Zimmerman surveys aim to boost constituent engagement

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Two decades in the local and international business sector taught Shannon Zimmerman that people are more likely to engage if it's convenient.

The entrepreneur-turned-state representative from River Falls hopes to cull feedback from a wider range of constituents with electronic and online platforms— methods he says are essential to engaging audiences.

Zimmerman recently launched the first in a series of online surveys he said will help the state government "understand that the pulse and heartbeat" of the communities they serve.

"The more I can engage in manners like this, when people have issues, they're going to engage sooner," Zimmerman said. "It's less time for them to get angry or frustrated. It starts to pull them into the process, and once they get it, I hope they stay in."

The initial survey, now live on Zimmerman's website, covers a broad spectrum of issues: tax reforms, tuition affordability, gun ownership, broadband, abortion and public benefit programs.

In about nine months, he said, the exact same survey will reappear on his legislative website to track shifts in constituents' answers.

He plans to zero in on more specific topics for future surveys.

Among the topics he hopes to delve into further are education funding and the potential of a state gas tax.

Zimmerman said he will post the results for each round of surveys on his website.

"I am not selling or transferring the data," he said. "Right now this data goes to my office and my office only. We're collecting it, and it will become public data."

Zimmerman was elected in November as a Republican, but he said his surveys will help make everyone in his district feel heard, regardless of their vote in the last election.

"I don't want the next time people hear from me when and if I run again," he said. "I want them to hear from me the whole time I'm in office. I will continue to push the envelope and look for ways to interact real-time online. Time is precious and I want to take every second I can to hear from people."

For some legislators representing rural Wisconsin, limited internet access can hamper what would otherwise be a simplified mode of communication.

Democratic Sen. Kathleen Vineout's four-county district covers a four-district area with numerous gaps in broadband access.

"We're living in an interesting time as far as constituents and their representatives," she said. "Some people exclusively use digital services, and some people, because of their poor internet connections don't want to at all. I use a variety of methods because some people prefer one method over another, and I want to reach as many people as I can."

Rep. Rob Stafsholt, a New Richmond Republican who also released an online survey, agrees.

The survey was launched as an addition to a paper survey he typically mails out each spring.

The online version features more than a dozen questions covering issues from eminent domain to managing the state's wolf population.

Although he said it helps reach more people he represents, Stafsholt still sees value in mailing a paper copy to parts of his district.

"A certain portion of the makeup of this district is people who aren't on the internet on a daily or weekly basis or don't have access," he said. "One issue we've taken up is rural broadband. ... There's still a core group of constituents who want the hard copy and I'm totally fine with that."

A self-described "farm kid," Stafsholt is among a growing number of legislators exploring online routes and social media to connect with their constituents.

"I didn't have a whole lot of presence in social media, so it's all relatively new to me," he said. "I'm excited and impressed by how you can nail down demographics, get your input out to other people and vice versa."

Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, started using Twitter and Facebook while he campaigned for the 2014 assembly election.

He was skeptical at first, but found it to be a useful tool for personalizing his outreach and has hosted several virtual "town hall" events on Facebook.

"I think particularly the younger generation expects it, but I think more and more people appreciate it, especially if they know you're actually running it as opposed to a staffer," he said. "I think people like the ability to engage on a more personal level."

The increased access to public officials, however, means legislators have to chose their words carefully, even in a seemingly light-hearted message.

"People are careful about how information might be misinterpreted-- not only on Twitter and Facebook, but also on emails," Vienhout said. "A good example of that is the use of satire; it can be misinterpreted. Even a little smiley face could be misinterpreted."

Jarchow said those risks can sometimes drive legislators away from developing a social media presence.

"The easiest thing in politics is to not say anything," he said. "So there's a natural fear that if you ask the wrong thing or post the wrong picture, you could be criticized for it. In my opinion, the benefits outweigh the risks."

This opinion, he said, was exemplified by President Donald Trump during the last election.

"Even though he tweeted things that would often get negative press coverage, at the end of the day most people would say that was a huge part of the success on his campaign," Jarchow said.