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Boulder’s Energy Future: A Community Conversation

Let’s face it. Governments aren’t the best at reaching the communities they serve, especially when it comes to controversial and complex topics. For many cities, social media, outreach and creative engagement represent an uncharted and potentially time- and money-intensive frontier. Boulder, Colorado, wasn’t much different until an issue came along that was so significant it called for a fresh approach to community engagement.

The issue is energy.

In November 2011, the city asked voters if they wished to create a city-owned electric utility. This is a question with enormous ramifications. Decisions that are made will affect Boulder residents and businesses, both now and for generations to come. Of course, there is a financial element. Energy customers in Boulder pay well over $100 million each year to Xcel Energy, the investor-owned utility that has provided electricity to our residents and businesses for decades. This is big business, with implications for economic vitality and job creation.

But the impetus for Boulder’s revolutionary question to voters had nothing to do with a desire to own poles and wires or have a piece in the pie of a coal-intensive generation system. The motivation was a desire to change the nature of the energy supply itself. The Boulder community has long been committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and is united in the belief that this is one of the most important issues of our time. Boulder voters were the first in the country to approve a tax on their own energy use to address climate change. Supporters of municipalization say that a local utility will open the door to cleaner energy, more renewables and an important shift away from a century-old model of energy as a commodity to energy as a service. Others in the community share the underlying values and goals, but have expressed concerns about cost, reliability and the possibility that this effort will take away from other important work.

The city’s research in 2011 – and the resulting ballot items for November – centered on three questions:

Is the creation of a city-owned electric utility legally, technically and financially feasible?

Would such a utility help us meet our goals better?

And if so, would the community be willing to shoulder upfront costs to achieve an environmentally and economically healthy future?

These were heady questions that required the public to plow through thousands of pages of dry, complicated analysis. While there were many people in Boulder willing to roll up their sleeves and get started (we are kind of a geek town!), we knew that most would never even open the reports. Our job was to simplify and interpret this complex information so that anyone, from the energy educated to the novice, could learn more and provide feedback.

The typical pillars of a public process – news releases and articles, meetings and study sessions, input opportunities about ballot language possibilities – certainly had to be part of our communications and engagement plans. But in this case, reaching more than the usual crowd was particularly important. We embarked on an unprecedented effort that involved collaborating with outside-the-box strategists, talking with (and listening to) the public in places they were naturally gathering and using strong visual images and contemporary technology.

We’re excited to share what we learned during this process at the Alliance for Innovation’s upcoming Transforming Local Governments conference in April. In the meantime, we thought we’d offer a sneak peek at a few of our key lessons.

Establishing shared values and goals helps people wrap their heads around a complex topic

When 2011 started, city staff had a work plan full of fact-gathering and analysis, but we wanted to get a head start on educating and engaging all sectors of the community. So, in the early months, the team focused on discussions about the community’s core values and objectives surrounding its energy supply.

The conversations centered on the goals as opposed to on any one path for achieving them.

This had several positive consequences. First, it gave people a way to contribute that was not mired in technical detail; second, the existence of shared values united the community – a cohesion that proved to be very valuable later; and third, it helped us ease those who were not naturally inclined to get involved into conversations and decisions that would follow in later months.

One important lesson learned: Keep the time between the values roll-out and getting to the meat – or as we say in Boulder, the “protein” – of the research short. We were so effective in motivating people to want to be a part of the conversation that we inadvertently created frustration among those who craved factual data that had not yet been collected or vetted.

Meeting people where they are – both physically and in terms of their knowledge of an issue – makes an impact

If there is one reality we have probably all faced, it is this. No matter how good your material is or how important the decision is, it is very difficult to get busy people to break out of their routines, take time from their families and other obligations and come to a government meeting.

So, we went to them. We set up an educational and eye-catching display that drew people in, and we talked with them at the places they already were – grocery stores, rec centers, and ballfields. We used a combination of city staff and contractors to engage in two-way dialogue about the work that was being done, the importance of the decisions ahead and the possible ways the community might accomplish its goals. We didn’t pretend to have the answers. Instead, we laid out the questions and told people how they could get involved.

We also made a point of sharing materials with our city colleagues who were doing related and unrelated outreach at community events, festivals, and a popular Farmer’s Market to maximize our opportunities for reaching people.

Avoid the pitfalls of an undefined and amorphous audience

Define your audience and realize that different stakeholders have just that – different stakes. In Boulder, it became apparent that there were various schools of thought about the “best” approach, and that an education and outreach initiative geared at “the general public” wasn’t going to meet the needs of more specialized segments of the population, such as the business community. So we shifted gears, but perhaps, not soon enough.

Also, beware of the tendency to lump all members of a segment into one category. In the case of the Boulder business community, there are some who have become advocates for municipalization and others who are skeptical. These groups don’t have the same needs in terms of information and opportunities to influence the outcome.

Creative approaches can cost money but pay dividends in capturing a community’s imagination – and attention

We had a generous budget for this project. We admit that upfront, but we also had a responsibility to spend the money wisely and in ways that led to more informed decisions. We received very positive feedback on four creative collaborations, in particular: a visioning video that cost less than $4,000; multi-dimensional, interactive displays that we used to draw people into conversations outside of grocery stores and other locations (photo provided); a photo and quote-driven awareness campaign that drew recognizable, but non-government community members into the conversation; and a series of easy-to-understand community guides. These tactics are all scalable to meet a particular community’s needs based on budget and the magnitude of the project.

By now, you might be wondering: since November 2011 has come and gone, what did the community decide? There were two items on the ballot related to energy future. One gave council the authority to issue bonds to acquire Xcel’s system, if certain conditions, such as rate parity, could be achieved; the other provided a funding mechanism for legal and engineering work to help establish final costs associated with the possible creation of a new utility. (Insert spoiler alert here) Both of these passed, but by very narrow margins.

In 2012 and beyond, Boulder will be moving ahead on the legal and engineering fronts to determine all the costs associated with acquiring Xcel’s distribution system and starting to provide electric service as a city. Council needs these costs to make an informed decision about whether to issue bonds to support municipalization efforts. In the meantime, city staff and the community will be working together to better define our climate and local generation goals and strategies. Boulder is as committed as ever to engagement around this important issue, and our team is hard at work ensuring that the momentum gained in 2011 continues.

For more information, please visit our website at It is undergoing an overhaul based on where the city is in the process now, but many of the materials are still available under the “resources” tab.

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City of Boulder, CO