Oakland makes another step in the direction of digital citizen engagement

150 150 Cheryl Getuiza

(Photo Credit: Oakland Answers)

Navigating through a city government’s website could be a bit difficult, as one would have to be familiar with who and in which department would best be able to handle your concern or question. Most often times community members aren’t familiar enough with the “inside baseball” of government. 

The city of Oakland made it easier for citizens to get simple answers to the most frequently asked questions with a new online tool called Oakland Answers.

“Right now, if you go to the city’s website you have to sort through the way the city’s website is organized, so you would need to know certain things. Oakland Answers is an intuitive way that people are thinking about the questions they have for the city and they’ll be able to find easy answers,” said Nicole Neditch, the City’s Online engagement manager.

City leaders understand it needs an easier way for citizens to do searches.

“The city’s website was created several years ago and it’s fairly static and so this is a new kind of navigation of looking up answers to frequently asked questions.”

Folks can ask a question or enter keywords about the topic they want and they’ll get concise, easy to understand responses.

Content for Oakland Answers was developed during the National Day of Civic Hacking on June 1. The city co-hosted ReWrite Oakland where more than 70 programmers, designers, city officials, writers and residents generated more than 220 questions and answered more than 80 percent of them.

“We looked at the city’s analytics, we looked at public record requests and started to generate questions that people had about city business.”

The initial database of answers serves as a starting point—over time the database will grow with more questions and answers.

“Oakland Answers is a great example of city staff and the community collaborating to develop a tool that will benefit everyone,” said Mayor Jean Quan. “This new approach to a city website is designed to make it easier for people to find city information and services quickly.”

“We’ve gotten an overwhelmingly positive response to the site. We’re actually working with the Oakland Assistance Center, which is sort of the phone line that you call if you have a question and you’re not sure where to go and they’re going to help you add questions, going forward. We have about 85 registered writers in our system that can go in there to write and answer questions—members of the community as well as staff—and we’re just going to keep building that network,” said Neditch.

“Oakland Answers is just the latest in a series of recent efforts by the City to engage with citizens and provide easier, better access to information people need,” said the Mayor.

Here’s more:

  •          In January, the city launched the Open Data website. California Forward showcased their efforts to open up their data.
  •          Last fall, EngageOakland.com launched where citizens can offer their thoughts on how to sustain the city.
  •          Oakland P.D. now uses Twitter and Nixle for crime alerts as they are “working hard to open up communications” with the community.

As you can see, it’s been a priority for city leaders to bring government closer to the people.

“Over the last several years, we’ve had a decrease in staff, increase in service requests and we’ve lost over 20% of our staff over the last few years. We’ve had about an increase of about 25% of non-emergency service requests. People are more empowered to request services from the city and yet we actually have less staff to respond to those. We’re in a position where we need to come up with new ways, where we interact and engage citizens and the internet and technology in general provides opportunities to do that,” said Neditch.

“We have a dedicated administration committed to openness and transparency, along with how to deliver better services to citizens. It’s definitely the theme moving around in this City and because of technology we are able to move on it.”


Cheryl Getuiza

All stories by: Cheryl Getuiza