The mayor of Athens, Greece, Giorgos Kaminis and the mayor of San Jose, California, Sam Liccardo speak at CityLab in a session called "City Innovation: What’s New in 89 Cities Across the Globe." 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Richland Source’s Rising from Rust team traveled to Detroit, Michigan from Oct. 28 to 30 for CityLab Detroit, a summit  organized by the Aspen Institute, The Atlantic, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The story below relates to at least one of the sessions at that convention.

DETROIT -- It’s been said over and over again: A good leader is a good listener.

But in 2018, what’s the best way to listen? How can residents effectively voice their concerns to their local leadership, their city government, their mayors? What actually works for mayors?  

If these questions weren’t asked directly, they were asked indirectly multiple times in multiple sessions at CityLab Detroit in late October. Leaders wanted to know from fellow leaders what was making a difference in their communities, especially in terms of listening.

Is technology the key?

Mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan has streamlined communication with residents through an app called “Improve Detroit.”

Residents are encouraged to submit questions and complaints through the app or the city’s website, which Duggan believes is more effective than phone calls.

“Before, they (residents) would pick up the phone, they would try to figure out what department they were trying to call, they would inevitably get voicemail, they very often wouldn’t get a phone call back, and when they did, they were told they called the wrong department,” Duggan said.

Through the app, residents can submit requests and see them fixed. They can ask for potholes to be filled, street lights to be replaced and for water to be turned off in vacant houses. Further, they can report illegal dump sites and trees down. Plus, they can also pay their water bill, connect to the city’s social media accounts and register to receive notices on “important information and events.”

And the city responds.

“We have standards on how quickly these things should be done,” Duggan said.

Street lights should be replaced and potholes filled within 72 hours. Water should be turned off in a vacant building in 24 hours at most.

The host of the session called “Digital Solutions for a Dockless World: How Detroit is Using Data to Keep Motor City Moving,” called Duggan’s effort a “cultural change.”

And Duggan thinks it's one that’s worthwhile making.

Navigating the Digital Divide

As technology becomes a platform for city leaders to interact with their residents, recognizing and addressing the digital divide becomes more important.

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“We think we’re engaging the community… but maybe we’re hearing from the same folks on ONE side of the digital divide,” said mayor of San Jose, California, Sam Liccardo in a session called “City Innovation: What’s New in 89 Cities Across the Globe, with OECD Champion Mayors.”

Another panelist in that same session later elaborated on one of his efforts to connect face to face with residents.

The mayor of Athens, Greece, Giorgos Kaminis would speak with groups of about 100 residents per week. He’d go to one neighborhood at a time to listen to their concerns.

“You can go once a week to a neighborhood and speak with 100 people,” Kaminis said. “In a month, its 400 people, and  in a year, its 5,000 people almost.”

The population of Athen’s center is about 600,000, according to the mayor, which makes him believe such an effort could be even more effective in a smaller city.

“This kind of consultation in the neighborhood can be done in smaller cities in a much easier way, and it’s a good idea, you know, to bring down tensions in the center,” Kaminis said.

He later went on to say, “Can you imagine in one year, speaking with 5,000 people, explaining what you’re doing, listening to their problems -- every day problems -- and trying to solve them, well when it comes to the big projects… disagreements and things like that, you can find an audience that is much more receptive to what you say and are proposing.”

So whether online or in person, cities agree: Communication matters when leading. Residents should feel like they are heard. 

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Staff Reporter

Proud Pennsylvania native. Joined the staff in April 2017. Formerly Tracy Geibel.