had engagement tools in place. A monthly print magazine, Bear Tracks, was sent to every home in the community. For digital engagement, a district website was available for residents, as well as a monthly email newsletter, and presence on Facebook and Twitter.

But it was after a recent wildfire, when Clark was approached by Police Chief Dan Suttles, that the vision of Bear Valley Springs’ digital engagement began to change.

“The goal of community engagement has really been coming to the forefront since the 1990s,” said Suttles. “It’s always been a challenge for law enforcement agencies to find the right platform. Police officers, especially management staff, are always searching for a way to engage with the public. And that is what we do.”

While crisis engagement, such as emergency notifications, is of critical importance for their work, Suttles said that it’s difficult to get a good understanding of how those communications worked after the fact. Having a question-and-answer survey from the public could help let Suttles and his team know where they could improve when it came to reaching out to people.

With the shared goal of better engagement opportunities for their community, Clark and Suttles looked for a platform that could help achieve their vision.


A Toolkit That Provides Multiple Options

“We want to make meaningful engagement easy,” reads the home page of The Bear Valley Exchange, the website dedicated to public engagement that Clark created using Granicus EngagementHQ platform. Combining surveys, informational articles, and opportunities to submit questions and comment on content, the website provides a one-stop destination for both information and interaction.

EngagementHQ’s ability to easily provide a variety of different interactive pieces appealed immediately to Clark when looking to create the website.

“The toolkit really stood out,” she said. “Other solutions that we looked at were typically one tool. This tool gives us everything. It puts the project in one spot and we have all the tools there to engage, whether it’s FAQs, Q&As, surveys, polls. I can show videos of our meetings there. It is a complete package.”

As police chief, Suttles saw the power of a digital tool that could improve connections with the community.

“Our biggest goal in today’s policing and today’s governing,” he said, “is to make sure that people feel as though you are engaged with them and that they are engaged with you, and that they have a voice.”

However, previous approaches hadn’t always lived up to his expectations.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “Over the last couple decades, there have been some fails. We’ve tried to use emerging technologies to our favor and have had problems with it. And it tends to sour our opinion toward using it. There needs to be a level of comfort in using this type of engagement in a successful manner, especially for users who aren’t technologically advanced, without having to worry about negative results coming back or having our intentions turn on us.”


Strong Engagement in a Short Period of Time

In the six months since implementing EngagementHQ as the engine powering The Bear Valley Exchange, both Clark’s goals of an interactive informational hub and Suttles’ concerns for an easy-to-use tool have been met. More importantly, both have seen the amount of engagement with the community take a strong step forward.

In the short period that the site has been online, The Bear Valley Exchange has registered 950 users, almost 20% of the community’s entire population. And through organized and active updating of information regarding projects, surveys about recent events, and informative video and other content, users are finding ways to actively engage.

“I really enjoy being able to put all of the assorted information for a single project in a single site,” said Clark. “I can explain what the project is, put up videos of the relevant meetings and have a timeline so people know when important dates are coming up. I can put up the documentation, whether it’s request for proposals or the bids, the engineering studies. However deep they want to dive into a project, I can put all of that information in one spot.”

The feedback regarding crisis communications that Chief Suttles sought has also been strongly represented in the new site with one survey garner over 550 visits and 121 contributors, and a Wildfire Response Plan drawing almost 650 visits and active participating in newsfeeds, Q&As and related content.

“We learned you want to put out surveys as quickly as possible,” said Suttles of the post-fire survey. “That was one of the things that we got a lot of kudos from the residents on. They appreciated the fact that we were asking these questions right after this event happened because it’s fresh in their minds. We literally reached out within hours. There were things that we needed to improve on, as well, but the discussion took place within hours of the event, not waiting for another meeting to come up, waiting for emails or complaints. We were able to make improvements right away.”

Clark added that the impact is already being felt by Community Service District staff as well.

“We’re still working on actively directing questions about projects to The Bear Valley Exchange,” she said of educating the community. “But people are learning quickly where to go for information. Now our office says that most of the calls they receive are about customer services and not ‘random’ questions about projects in the community.”

And Clark shows no sign of slowing down content for The Bear Valley Exchange or undermining the power it gives to the community’s voice. A recent Special Police and Gate Tax poll drew 4,600 visitors, including over 300 new registrations, and a wide array of contributions to discussion, survey, and a related Q&A.

“The information from that engagement went back to the board and they chose to move forward with a ballot initiative based on a 79% approval from the community,” said Clark. “That actually put us within a 4% margin of error on the survey conducted on the website.”

In an era where governments fight against eroding public trust, Clark sees another benefit of the tools that EngagementHQ provides.

“This is a fabulous way to build that trust, to keep people informed, to give them step by step updates on how you’re progressing,” she said. “And it gives them a place to have their concerns addressed. I don’t see why you wouldn’t do online engagement.”

That trust in digital engagement extends to those in law enforcement who previously had a dubious relationship with platforms.

“This type of platform allows us to engage with the community in a manner that allows us to improve the way that we do our business,” said Suttles. “When you come across a platform like this that is successful, you get this level of engagement, and it’s relatively easy for somebody who’s not necessarily technologically advanced to use, it allows law enforcement agents to feel a level of comfort. When we have that level of comfort, it allows me, as the chief of police, to feel more comfortable using this type of technology to reach out. Because I know that I can feel comfortable that it’s going to do what it is that I anticipate it’s going to do for me.”

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