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Public Engagement: Putting In the Work to Reap the Rewards

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Public engagement is a challenging yet rewarding process. It is a foundational component of democracy and a key to successful local government decision making. Public engagement is the process by which members of the public become more informed and influence public decisions. Including input from a diverse, broad audience can benefit local governments in many ways and improve local agency decision making.

Agencies have a variety of options when it comes to interacting with their community. Workshops, public meetings, surveys and events can all be used to connect with the public and gather input. When the public is involved in the decision making process there is more community-buy in and support and a greater trust in the decision.

Government workers and officials alike know how hard it can be just to collect public sentiment in a constructive, systematic manner. Acting on such information in a way that honors the input, respects different viewpoints, and meets the legal obligations and constraints of our limited government can feel overwhelming.

Things are no simpler from the perspective of the public. Just think for a moment how most people interact with this thing called “government.”

“The activities of many different types of government are impacting our lives before we even step outside the house in the morning,” says Martin Gonzalez, executive director of the Institute for Local Government (ILG). “Being able to know who does what in our communities, in terms of what services are provided and so on, is complicated, and that impacts the ability of our residents and citizens to be able to engage government effectively.”

The challenge is compounded by long commutes, competing commitments and the 24/7 nature of life today, as well as California’s famously diverse communities.

“It’s harder to assume that you know what a community looks like or what it desires,” observes Ashley Trim, executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership. And with social media soapboxes like Facebook, “you have a greater expectation of being able to give your input to things.”

In this highly charged political climate, constructive public engagement is more important than ever. That’s why ILG and the Davenport Institute are doubling down on their efforts to help local governments listen to their communities and act on their concerns. Each organization posts useful resources on its website and offers a number of training opportunities.

Leadership, organization, respect

According to a 2015 survey of local officials by ILG, 69 percent of respondents “are concerned that local governments do not have sufficient staff, knowledge or financial resources for public engagement and that residents are not adequately informed.”

Where should local governments start to improve this?  “At its most basic, public engagement is trying to get people to talk to each other,” Trim says. But talk requires listening. It requires dialogue. For this reason, Trim cautions, public hearings and three-minute public comment periods at meetings are insufficient.

But moving beyond the typical three-minutes-at-a-mic requires a new set of leadership skills to keep engagement organized and respectful, and then to assess and follow up on public input.

“A genuine approach is needed to glean thoughts, beliefs and priorities from a very diverse representation of our communities,” Gonzalez notes. “That means a new skill set for elected officials and professional staff.”

The good news? It’s a skill set that can be learned.

‘How Are WE Doing?’

The first step, Gonzalez says, is to “know where you’re starting from.” For that, he recommends the Davenport Institute’s “How Are WE Doing?” public engagement evaluation platform. Its 20 brief statements guide local government officials in assessing their levels of success in these areas:

  • Culture of engagement
  • Outreach practices
  • Engagement practices
  • Community capacity and partnerships

The self-directed exercise concludes with review and evaluation statements. It’s illuminating just to complete the exercise; but by clicking the optional “Submit” button at the end, participants can also apply for recognition for the engagement they’re achieving now. Those that meet 17 or more of the 20 criteria qualify for Platinum-level recognition; those that meet at least 15 go for the Gold, and those meeting at least 12 criteria qualify for the Silver-level.

“We’re trying to give people a baseline understanding of what constitutes good public engagement, a common vocabulary to use within an organization, and some basics of what it looks like,” says Trim.

Think – Initiate – Engage – Review – Shift

Both Davenport and ILG also have a variety of training opportunities to help local governments enhance their outreach efforts, and they continually refine their approaches to reflect new research and techniques.

Sarah Rubin, ILG’s public engagement program director, has developed a new public engagement framework and training program, TIERS: Think – Initiate – Engage – Review – Shift. Each of those five “pillars” includes a three-step process. The two-day training is a hands-on experience, with each local “team” of two to five participants – ideally including both professional staff and elected officials – developing skills to engage their individual community.

“Our mantra is meeting folks where they’re at,” says Rubin. “Let us help you do that project in a deeper, more authentic way than you might otherwise. And then, while you’re doing that we’re going to expose you to some thinking and some methods for how you can start to embed your public engagement practices into your agency in a new and different way.”

