If you make your way to Gilbert, Arizona, you could very well run into two women hauling a blue couch and a large desk around town in a truck. They would be two digital journalists from the Town’s Office of Digital Government, and the furniture would be the mobile set of their new #SupGilbert video series, a production for the local tourism office that’s introducing viewers to what the 250,000-person town has to offer in its retail and restaurant community. On the day of our recent visit, the team was on location at a small, upper-end children’s boutique, filming a video that will premiere later this year.
#SupGilbert is just one example of the local government’s robust digital strategy that focuses on meeting and engaging residents where they are. In a town with an average age of 32, Chief Digital Officer Dana Berchman knows that means meeting residents online. Her team’s work includes oversight of the Town’s 25+ social media channels, which cumulatively have attracted nearly 170,000 followers, as well as the production of Mayor Jenn Daniels’ annual Digital State of the Town video, which replaces an annual mayoral address behind a podium. (This year, the Town did a premiere screening and sold out the tickets; a local mayor from another jurisdiction told Daniels that the video made him want to move to Gilbert as well!) Berchman’s team also hosts the Gilbert Gone Digital podcast, where residents can learn about topics ranging from the Town’s 311 app to how its partnership with What Works Cities is cultivating a stronger government through data use.
Digital communications plays a significant role in how the Town is fostering civic engagement around its open data efforts. While preparing for the launch of Gilbert’s open data portal, Berchman knew that a “build it and they will come” mentality wouldn’t suffice, so she and her team set out to create an animated character, Alex, who could guide users through the portal and help them find the data sets they sought. Then the team launched an extensive digital campaign to introduce residents to Alex, the portal, and Gilbert’s open data and transparency initiatives. Efforts like these recently earned the Town Smart Cities Dive’s Civic Engagement Program of the Year Award.
The Town’s executive leadership knows that a commitment to transparency and civic engagement are critical to earning residents’ trust and fostering a culture where innovation is possible. Unlike in the private sector, Mayor Daniels acknowledges that, in government, there is a perception that no failure is okay. But she believes it’s possible to combat that. “I think the key is transparency,” she says. “Share what you’re going to do, the methodology you’re going to use. People are more likely to get on board or say how to tweak it. I think people want to trust their government, especially their local government, which is why digital strategy is so important.”
That strategy has paid dividends in winning residents’ trust — as the effusive comments that proliferate beneath the Town’s social posts demonstrate. In fact, Gilbert’s Facebook followers average 29 comments per month, compared to the United States average of 7 comments per month. But the strategy is also helping to realize a vision of what the town can become. “I love thinking about Gilbert five, ten, twenty years out,” says Mayor Daniels. “I’m not a responsible leader if I’m not thinking far out.”
In recent years, Gilbert has started transforming from a bedroom to a business community. The Town boasts a burgeoning tech corridor, is the primary testing area for Google’s Waymo autonomous car company, and has major job announcements ahead in the coming months as new corporations with above-average salaries are slated to move in. In fact, a growing demand for commercial real estate has led the Town to develop office spaces on spec to compete with nearby cities for attracting new businesses. The Town (residents don’t want to call themselves a city!) also has been carefully planning the revitalization of its downtown, buying up properties as they become vacant, focusing on the quality of the buildings’ rehab, and choosing the new retailers carefully for the right mix of enterprises.
The near-finished office projects were among some of the sites Town Manager Patrick Banger pointed out as he showed us some of his favorite signs of progress. Another stop was Agritopia, a unique residential community centered around an urban farm, as well as restaurants and retail stores. “We don’t just sit back and let growth happen, but proactively drive that growth in ways that will have long-term benefits,” he says.
By bringing civic engagement into the digital age, Gilbert has virtually invited residents to Town Hall — then to come inside and get involved wherever they are. And clearly, the ripple effects are being felt far beyond the online space. “Gilbert attracts the kind of people who care about their neighbors, and that’s because their government cares about them,” says Mayor Daniels. “We have to be an example of the connectedness we want in our community.”