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Lessons In Citizen Engagement

This post originally appeared on the Life, Well Run blog and was written by Miranda Lutzow, administrative services director, Waterford, California. Life, Well Run is an ICMA (International City/County Management Association) initiative to raise awareness of and appreciation for the value professional managers bring to build ethical, efficient, effective local government and great communities we’re proud to call home.

If You Build It. They Will Come… Won’t They?

As I was preparing for a recent job interview, I found myself reflecting on two of the most commonly asked interview questions: my greatest professional failure and my greatest success. Combing through the experiences I have collected over the years, I realized that both my greatest success and my greatest failure happen to involve public engagement. 

My Greatest Failure: A Field of Dreams

When I began my position as assistant city clerk in Merced, Calif., I didn’t have much experience with public engagement and thought that it was like the movie Field of Dreams – “If you build it, they will come.” 

One of my first big projects was an event in celebration of Sunshine Week with a panel of representatives from the city, county, and a local college professor to discuss transparency in government. I met with the local chapter of the League of Women Voters who were happy to assist. We set the date for 6:30 pm on a Wednesday and I went about planning and advertising the event. 

Finally, the big night arrived.  

The panelists were prepped and ready, a few League members were on hand, and I was ready for the crowd of people to start pouring into the council chambers. When 6:30 arrived and I looked out into the crowd of eight people I was shocked.  What did I do wrong?

Thinking about it later, I realized that public engagement is nothing like the movies. Everyone is busy living their lives. Would I have taken time out of my evening to attend that event? It was this experience that made me realize that if you have something the public should know, you need to bring it to them.

My Greatest Success: Hit ‘Em Up

Fast forward another year. A ballot measure was passed directing the city to create elections by district (instead of at-large) and I was to lead the process. The newly appointed district advisory committee was clear: they wanted as much public engagement as possible. Armed with the lessons learned from my failed Sunshine Week event, I knew that if we wanted citizen feedback on where to draw the district lines we were going to have to hit ‘em up where they are.

Together with the committee, we created a robust public outreach plan that met community members where they live: service clubs, churches, schools, farmers’ markets, shopping malls, community events, and going door-to-door.  We even hosted a kid's bouncy house at an existing community event and asked parents fill out a feedback form in order to “earn” bouncy house tickets for their children. 

Over a two-month period, I estimate we visited about 300 homes in person and, in total, reached about 40 percent of the residents with the campaign in the city of 81,000.  I was confident we got the feedback the committee needed to ensure a diversity of views on future city councils. 

In the end, I am grateful to have worked for a city manager who gave me the autonomy to create a less-than-successful event and had the confidence that I would learn and grow from that experience. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to fail, I probably would not have had the same level of success the second time around. 

AND, it makes for a great interview response!


Alan Braithwaite

Great stuff....and great interview question....we have found out very important information about Department Director level applicants by posing this question during the they see themselves, whether you think what they consider to be a major accomplishment is one, just to name a couple of things.....great post, Miranda.

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