How Will You Use the Stimulus?

Making use of federal dollars means more than spending the money wisely. It means telling the public clearly about the value received for the work done.

Your Highway Tax Dollars at Work.”

I remember seeing those words in bold letters on signs years ago as my family passed through road construction zones on summer vacation trips. I guess the message was supposed to ease the suffering that went with crawling down one dusty open lane on a hot day in a fully packed car that had no air conditioning.

Did it work? To some degree, I suppose. Even as a kid I could see through that sign a purpose to the construction: It’s a nuisance today, but it will make the road better.

I think those signs, or the idea behind them, should come back strong now that municipalities are receiving federal economic stimulus funds for infrastructure projects. The Obama administration has promised transparency — a full and highly visible accounting of what is spent, and where, and how.

The taxpayers deserve that much, just in the name of accountability. But there’s another reason to account for the money: To demonstrate clearly that public investment has value. Without that, the stimulus looks like just another big spending program.

The federal government will have to account for the benefits of the stimulus in a big-picture view. The job of explaining the benefits of local projects to local residents falls to local officials. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity.

Why it’s necessary

Infrastructure spending is essential — we all know it. But it’s also (except in the case of roads and bridges) to some extent invisible. When work gets done underground, it gets covered up and forgotten. Unless someone decides to talk it up.

So here’s what to do. When you know what stimulus dollars your community will receive, and for what purpose, build a communications plan. Work with your public affairs office if you have one. If you don’t, work with your team to put a plan together. Involve a local community relations consultant if need be.

A communications program doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. It just has to be proactive, consistent and visible. An effective plan will look different depending on the size and nature of your community, but here (not necessarily in order of importance or chronology) are some elements to consider.

1. Press conference. Once you know which projects or programs the stimulus will fund, contact your local media — newspaper, radio, TV. Lay out the projects, item by item. What does each involve? What will be the benefits? How much will each cost? How many jobs will each support? What’s the schedule for completion? What’s the total economic benefit to the community? Spell it all out as completely as you can.

2. Community meeting. Invite local civic leaders and the general public to an open house. Go over the same basic ground as in the press conference. Welcome questions from the audience. Show pictures of the facilities affected. Explain why the work is necessary. Tell how the community will be better off as a result.

3. Web site. Create a special “button” for the economic stimulus program on your Web site. Provide a concise description of the projects, the costs, the benefits. Update the information often as work proceeds.

4. Regular status reports. Send out news releases at meaningful stages of the projects stating where the work stands. Include such information in regular communication vehicles like newsletters or mayor’s columns in the paper.

5. Get out and speak. Send an effective spokesperson around to local civic group meetings. Book that person on local radio talk programs. You don’t need someone on the speaking circuit every day. Just look for worthwhile openings.

6. Photo opportunities. Invite local newspaper photographers to take pictures at visually interesting points of your projects. If something especially exciting is happening, invite TV reporters, as well.

7. Special ceremonies. Consider groundbreakings when projects begin, ribbon-cuttings or other events when projects are complete.

Tell the story

In other words, let the public know clearly: Here was the need, here is what we did about it, here is the end result — the reason the community is now better off.

The main reason to do this is not to make the economic stimulus or the current administration look good. It’s not even simply to show taxpayers that they got something of value for the stimulus dollars — although that’s important.

The real reason is to show that your agency or department knows how to make good use of dollars invested in infrastructure, and to show that such investments pay long-term dividends. That will come in handy when the time comes to raise funds locally to support your own initiatives.

Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Ted J. Rulseh, 800/257-7222;


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