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While attending the League’s Capital Conference last month, I had the pleasure of sharing breakfast with local officials from Hazel Park, all of whom took a moment to update me on the new and exciting things happening this year in their city. Hazel Park certainly seems to have been the center of encouraging progress over the last year. New restaurant ventures and neighborhood revitalization efforts have drawn attention to the area, and the Congress of New Urbanism has even chosen the city for a charrette program intended to reimagine city buildings, public spaces, streets, and sidewalks.

hazel-park-mabel-gray-exterior-main-300x200By all accounts, I’m encouraged by what I see unfolding in Hazel Park. Yet, one singular aspect of my conversation with the city’s local officials stood out among the intriguing developments mentioned above. Hazel Park boasts a politically and ideologically diverse group of local officials, yet Councilman Mike Webb explained emphatically that every individual is dedicated to setting aside their personal convictions in order to make decisions that truly benefit Hazel Park.

In 2016, the concept of compromise should not be revolutionary. In the midst of a discussion about award-winning chefs, art fairs, and breweries popping up in the community, my main take-away should not have been shock that such a politically disparate group of officials work with each other for the good of a community. In modern America, this cooperation should be expected of local, state, and national leaders.

But it isn’t. In fact, my shock at Hazel Park’s symbiotic arrangement made it apparent to me that we’ve grown to expect the opposite. In short, this polarization in government is the main reason why a significant (and growing) portion of my generation is decidedly skeptical of politics at all levels, and only one of many reasons why young people (ages 18-35) make up only 6 percent of board and commission members in metro Detroit.

What do Millennials Think of Local Government?

Last year, our friends at the Florida League of Cities conducted a study on my generation and our views of government generally, but local government specifically. This snippet sums up their findings well:

[Millennials] do not like the bickering or fighting they see in congress, and the whole process generally annoys them. They shied away from the partisanship of government and simply want things to work.

When summarizing what it is that millennials want and expect from their local governments, the study found that they “want the fundamental elements of government to work. They enjoy local parks, yearn for better mass transit, and generally feel safe in their homes.” Young people want their local governments to progress towards the best possible way of life with the least possible amount of interference, and they want officials to elevate local standards of living above personal political ideology.

Asking municipal officials to display a higher level of responsibility and selflessness than is expected of government on a state or national level seems like a tall order, and indeed it is. But Hazel Park has managed it, and the results are startling. A lot of good things are happening there, and they’re happening because, when necessary, councilmembers and other officials are willing to remind each other to get down off their soap box and get things done.

By any standards, Hazel Park’s revitalization is incredible – but it’s made even more incredible considering the array of obstacles they’ve had to overcome to make this progress happen. They’ve chosen not to let personal political agendas be one of those obstacles, and I would imagine that members of my generation would be encouraged by hearing this.

Why Does Local Government Need Millennials?

Time is moving forward and eventually those currently serving their communities and states in an official capacity will have to retire. If millennials aren’t adequately prepared to step into their complicated roles and take responsibility for their communities, what will happen?

I can imagine that most municipal leaders are not exactly eager for “the selfie generation” to step into positions of influence and take on day-to-day municipal challenges. However, millennials getting involved in local government is better than the alternative – a huge generational void in leadership that leaves cities drastically under-staffed and mismanaged. Millennials bring a high sense of ethics, a thorough understanding of burgeoning technology, an innovative spirit, and an eagerness to have a positive social impact in the workplace – all things from which Michigan’s many communities could only stand to benefit.

Despite these strong attributes, however, the task becomes unnecessarily complicated without the mentorship of today’s leaders. Those currently serving possess a thorough working knowledge of a community’s budget history, municipal strengths and weaknesses, and what a community will need to thrive in the future. It is integral that this knowledge be passed on to those to whom the torch will fall within the next decade. In order for this to happen, however, local officials must make a concentrated effort to celebrate what’s going right in their areas, to better communicate that local politics aren’t necessarily a microcosm of Washingtonian egotism, and to resuscitate millennial interest in government.

I wrote this blog because I don’t think that millennials hear about leaders like those in Hazel Park very often. The polarized, even vindictive nature of Washington-based politics tends to drown out the very good things that are happening locally, and it jades our views towards the political system as a whole.

In short, it’s a messaging problem.

