Division C

Category 10
Martin County Aquatics Center Facebook Page

Situation Analysis: 
When town hall meetings were reduced due to budget cuts, Polk’s Government Television (PGTV) and the Communications staff took advantage of technology to produce Polk County’s inaugural electronic-Town Hall. Partnering with Information Technologies, local news media and libraries, PGTV delivered a successful outreach venture – the first Internet-based town meeting in the state! In early 2009, PGTV began experimenting with webinars with the idea that it could provide a convenient method of participation in meetings from home or work. With a reduction in Town Halls from four to one, staff looked at that technology to deliver an exciting alternative and accomplish the County’s overall outreach goals for less money – resulting in a better return on investment!

Objectives:  1) Implement a cost-effective alternative to onsite town hall meetings. 2) Give citizens a convenient and accessible forum for LIVE interaction with commissioners and staff about issues. 3) Partner with libraries to provide internet to citizens without it at home. 4) Connect with 100 participants – the average participation at traditional town halls. 5) Obtain an internal approval rating of 90% and demonstrate the value of “thinking outside the box” while introducing staff and commissioners to new technology. 6) Invite the media to become host sites and maintain a partnership for future webinars (and ensure free online publicity). 7) Make the interactive forum available for replay on PGTV and for review on the internet after the LIVE event. 8) Establish multiple interactive outlets originating from and controlled by Polk County Government. 9) Team up with I.T. for future webinars.

Implementation:  In early June 2009, the commissioners committed to conducting and participating in an e-town hall on September 17. For 2-1/2 months, the Communications staff handled interaction with commissioners and county manager’s office; distributed press releases, media advisories and twitter reminders; coordinated media interviews; handled marquee announcements; developed mini-surveys; and served as hosts, online moderators, technicians, etc., during the event. PGTV staff handled the technical components, studio production, video features; coordinating with I.T. on computer setup and network access; providing code to host sites; and producing and placing TV/radio PSAs. PGTV and I.T. staff had several challenges during this process, primarily related to firewall issues in the County’s network. Comments were accepted beginning at 8 a.m. the day of the e-town hall, which went LIVE from 6:30-8:00 p.m. out of the PGTV studios in the County Administration building. The “online moderator” monitored the submissions for compliance to a disclaimer (no profanity, etc.) and posted omments to the host sites.

Evaluation:  Every objective/goal was met or exceeded. The actual event went very smoothly with ZERO technical glitches. 1) The video streaming software (Ustream) and the online chat software (Cover It Live) are both free and easy for the host to set up and for the participants to access. Event costs were 66.5% lower than that of a traditional town hall. Short video features, replacing the onsite informational displays about county services, ran for one hour preceding the LIVE event. Brochures were available online for downloading and at-home printing. 2) Unlike some webinar programs, Cover It Live offers unrestricted access to anyone interested in engaging in the online chat. No pre-registration or sign-in was required, offering a sense of security and even anonymity. Those who submitted questions were asked to provide a name and city, just as they would if they spoke at a traditional town hall. 3) Polk County libraries provided internet access at four branches and even set up group meeting/viewing rooms at two of those, and they have partnered on other County webinars. 4) Citizen participation, from 431 unique IP addresses (meaning at LEAST that many people, maybe more, tuned in) exceeded our goal by 331%. The 63 comments submitted was a 530% increase over the average number (10) received at onsite town halls, and the 19 addressed by Commissioners during the event exceeded the normal answer rate by 90% as well. 5) Feedback to mini-polls was positive (polls can be found in the webinar transcript). Internal feedback was 100% positive, with County leaders indicating this is now the preferred public service/outreach delivery method, but that they will continue to hold at least one traditional town hall to ensure continued face-to-face two-way communication with the community. 6) Because the partnering media wanted to drive traffic to their own site, they became stakeholders in the event, and we achieved great coverage at no cost: six print stories, two TV/radio news stories, numerous radio DJ announcements, online banners/buttons/stories on 10 media websites for three days. And the media partners have served as host sites for subsequent webinars! 7) The e-town hall was recorded and replayed on PGTV 12 times since the LIVE event and has been posted on the county website with 113 on-demand viewings. The chat portion of the meeting remained on the host sites for five days after the LIVE event, and has generated 169 replays. 8) All host sites displayed the same content during the LIVE interaction, which was controlled by the County’s “online moderator.” 9) PGTV and I.T. are more closely aligned in taking advantage of this technology, following up the e-town hall with more than 35 webinars to date on various topics. BONUS: Polk’s image was enhanced elsewhere, as evidenced by the Pinellas County Government Communications Office request for information on how we set it up and made it work so well. Just a few months ago, Pinellas County held its own e-town hall, using our process as a template for theirs!

E-Town Hall    Traditional Onsite Town Hall
Total Cost:  $2,010    Total Cost:  $6,000+
Staff time =  48% of overall costs/fewer staff  required    Staff time = 80% of overall cost
Paid Advertising:  $1042 (52% of overall cost)    Paid Advertising:  $1200
Value of free media promotion = $4,000     Average value of free media promotion:  $500