John Mack - Newtown Supervisor
Communication Category

Some Ideas for Improving Township Communications with Residents

One positive outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increased use of technology like Zoom to improve communications between Newtown Township and residents primarily because many more people are attending Zoom Board of Supervisors (BOS) meetings than in-person public meetings. In fact, 94 people attended one contentious BOS Zoom meeting! That's probably more than can fit into the public meeting room even if social distancing restrictions were lifted.

Despite the use of Zoom technology - which may not continue after COVID - there is a long-term need to improve communications between the township and residents. This is something that the Newtown Finance Committee (NTFC) asked for at the recent March 15, 2021, BOS Work Session. Shelly Howland, NTFC Chair, presented a plan for how the NTFC would like to work with BOS to improve the budgeting process. She mentioned the need for a public information/communication plan to support the NTFC as well as the Economic Development Committee (EDC) in reaching out to the public. Listen to her comments here (beginning at  the1 hour 13 minute timestamp).

Some Suggestions

I was asked by EDC member George Skladany to provide information about how the Newtown Twp website compares to other local municipality websites. See below for relevant links to that PLUS other communications ideas I have brought before the BOS and Township Manager in the past.

  • "How Does Newtown Township's Website Stack Up?" - my analysis of a report/study done by the Bucks County Courier Times. NT's website is competitive with the sites of other municipalities. However, aside from the Police and Parks and Rec Departments, NT does not do so well in using social media technology to communicate with residents.

Pull Versus Push

I mentioned to the EDC members the importance of "Push" technology versus the "Pull" technology of websites. Email is the major "push" technology but it is problematic in terms of open rates. My email newsletter service has nearly 600 subscribers, which is excellent. But (1) it takes a LONG time to get this many subscribers! See below for ideas how NT can get email subscribers; and (2) The average open rate is about 33% per email blast. To get a higher percentage (e.g., up to 75%) of subscribers to open email, it is necessary to send out the same email message 3 or 4 times - first to all subscribers then only to subscribers who did not open the previous email. That too is a lot of work!

Mobile is the Best Push Technology

The best push technology these days is mobile texting. Everyone carries their cell phone with them all day and they see all texts. That is why the former Technology Committee and I recommended a service like Savvy Citizen, which pushes out notifications to mobile phone users in any specified area.

The COVID/Zoom Opportunity

Not mentioned above is the fact that since Newtown has been requiring pre-registration for most official Zoom meetings, it has been collecting names and email addresses as part of the process. I've mentioned to township officials that this information should be saved because it can be used to send out email notices in the future. According to privacy laws, one unsolicited email can be sent out to people who may not have opted in to receive it. That email can request an opt-in to a notification service - either an email notification service or a mobile phone service such as Savvy Citizen.

Join the NEW Technology & Communications Committee!

I revised the mission statement of the Technology Committee to include “improve communications between the Township and its residents” (Resolution 2018-R-11, March 28, 2018). It is now the "Technology & Communications Committee."

Currently, 4 people have signed on - they need to be officially appointed by the BOS. Since the committee can have "up to" 7 members, 4 would be sufficient to carry on official business. Technology & Communications Committee can help other committees with implementing ideas for better communication with residents. The first order of business would be to interview NTC and EDC committee members on their communication needs.

If you know of anyone who would like to serve on the Technology & Communications Committee - they don't have to be techies! - please have them submit a letter of intent and/or resume/description to Olivia Kivenko, oliviak@newtownpa.gov

Posted on 19 Mar 2021, 01:03 - Category: Communication

Newtown Parking Sarcasm in Letter to the Editor of Bucks County Courier Times

In the January 28, 2020, edition of the Bucks County Courier Times (BCCT), a letter to the editor (LTE) titled "Newtown parking joke is on all of us" states that the "board of supervisors just announced a decision ... All of the new restaurants [in the Village at Newtown shopping center] would be opened as drive-through only" (see image).

Obviously, as you read on, this is an attempt at sarcasm. Matthew Allen, the author, suggests, for example, the Iron Hill Brewery would have overhead hoses that could pour you an IPA at a drive-through window, but ONLY if you were cool enough.

Ha, Ha! ROFLMAO!