One of our many city managers in Michigan, in a survey for MLGMA’s rebranding initiative, said this about his local involvement: “I get a real charge from helping people. Sometimes it’s the littlest things we can do to the biggest things. From a falling tree to saving a lost kid… It’s about making lives better.” This idea resonates with my generation, so why don’t we hear it more often? Leaders like those in Hazel Park owe it to themselves to be more vocal about their love for their community, for compromise, and for progress, because it might just change a millennial’s mind.

Though many municipalities have bravely ventured into social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with residents, for the grand majority of local governments Snapchat remains uncharted territory. It’s understandable that local officials have hit roadblocks with social media; maintaining active accounts could be a full-time job, and the ever-developing technology is oftentimes unfamiliar to municipal leaders, many of whom view social media platforms as a minefield of potential liabilities.

In the past year, Snapchat’s popularity (and legitimacy) has grown exponentially – so much so that the White House opened an account last month to better communicate with a growing young demographic. Indeed, over 60 percent of smartphone users from the ages 13 to 34 use the app. Snapchat could serve as a vital branding resource to municipalities as they strive to improve communication, reach a younger generation, and market their communities to potential residents.

Snapchat (300x200)Essentially, Snapchat allows users to take photos and videos, add captions or drawings, and upload the content to a collective 24-hour “story” that followers can view. Take a look at what they can do, and then check out the many ways that local officials could use Snapchat to connect with residents:

Promote Community Events

Municipalities can use Snapchat to share information leading up to and during public events. For instance, if your community were to host a fireworks display, Snapchat could provide time/location information beforehand, and then showcase real-time video of the fireworks. This is a surprisingly powerful tool. As followers see how exciting public events look on Snapchat, they’re more likely to actually attend future events in person.

Support Philanthropic Programs

Snapchat stories can serve as a tool that allows officials to post both details and real-time progress regarding canned food drives, donation campaigns, and other city-wide philanthropic events. Ultimately, this information can increase participation and community enthusiasm for charitable activity.

Showcase Local Businesses and Jobs

Snapchat gives local governments an opportunity to showcase entrepreneurs and startups, giving a boost to community businesses that support local economies. Potential participants could simply fill out an application indicating interest, and the city’s Snapchat could then share photographs of their storefront, the things they sell or produce, and even a short video statement from the owners. Furthermore, if any businesses are seeking full-time or seasonal help, local officials could post a short notice on their Snapchat story to spread the word about potential employment opportunities.

Spotlight Community Leaders

If you work for your municipality in some capacity (whether elected or appointed), take a moment and ponder whether the majority of people in the city, village, or township you serve actually knows that your position exists. It may be worthwhile to take a day and dedicate your Snapchat story to “A Day in the Life of City Councilwoman X” or “Meet Your City Manager Y.” Giving your Snapchat followers a glimpse of the wide array of responsibilities taken on by city officials not only increases transparency, but also encourages future civic engagement from younger generations.

Construction Updates

Snapchat App 2 (300x200)If your city is in the midst of constructing a new community center, refurbishing a notable town building, or (eternally) revamping local roads, Snapchat can be used to show photos indicating progress and convey information regarding expected end dates.

Share Local History

Municipalities possess a wealth of history of which residents frequently remain unaware. Snapchat can be used to share photos of historical markers, encourage visits to historic districts integral to your town’s origin, and celebrate founding days. By using photos and video, Snapchat can more adequately capture a community’s rich traditions and showcase it as a place that people are proud to call home.

Police Department Information

Police departments frequently turn to Twitter or Facebook to share public safety announcements, but Snapchat can prove an equally valuable resource to deliver this information. Using Snapchat’s capabilities to share captioned photos or videos, municipalities can more effectively relay safety tips and police information to a younger demographic.

Highlight Public Schools

Dynamic activities in public schools, though appreciated by students, parents, faculty, and school administrators, may frequently go unnoticed by other members of the community. Does one of your schools have an impressive Environmental Club, a championship-winning athletic program, or a great hands-on chemistry class? Encourage school communities to let you know when great things are happening, and then use Snapchat to highlight school initiatives worthy of community-wide recognition.

Snapchat App (300x200)Voting Reminders

Millennials are famous for our willingness to make use of new technology. We’re also famous for our despicable voter turnout. Snapchat can be used as a tool to remind younger people to go out and participate in the decisions that directly affect their school districts and localities.

