Piqua sets the civic example for cities of all sizes

Photo courtesy of Piqua, Ohio.
Photo courtesy of Piqua, Ohio.

GovFresh 2013 Small City of the Year Piqua, Ohio, is a shining example of the old adage “small is beautiful.” With its multi-pronged approach to engaging citizens, Piqua is proof that it doesn’t take a big city budget to execute big civic ideas.

Piqua Development Program Manager William Lutz shares the secrets to the city’s success.

Tell us about Piqua.

Piqua is a community of just over 20,000 people located approximately 30 miles north of Dayton here in western Ohio. As a community, Piqua has been around for just over 200 years and our community has seen a lot of change. We are home to many industries, one of the best known is Hartzell Propeller, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of general aviation propellers.

Our community has a nice mix of older residents and young families. We are especially proud of our 13 mile recreational trail system that links all of our neighborhoods together. We have a newer Municipal Government Complex, and we have been very aggressive in receiving grants for making necessary transportation improvements. All of these help make Piqua a physically attractive community.

How are you leveraging social media to communicate with citizens?

First, we do a lot of the modern social media outreach efforts. Our city has an active Facebook and Twitter account, and many of our key employees have these outlets. Collectively, our employees treat their accounts as opportunities to give their unique perspective on the projects that are completing as well as providing “behind the scenes” looks at different pieces of equipment. This has helped the city become more trustworthy and transparent, leading to our residents believing in their local government again.

What ways are you leveraging technology platforms to connect with citizens and help them connect with each other?

We have expanded our on-line citizen engagement to include NextDoor. NextDoor is a very unique social networking platform in which the network is only accessible to people in a specific neighborhood. The participants are verified when the join the network by NextDoor. Right now we have over 150 users and the reviews have been very, very positive. Garage sales, neighborhood parties and other activities have been facilitated by the NextDoor platform. Being the first city in Ohio to have this program city-wide is a point of pride for our community.

Starting in 2014, we are investing in bringing MindMixer to our community to allow for a richer experience. Through this platform we hope to solicit ideas and comments that can help provide guidance to the city. We recognize that many times, residents can not attend city commission meetings, so anything that we can do to help facilitate the conversation, is something that we will look at. The city feels that MindMixer can help fill that void and we are looking forward to engaging more residents with this platform.

How are you opening up Piqua to show citizens how government works?

I believe the hallmark of our citizen engagement activities is our Piqua Government Academy. We started the academy in 2012 and we have had over 72 residents go through the program. Our program has been so successful, our city even won an award earlier this year from the Ohio City/County Management Association for Outstanding Achievement in “Citizen Participation.”

What makes this program so successful is that it is experience-based and not just a platform for our departments to share information. For 16 weeks, our residents see our departments and their work first hand. Our participants shoot laser guns in a police simulator, they ride around town in a fire truck, they drive a snow plow through an obstacle course and the list goes on.

Through the program, the doubters become believers and our biggest supporters! I specifically remember in our first academy, we had an older lady. The first week, she admitted that she hated Piqua for the past 30 years she lived here and only lived here because her husband grew up here. By the end of the program, she gave a stirring speech to our city commission claiming our employees were the smartest, most dedicated public servants. That in itself told me that the program had been a success.

How do you measure success? What’s working? What hasn’t and how are you adapting when it doesn’t?

We measure success through activity. As long as there is community buzz about our programs, we know we are on the right track. We also never let things get stale. We are always trying to improve on our successes. The academy is a perfect example.

Starting next year, we are adding more weeks, but we are grouping specific departments in modules. Our participants will get to pick and choose which module that they would like to learn from They can choose one or all six. Again, I think this speaks to our commitment to engage citizens on their terms.

Our social media activity has worked well, too. Residents are engaging with us via Facebook and Twitter. They are finding out more about what we do on a daily basis and the services we provide to help improve the quality of their lives. As long as our residents are talking about us, interacting with us and we earning trust by being transparent, we are on the right track.

And you have programs where citizens can get involved?

Absolutely, we have programs where residents can put forth whatever they can to help improve the community through INVOLVE (Interested Neighbors Volunteer Valuable Energy), residents can help shovel walks after heavy snows, rake leaves or perform other tasks; these volunteer efforts make a huge difference. We started a program with our local neighborhood associations to mow vacant lots. Through the program, the city pays the neighborhood associations and they use these funds at their discretion to make improvements to neighborhood parks or other small scale improvements.

We also have “The Big Day”, held every May, the event brings the community’s non-profits, churches and neighborhood associations together to tackle a big clean up project, whether it is putting a playground together or mulching the flower beds at the interchange, “The Big Day” has been a nationally recognized effort.

What’s your recommendation to other cities who want to follow Piqua’s lead?

I think the most important ingredient in citizen engagement is courage. I will admit, being here in the city building, it is easy to get insulated from the needs and desires of the community and it takes courage to be willing to leave the coziness of this building to really get out and discuss with our residents their hopes and dreams. The most important thing we realized is that our residents, by and large, have high hopes and vivid dreams for Piqua. They have such a deep affinity and love for this place; they want this place to succeed as much as city staff.

How can people connect with you to learn more?

We can be reached on Facebook at “City of Piqua, Ohio Government” and on Twitter @cityofpiqua. I can be reached at blutz@piquaoh.org, also on LinkedIn (William Lutz) and on Twitter @williamlutz.

Thanks for the opportunity to share our story. I hope we can be an inspiration to other communities around the country!

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and a strategy consultant for CivicActions and NuCivic. He can be reached at luke@govfresh.com.

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