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Lose the jargon, improve the website: Cincinnati is making changes to boost engagement

The Cincinnati skyline as seen from Lower Price Hill.
Becca Costello
The Cincinnati skyline as seen from Lower Price Hill.

A new community engagement plan for the city of Cincinnati is expected to be complete by this time next year.

Officials have been working on the plan since September, when Council passed an ordinance asking the city manager to develop new policies. It was based on a motion passed six years ago that was never implemented.

The Department of Planning and Engagement took the lead on getting public input on how the city can improve. Eighty-five people participated in three public meetings last November, one in Bond Hill, one in Westwood, and one virtually. An online survey collected 159 responses from 33 neighborhoods.

"We were reminded that communication is a two-way street: people want to communicate to us, [and] they want us to communicate to them," said Katherine Keough-Jurs, city planning director. "One of the things we heard on numerous occasions is the need for some sort of centralized location on the website to find information about how to engage."

People said they'd like to see information from the city on non-traditional platforms, not just on the website and social media. And they said the city needs to re-word jargon-heavy language that’s difficult to understand.

Keough-Jurs says residents want the city to work with community councils, but also with other organizations that are active in neighborhoods.

"And they've asked for us to meet communities where they already are," she said. "So instead of scheduling a bunch of our own events, how do we take advantage of events that are already happening?"

A recent statistically significant survey done on behalf of the city shows 45% of residents are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with opportunities to engage with the city administration, and 50% of residents are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with opportunities to engage with elected officials.

That survey will be part of the forthcoming community engagement plan. Officials are also working with the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation to improve community engagement. Cincinnati is one of 13 cities around the world chosen for the Innovation Training program this year.

Keough-Jurs says the city can make some immediate changes while the long-term engagement plan is still in the works.

"Right now, the City Manager's Office is really staffing up the City Communications Office, dedicating three full-time employees to city-wide communication efforts," she said. "And those employees will also be creating a strategic communications plan."

She says they're also looking at possible updates to the city website to make it more user-friendly so residents can find what they need more quickly.

The department is also requesting two new positions in the next fiscal year budget: engagement specialists. The new positions are included in the interim city manager's and mayor's draft. Council can amend the first budget draft and must approve a final version by the end of June.

"And then one of the things that we are looking to do is identify communication and engagement specialists in every department," Keough-Jurs said. "We want to make sure that we are cross-training and collaborating and all speaking from the same page."

More engagement opportunities are planned over the summer, before staff offer a draft to the city manager for more public input at the end of this year and beginning of next year. A final plan is expected to be ready by spring 2023.

See the full presentation below:

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.