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In short, Snapchat provides an efficient and personal method of visual communication that younger demographics (and older demographics, believe it or not) have grown to appreciate. As social media becomes an increasingly important branding platform for communities, local governments have a lot to gain from experimenting with what Snapchat has to offer. Emerging from your comfort zone, exploring new methods of communication, and reaching younger demographics on the social media platforms that they already use daily can work wonders in creating enthusiastic and engaged communities.

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Samantha Audia, Michigan Municipal League Intern

SamanthaAudia-150x150Samantha joined the Michigan Municipal League team as an intern this winter, and will graduate from the University of Michigan in the spring with a degree in Political Science and International Studies. Previously, she has worked with several political non-profits in the Washington, D.C. area, and contributed to an array of publications. Samantha calls Garden City home but currently resides in Ann Arbor, and she looks forward to blogging for the League throughout the winter.

Open Jackson LogoAbout 80% of citizens are concerned with the accountability and openness of government. To help address this issue, open data has been quietly growing popularity for the past few years (also see open data mentioned in the League’s Year in Review blog). And if you haven’t heard about it yet, open data will certainly be a topic of discussion in Michigan throughout 2015.

According to the Open Data Handbook, open data is “data that can be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone.” But don’t worry, data isn’t just anything — it’s not email messages and it’s not personal information. This type of data is often public information governments already collect, but don’t always use to its greatest potential —  things like statistics on crime, education, waste management, street lights, and housing.

open dataThe big idea behind open data is that public information is shared in a format that’s easy for people (citizens, government departments, businesses, developers, etc.) to access and use. Taking a closer look at data can help increase government efficiency, transparency, and accountability, boost civic participation, and encourage economic development.

So far, the federal government, 16 U.S. states, and more than 30 local governments have adopted open data policies. The city of Jackson is the only Michigan municipality to adopt an  ordinance and the community is currently working with students from the University of Michigan’s School of Information Citizen Interaction Design program to establish internal policies to better implement open data strategies.

Because the concept is new to Michigan, the League wanted to get ahead of the game and compile a few useful resources for local leaders interested in learning more.

On our Open Data Resource Page, you’ll be able to find helpful open data publications, resources, and sample policies from across the country.

As communities discuss open data, be sure to keep the League in the loop! We’re glad to help collect information, examples, and resources to help leaders make the case, question, and explore open data.

Placemaking is such a buzz word of 2014 – and that’s a good thing! Placemaking awareness has been on the rise for the past few years, but themes, ideas, and policies are now more generally accepted and promoted. Placemaking is something people can relate to, want to talk about, and want to promote, which is great news for Michigan communities.

2014 has been a wonderful year for new research, stories, and perspectives on placemaking, engagement, and talent attraction throughout Michigan and across the globe. As part of the League’s services, we’ve been documenting and cataloguing articles related to our placemaking asset areas to use in presentations, guidebooks, research, and talking points. Here are my top five favorite reports of the year:

Investing In Place, American Planning Association

investing in placeMillennials were certainly a discussion topic of 2014. Articles like What Millennials Want – And Why Cities are Right to Pay Them So much Attention, Millennials & Mobility: Understanding the Millennial Mindset, and the Deloitte Millennial Survey populated newsfeeds. As a millennial, the results didn’t seem that staggering – we care about placemaking, doesn’t everybody? In case some leaders still weren’t getting the picture, the American Planning Association went a step further to explore the similar wants and needs of the country’s two largest population groups: millennials and boomers. It turns out they want the same things. Recommendations to please the largest populations include:

  • Engage residents: 75% of millennials and boomers agree that engaging citizens is essential to rebuilding local economies and creating jobs
  • Prioritize walkability and transit: Fewer than 10% of millennials, gen Xers, and boomers are interested in traditional, auto-dependent suburban living
  • Invest in quality of life: 74% of respondents believe investing in schools, walkability, and transportation is a better way to grow the economy than traditional approaches.

Using findings from this report, community leaders can frame future investments and development plans based on the public’s interests.

The Rise of Innovation Districts, The Brookings Institute

Communities and metro regions across the country are recovering from the Great Recession, but most are still behind their pre-recession peaks. There are some areas, however, that are recovering faster and stronger. According to the report, downtowns where people both live and work grew 77% faster than the country as a whole. Similarly, metro areas with more than 1 million people grew twice as fast than areas with populations under 250,000innovation districts

The report explores all aspects of innovation districts – which Brookings defines as a high density area of entrepreneurs, education and medical institutions, start-ups, and mixed-use developments that are interconnected through transit, technology, and physical proximity. The Rise of Innovation Districts says these districts are where jobs can grow faster, stronger, and more equitably, where density can reduce carbon emissions, and where local governments can generate more tax revenue. The report continues to explore the economic, physical, and networking aspects of how innovations work, as well as how community leaders can spark and scale innovation districts in their own communities.

