A Tough Love Guide to Getting Eyes on Your Local Gov Story

3 min read
Oct 22, 2019 9:58:00 PM

I would estimate the woman’s age at about 70, give or take a few years. She sat in the front row of the town hall meeting sponsored by her City Councilman. She stared straight in the eyes of whoever was presenting — not nodding, not shaking her head, not reacting in any way. The town hall was meant to bring city department leaders “to the people” to get feedback on city-wide performance plans, including the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP).

When it was my turn to present the CHIP (this is back in the day, when I was a Deputy Director of Health), I swallowed hard. The crowd was visibly listless and the front-row woman was still staring ahead with steely resolve. The creases around her eyes twitched slightly when I started talking and I was having a hard time completing my sentences because I kept running out of breath; this is a tic I get when I’m nervous to present. I had a feeling that her silent spell was about to break, and that I would be on the receiving end of it.

Why did I feel this way? Because I had experienced it before. In town halls and board meetings and neighborhood association potlucks… I had seen this look. It was the look of a resident who has just had it with plans. She was done listening politely to whichever city bureaucrat was presenting their “bold new agenda” for fixing her neighborhood.

In my last article, I lifted up the importance of meaningful community connections when creating a city-wide plan for health improvement. The best way to get engagement on your plan after it launches is to get real deal engagement when you are creating it. So when the front-row woman opened her mouth to speak, I assumed she would be chiding me about our department’s lackluster engagement strategies over the last 18 months.

Instead, she said something that knocked me backwards (not literally, but figuratively). She said:

“Why are these plans always so boring?”

I froze. I looked at the report in my hand. It was glossy! It was in color! It had pretty pictures!

But she was right. It was boring. It was the same as all the other plans in the city — a forward from the mayor no one reads, an intro from the department director no one reads, a list of performance measures so we can track progress that nobody cared about — and I was embarrassed.

I’ve thought back on this meeting a lot lately as we try and unravel the puzzle of why some of our client’s online data stories (CHIP’s, Community Health Assessments, Performance Management Dashboards, etc) break engagement records and others seem to fall flat, even when the content is relatively similar. What about our plan was boring to that front-row woman? How could I do better, create more interesting stuff and satisfy all the requirements of things like accreditation? How could I cut through the noise of the world to create a plan that people wanted to not only read but help implement.

Because that is the point of all this — to create an engaging, exciting plan full of powerful vision that the people take ownership of and use to hold their decision-makers accountable.

Over the course of the next few weeks, me and the team at mySidewalk will be releasing the top 7 tips for doing just that. These tips come from mistakes I’ve made, mistakes our friends have made, and the amazing successes of communities I work with every day. These tips aren’t just for public health, either. They are for anyone who has a dream for their community, but may struggle to get others to care. They are specific, realistic, incremental habits to integrate into your work, and I hope you get a ton of value out of them.

-Dr. Sarah Martin, Director of Health Solutions

Coming up next, for Tip #1: Name Matters. (aka, sometimes a super small thing can make a really powerful first impression).


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