During my 31-year career as a local government manager, I probably underestimated the power and value of a comprehensive community engagement strategy. After all, sending a monthly newsletter, inviting people to our public meetings and providing an opportunity for comment, and providing information through our newsletter was engagement, right?
It was difficult to get the public to attend meetings and when they did they seemed to be frustrated and angry. But, we were doing the best we could to inform them and ask for input and participation, right?
As I look back on a career’s worth of less-than-engaged citizens, difficult public hearings, and frustration on all sides, I wish I knew then what I know now. Having the privilege of working with some of the best engagement professionals in the business through the Center for Management Strategies has a way of expanding your view as to what constitutes “real” public engagement.
I recently asked several of our engagement practice leaders what five steps a local government manager should take to create a good, solid engagement program for their community. Their “best” ideas offer a different approach than some of us may be pursuing in our engagement efforts:
- Find where people are and go to them—Not everyone has the time or inclination to go to a 7 pm meeting at city hall to learn about a project or express their opinions. While public hearings will always be a legal requirement for most of us, look for alternative times and locations to reach out to the public and engage them in a dialogue. You would be surprised what you can learn by spending a few hours talking with people at the local coffee shop, youth soccer game or community pool. Additionally, there are many groups that already exist in your community including homeowners associations, civic and service organizations and faith-based organizations that would welcome a visit from a representative of their local government.
- Create “places” for small group conversations—People generally feel more comfortable in having genuine conversations when they can get to know one another through small group conversations. These opportunities encourage participants to find common ground as to why they are participating in the dialogue and to express thoughts and ideas that can lead to positive dialogue and idea generation. These opportunities do not often just happen and certainly aren’t likely to happen in a traditional public hearing or public meeting environment. They require managers to “design” meetings and processes to encourage and support these small group conversations.
- Recruit stakeholder groups beyond the “usual suspects” through personal invitations—Whether we call them the “usual suspects” or “frequent flyers,” we all have the “regulars” that we can always count on to attend our public meetings. While we appreciate the views of these folks, they may or may not be representative of the entire community. Expand the number of viewpoints you are hearing by extending personal invitations to key stakeholder groups to participate in processes, meetings, etc. Just remember that these invitations don’t come in the form of a “legal advertisement” or “public hearing notice” and are more personal in nature.
- Create a comfortable environment for participants and don’t forget the importance of hospitality—Never underestimate the power of having a “greeter” or the importance of having food to welcome people to a meeting or event. Something as simple as a tray of cookies and a cup of coffee can help set the tone for a positive conversation. Additionally, the setup of the meeting room can do much to level the playing field for participants and to create a more comfortable environment for participants.
- Utilize both online and face-to-face engagement strategies—An effective engagement strategy will utilize both online tools as well as expanded opportunities to have face- to-face dialogue with stakeholders. And, remember that you should be looking at opportunities that encourage a “dialogue” or engagement of the community and should not just be sources through which you “push” out information to people. The Open Town Hall tool by Peak Democracy is one such online tool that encourages civil dialogue between people who are physically located in your community. Reaching out to the community through activities that invite, welcome and meet them in their own neighborhoods can serve to enhance an engagement strategy by local governments.
In this day when people are skeptical about their government, it is the local government manager’s job to reach out and find ways to welcome their community members into the work of government. So, think beyond “three minutes at the microphone” and begin developing an engagement strategy that would make you want to get involved. The time is now.
For more information on the programs and services available through the Center for Management Strategies and its practice leaders in civic engagement, visit our CMS website .
Additionally, a full day workshop will be held on effective engagement strategies in Boston, Massachusetts on July 17 as a part of the Frontiers of democracy Conference. For more information on this workshop, visit www.icma.org/workshopce