Even for smaller communities, the report can be used as leverage to promote different areas of placemaking from entrepreneurial incentives, to walkable streets, to efficient transportation options.

State Policies Matter, Michigan Future

state policiesThis report is Michigan-specific, and especially with drama from Michigan’s current lame duck legislature, civic leaders should take a few minutes to read or re-read this paper. State Policies Matter describes how Michigan and Minnesota were once very similar states, with similar statewide policies and economies. Since 1990, however, Michigan and Minnesota have been growing more and more dissimilar: Minnesota now ranks 11th highest in the country in per capita income while Michigan is ranked 35th, and Minnesota’s unemployment and poverty rates have declined but Michigan’s have stayed about the same or worsened. This report seeks to explain the growing differences between the two states through policy decisions state and local leaders have made over recent decades. Major differences include the following:

  • Income taxes, business taxes, sales taxes, and gas taxes are all significantly higher in Minnesota, which means per capita state and local taxes are $1,000 – $5,000 higher than in Michigan.
  • These higher tax revenues allow Minnesota’s government to invest more in important priorities. For example, Michigan spends $1,447/person on k-12 education, while Minnesota spends $2,067/person. Michigan spends $223/person on transportation, while Minnesota spends $465/person. And Michigan spends $119/person in local government aid, while Minnesota spends $465/person.
  • Social policies are also more equitable in Minnesota than in Michigan. For example, the state allows same-sex marriages, allows affirmative action for college admissions, and allows undocumented high school graduates to receive in-state tuition at state universities.

This report can be seen as a timely warning to our state and local leaders to reconsider some current policy priorities.

The Equity Solution, PolicyLink

This fall, PolicyLink launched the National Equity Atlas, an online resource of demographics and economic data across the US with policy implications focused on racial equality. This data highlights the persistent, and often growing gaps, between the rich and poor, and white and non-white populations. Some important findings include:

  • equity atlasRacial economic inclusion could annually add $2 trillion to the national economy
  • 66% of racial income gap is due to wage differences, and only 34% is due to employment differences
  • Every region in the country would be stronger with racial inclusion. Potential annual gains range from $287 million to $510 billion in the nation’s 150 largest metro regions.

Users can manipulate data on the National Equality Atlas site to represent findings from their state or region. Michigan can be looked at as a whole or in the Ann Arbor, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing regions.

The report also highlights policy recommendations for closing economic gaps between racial lines. Some examples include:

  • Invest in transit and other infrastructure projects to improve connectivity and create jobs
  • Leverage anchor institutions to grow new business in underinvested areas
  • Raise the minimum wage through local living wage ordinances or statewide initiatives
  • Remove barriers of employment, like prohibiting credit checks for job applicants and increasing citizenship for immigrants.

City Open Data Policies, National League of Cities

open dataMunicipalities collect and store a ton of information but most of it just sits there. Recently, excitement around open data has grown through initiatives from Code for America and other organizations – if there’s data, let people access it, manipulate it, and see what they can come up with. Open data is simply “data that can be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone” and is a pretty new idea for cities around the world. This report highlights lessons learned so far from 5 cities who have implemented open data policies and outlines recommendations and resources for communities looking to implement something similar.

Jackson is the only Michigan community, so far, to venture into the possibilities of open data. With work from city leaders, student interns, and national institutional advisors, Jackson has already adopted an open data ordinance and is currently working on creating an online portal. Communities interested in learning more are encouraged to contact Jackson and take recommendations from the NLC report:

  • Find leadership for open data initiatives
  • Commit to open data through legislation and formal policies
  • Allocate resources to open data initiatives – although it’s low cost, the best policies have appropriate staffing and budgeting
  • Rely on experts to provide technical expertise and customer service for online platforms since municipalities often don’t have the in-house resources readily available

So what are you supposed to do with these five reports?

Read them, share them, and use them to make decisions in your community. And if you want more light reading for the holiday break, just let me know! Since April, we have been cataloging interesting articles, reports, and case studies related to placemaking. So far we have about 200 in our database, so there’s plenty to keep you busy.

Looking forward to another year of research, placemaking, and community building!