The program, First Impressions, was created to help residents see their community as a newcomer or traveler might see it – to get an accurate “first impression” from an outsider’s perspective.
The reason behind the program is universal – when you live in a community things become familiar and comfortable. Something that might have irritated you initially as a newcomer to the community now blends into the background. Over time it becomes very difficult to be objective. It also becomes more challenging to be completely honest with neighbors when dealing with difficult issues (i.e. the appearance of buildings, customer service, and maintenance of public facilities). In other words, local community residents often no longer see things that could be changed and sometimes also don’t have the willpower to bring up the issue of change in a public setting. It is just easier to maintain the status quo. But it becomes much harder to ignore the issue when someone from another community brings it up and the situation is discussed at a community meeting.
Originally developed by Dr. Andy Lewis with University of Wisconsin Extension, the program has been used for over ten years. During that time the program success has been recognized by others and the program has been expanded into several states and countries. Faculties from the University of Nebraska sought and were granted permission by Dr. Lewis to adapt the material for Nebraska in 2006.
So how does this program work?
Volunteers from two somewhat similar communities (size, location, county seat, etc.) agree to do unannounced exchange visits and then report on their findings. Participants become “secret shoppers” for the day to discover what they could about their sister city. They follow procedures and reporting guidelines that were provided in a fully developed guide that participants also use as a checklist. The guide strives to would insure that the evaluations and reports were thorough and somewhat uniform and to help the volunteers, minimizing training needs. The original authors designed the guide so that anyone could become a shopper if they knew what they were shopping for.
After the exchange and the report were written, the process does not stop. Town hall meetings or forums are encouraged. This is where good honest discussion happens and hopefully some action items are identified. Improved community appearance and service to travelers and newcomers is the goal.
Interested in getting this program started in your community?