High stakes

ILG and the Davenport Institute have their own programs to help local governments meet the challenge of fostering greater public engagement, but they often consult each other and collaborate.

“Teaming up on this and some of our other efforts is really an opportunity for both organizations to multiply our reach, and to further expand this field in the state of California,” Trim says.

Gonzalez adds, “The work that Davenport and ILG have done over the years has elevated public engagement to a thing worthy of the time and attention of the public officials and their key staff. We need to continue these efforts. The stakes are critically high; the issues that are confronting local governments in particular are really vexing. It can seem like all the easy problems have been solved – what’s left are challenges that really matter in terms of the quality of life that we’re going to have tomorrow and in the years to come.”

Humility, confidence and trust needed to make public engagement work

Rod Gould has a unique perspective on the work that both the Institute for Local Government and the Davenport Institute have devoted to public engagement. He’s on ILG’s board of directors, and he’s a senior fellow for local government solutions at Davenport.

Gould also has a long career in local government, having served as assistant city manager in one city and city manager in four cities around California before retiring from the post in Santa Monica in 2015. Along the way, he’s seen the value of good public engagement demonstrated again and again.

“People who work in government have been getting an earful in recent years,” notes Gould, speaking from experience. “Every new poll shows that Americans’ faith in government at all levels, and in institutions of all types, is at a historic low.”

The remedy?

“Honest and authentic civic engagement,” says Gould, “Where government doesn’t come in to tell the public what to do. It doesn’t come in to seek to convince or persuade a suspicious public of the wisdom of its policies and actions. Instead, it engages in a listening effort to learn and to collaborate with the public to solve society’s problems.”

“When that is done well, everyone wins. The residents who engage directly with their government feel heard and honored. When they have had a hand in making the policies they are more likely to support those policies and the government itself.”

“And government staff feel they have a better sense of where the community is coming from. They can put names to faces, maybe there’s been a higher level of understanding, and they know that if they execute the policy that has been adopted by the elected officials based on this civic engagement, that they will receive much more support for it.”

To put it simply, says Gould, “The authentic voice of the community was sought and heard.”

Sounds good, but “the actual nuts and bolts are much harder,” he readily admits. That’s where training comes in.

Gould says staff and elected officials comprise two vital yet distinct audiences. Each brings a set of assets to the conversation – but both also must be prepared to recognize that government derives its legitimacy not just from the informed consent of the governed, but from their active involvement in government.

“Public employees generally have attained their position through higher education and years of service,” Gould notes. “They take pride in what they do; when presented with a problem, they want to go and find the right solution. And oftentimes they think they know the solution.”

As for elected officials, “They’ve been selected by their neighbors to represent the community, and as a result they feel that they are anointed to use their judgment to solve the problems that face the community, and so they want to go about doing that.”

Here’s where the hard part comes in.

“Both the elected and the appointed officials need to step back and say, despite our mandate through election or despite our years of service and training and expertise, we are going to instead go to the people that we are to serve, and listen to them first, and be very careful to hear what they have to say. That takes a certain amount of humility, that takes a certain amount of confidence and trust – and that takes some training. And that’s what the Institute for Local Government and Davenport are trying to do.”

About the Institute for Local Government

The Institute for Local Government (ILG) is the nonprofit research and education affiliate of the League of CA Cities, the California Special Districts Association and the California State Association of Counties. ILG promotes good government at the local level with practical, impartial and easy-to-use resources for California communities with five program areas: public engagement, sustainable communities, ethics, local government basics and collaborations and partnerships. ILG offers a wealth of training opportunities and resources on public engagement, ranging from the basics, to engaging immigrants, clergy and congregations and beyond, and includes dozens of case studies drawn from local governments’ experiences throughout California. These resources are available on their website: www.ca-ilg.org/engagement.

About the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership

The Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership is a part of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. The Davenport Institute aims to help solve California’s public problems by promoting citizen participation in governance. Davenport works with city and county governments, special districts, regional governance associations, and non-profit organizations to both promote and support legitimate civic involvement with a menu of training, consultation and grant-making services. These resources are available on their website: http://publicpolicy.pepperdine.edu/davenport-institute/.

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