Here's my problem with this. Some people might actually believe such a decision was made by the Board. After discussions with many residents I have learned that many people do not actually know who makes what decisions in Newtown. We have the Board of Supervisors (BOS), the Planning Commission, and the Zoning Hearing Board. Sometimes I am confused as well!

But worse than that is the lack of adequate communication with residents about actual decisions made by public officials. Sure, you are welcome to attend public meetings or watch the BOS meetings on TV (when the equipment is working) or via streaming video on the Township's website (yes, there is a website, but NO Facebook page or Twitter account). Other meetings like those of the all-important Zoning Hearing Board, however, are NOT televised!

In any case, poor communications should not be exasperated by "false communications." Therefore, I would suggest to the editors of the BCCT that they should tag sarcastic LTEs as such, especially when they could unintentionally spread false rumors about decisions made by the Board of Supervisors and other governing bodies. Our work is hard enough without having to defend ourselves against "fake news."

Also Read

Posted on 28 Jan 2020, 01:14 - Category: Communication

Savvy Citizen Presentation

About 87% of respondents to my online survey (N=151) said they would opt-in to a notification service such as Savvy Citizen as long as it was free to them (7% say “No,” 6% “Not sure”). The survey also collected 84 comments from respondents about the types of messages they would like to receive and if they preferred to receive notices via cell phone app, text message, or via email. 

The Newtown Township Board of Supervisors asked representatives of Savvy Citizen to make a presentation before the Board at the September 16, 2019, Work Session and answer questions. Unfortunately, videos of Work Sessions are not available. However, I made an audio recording of the presentation and present some highlights of the presentation - with audio - below. [Also see video at the end of this post.]

You can download the complete presentation PDF here.

Click for audio related to the above:

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Posted on 17 Sep 2019, 13:29 - Category: Communication

What is the Most Satisfying Part of My Job as Newtown Township Supervisor?

I'm often asked "How do you like being Supervisor?" I can't answer that without some kind of qualifier such as "...on a scale of 1 to 10." But even then, it depends.

A better question is "What’s the Most Satisfying Part of My Job as Newtown Township Supervisor?" That one is easy to answer...

By far, the most satisfying part of my job as Supervisor is interacting with residents to keep them informed and to listen to their concerns. If I can help solve residents’ problems, that’s just icing on the cake!

In my opinion, personal interaction with residents regarding their concerns is an important part of my responsibilities as Supervisor. I want to be sure that I spend enough time reaching out to and responding to residents. On average, I spend about 8 hours per month interacting with residents. It's satisfying because it helps me fulfill my core values, which are best expressed as in the following word cloud.

Every one of those words is applicable to my job as Newtown Supervisor. Every one!

It's even more satisfying to know that my efforts are appreciated. Here are just a few comments I have received from residents recently:

“Outstanding documentation of accountability. This is a very rare to see. Thank you.” – A response to a post on Facebook documenting the time I spend per month on official Supervisor activities (see here).

“I looked at your website. Keep up the great efforts to make Newtown a better place for all.” and “Been living here since '96 and am so glad to see someone take leadership to connect our neck of the woods.” and “Thank you for doing a great job keeping the residents informed.” –  Personal messages from members of Nextdoor where I often post information.

“Great flow chart you created & posted to your blog! Thank goodness you did it since I got totally lost when the Town Solicitor tried to explain it!” – Comment about the process of amending an Township Ordinance to allow for a combined gas station/convenience store (read "What's Next for Ordinance Amendment to Allow Wawa on Newtown Bypass?... It's Complicated!").

“It is amazing, but could not have happened without you, John Mack, bringing this issue to the attention of concerned residents. This could become a model for other townships to follow. :-)” – Comment in response to resident turnout at a Board of Supervisors meeting and engagement in public comments regarding the Township’s Pollution Reduction Plan (read "Residents Comment on Roberts Ridge Park Meadow Plan").

It's really an honor to serve the community! I learn something new every day and have met many fine people and volunteers who also put in a lot of time without any compensation at all. Thanks to everyone who help keep Newtown in business and safe.

