Amy Haelsen wants to make local government easier to understand. That’s one of her goals as director of communications and community engagement for Needham, a new town position she begins on July 3.
For the past three years Haelsen has served as the town’s economic development manager. She says she’s been impressed by the extraordinary level of civic engagement she has seen from residents and businesses and wants to build on that in the new role, which is an expansion of the town’s former public information position. Haelsen outlined her plans in a conversation with the Needham Observer.
JH: What is your vision for this new position the town created?
AH: I think for a community the size of Needham to have a dedicated communications person is absolutely necessary. It’s not just communicating out to the residents and business owners and community members. But it’s also soliciting input and feedback and finding a way to further engage them in the government. I feel it’s important to go out into the community to meet people where they’re at. I’ll be doing a lot of visits to local community organizations, to faith-based organizations, to civic groups and organizations to introduce myself and to just learn more about what they’re doing and find ways to communicate with them.
JH: What will you do with the feedback you receive?
AH: I think it would be sharing the feedback that I have solicited with town leadership so that they better understand the impact of certain projects or initiatives. While I will be reporting to the town manager, I will be involved in just about every aspect of any study or initiative or project that is happening in the town. So for example, the Climate Action Plan that is underway for the town, we just launched a survey a couple weeks ago. We’re still undergoing a transportation study looking at the existing local options within Needham and outlying communities and seeing what it covers and where the deficits are. And so I put together a list of stakeholders and said, ‘Who do we want to talk to?’ Thinking about creative ways to reach folks is going to continue to be an area we will focus on.
JH: Part of your role is speaking for the town. Do you expect residents to come directly to you? Are you the go-to person for any information people want or need if they have questions? Or do you expect people to find that on the town website?
AH: I will be the media spokesperson. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I would be the go-to person if they had a question about their water and sewer bill. You know I often hear, ‘When I go to the website and I search something it sometimes turns up a variety of options and I don’t find what I’m looking for.’ So we’ll continue to improve that, providing information through social media, through the town’s newsletter, and other vehicles to educate people on where they can go to find information.
JH: What is your view about transparency in sharing information? Some things don’t get shared, sometimes people feel they don’t know what’s happening. What is your approach to dealing with that when issues arise?
AH: Transparency is absolutely the key word. Transparency is critical when it comes to communication with the community. So being responsive and being transparent are going to be absolutely critical as the town continues to move forward with new projects, new initiatives. There’s always going to be a portion of the population that says, ‘I didn’t know that was going on.’ I am challenged by trying to figure out how we can dramatically reduce the number of people that say that. My goal would be for every resident and business in the town of Needham to say, ‘I knew about that. I knew that was going on and I knew where to find information.’ And so I would welcome the feedback from any resident or business in town that thinks that if we’ve fallen short in an area as far as communicating, I’d like to know that, and I want to work to see how we can improve that.
JH: Are there other particular items or projects you hope to do in the next year?
AH: One of the top priorities on my list is to meet with every single department manager in town and every board and committee starting with staff and department managers. And talking to them and asking, ‘What do you wish the community knew about what you do?’ So shedding light on a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that people don’t understand. I want to help make local government sort of easier to understand. I want to help the community better understand what goes into local government and how their tax dollars are spent.
Amy Haelsen welcomes input at email@example.com.