Posted on 07 Aug 2019, 01:24 - Category: Communication

My BIG Idea: Openness, Transparency & Better Communications

You've probably seen the segment "My BIG Idea" on the NBC Nightly News where Democrats running for president talk to Harry Smith about their big ideas, how to pay for them and the impact on voters. At first, I thought this was a bit hokey, but then I got to like the idea and decided to publish my own BIG Idea, which is: Openness, Transparency & Better Communications in local government!

There are several things I would like to accomplish to achieve that goal in Newtown:

(1) The Township should implement a text messaging and social media based “emergency" notification system that can ALSO be used to notify residents of public meetings and other official news from the Township.

I surveyed over 100 people about such a system (e.g., Savvy Citizen which would cost about $300 per month). 82% of respondents said they would opt-in to such a system. Currently, the only such system available to residents is a free service called ReadyBucks, which is pitiful - it only reports such things as flash floods, sever thunderstorms, etc., which is information we all get from a number of other free sources!

See the survey results and more information, comments from respondents pro and con, etc..

(2) Searchable minutes of meetings (DONE!): Very early on in my tenure in January, 2018, I requested that the minutes posted to Newtown Township’s website be converted to searchable PDF format. Searchable PDFs are useful for retrieving documents from a document repository (e.g., computer disk drive) and useful to find the location of words and phrases within documents.

My request was quickly implemented by the Township and now every PDF version of minutes going back two or more years is searchable. For more on that, read "Basic Document Management" in this Blog Post.

(3) Streaming Indexed Video: Just as it is easier to find an item in the minutes if the document is searchable, it is also easier to locate an agenda item in the streaming video of Board of Supervisors (BOS) meetings if the videos are “indexed.”

Here’s how this is implemented in EVERY other local municipality (Lower Makefield, Middletown, Northampton, Upper Makefield, Wrightstown):

The agenda/Meeting Index is displayed alongside the video screen. Viewers can jump to any section of the video that corresponds with an agenda item merely by clicking on the item in the “Meeting Index.” It’s a travesty that Newtown stands alone in NOT having this option even though it uses the exact same video streaming software as other townships! For more on that, read "Newtown BOS Website Video Streaming Improvement" in this Blog Post.

(4) Website Analytics: At the June 13, 2018, BOS meeting, Josephine Vlastaris, former Chair of the Technology Committee, recommended using Google Analytics to monitor traffic and bounce rates for the township website, and make changes to pages as needed (see her presentation here). The Committee suggested that the following reports be created on a monthly basis:

  • Page Views (e.g., the 25 most visited pages)
  • Demographics of Users (Age/Gender distribution)
  • Top 25 Landing and Exit Pages
  • Behavior Flow (where do visitors go from landing pages)
  • Device Categories (desktop/mobile/tablet)
  • Browser source, i.e., Chrome, Firefox, IExplore

This information is critical for making improvements to the site and ensuring easy access to important information. Even though the Township already has a Google Analytics account set up to measure and report on its website traffic (the code is already on every page), the BOS decided against creating periodic reports citing a "lack of need to do so." I should note that it takes about 2 minutes to produce a useful analytics report from Google!

(5) Social Media: Of the 53 local government websites studied by the Bucks County Courier Times, 35 (66%) had active Facebook pages, 25 (47%) were active on Twitter and 13 (25%) had YouTube channels (source: "How Does Newtown Township's Website Stack Up?") . Newtown Township has no social media presence whereas the Police Department does have an excellent FB page and Twitter account!

(6) Glossary of Municipal Terms: MS4, PRD, LST, EIT, SALDO, Liquid Fuels Program, Impervious Surface, Sketch Plan, Conditional Use, Spot-Zoning, etc. These are just some of the acronyms and terms a Newtown Township Supervisor has to learn to do his or her job. Perhaps more importantly, township residents must understand these terms if they are expected to participate in local government. To that end, I have created the first-of-its-kind Glossary of Municipal Terms on my website.

A similar glossary of terms should be available on the Township’s website. Note that many terms link to related information on my website. The Township’s glossary would, of course, link to repeated information on the Township site.

This all relates to the poor use and management of digital assets by the Township, which appears to be living in the 1990’s as far as its use of modern communication tools goes. 

 

Posted on 26 Jun 2019, 01:48 - Category: Communication

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