Local Government
Public Engagement: How is Your Agency Doing?

Public Engagement: How is Your Agency Doing?

By Rod Gould, Senior Fellow, Local Government Solutions, Davenport Institute, Pepperdine University.

As a local government practitioner, by now you’ve heard a fair amount about the need for better public engagement in government decision-making. In fact, you likely have your own success stories about times your agency made an additional effort to involve community members in decisions that affect them. And you have also likely been scalded when your agency failed to properly engage residents. It probably wasn’t pretty.

No doubt, you have a few ideas of your own about what is appreciated and works with stakeholders and what simply wastes everyone’s time. As your agency takes proactive steps to strengthen resident and business involvement, do you knowhow you measure up compared to other agencies?

The Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership has been focused on finding and disseminating better ways to engage a wary public for ten years. Their staff and volunteers have been doing research, training, offering grants, consulting, and championing those local governments that are leading the way in this growing field of study and practice.

We live in an exciting era of innovation and experimentation, but there is no secret formula for public engagement. Some new policies and approaches work in some situations, but backfire in others. It is trial by error and by fire in some cases. But, the overall trajectory is positive, and there are certain characteristics that engaged agencies share.

To give you a quick indication of how your agency is doing in this endeavor, the Davenport Institute has devised an evaluation platform and recognition program entitled simply “How Are We Doing?” It lists twenty practices that are indicative of a public agency that takes public engagement seriously.

Take a few minutes to explore the evaluation platform and ask yourself if your agency is using the practices and techniques listed and if some might be worth incorporating into local operating policies and procedures. And if you feel that your organization is already undertaking many of the recommended actions, consider applying for recognition from Davenport Institute. The application process is easy and the award could be a point of pride for your elected leaders, staff and community if your agency is so recognized. There are three levels of awards: Silver, Gold and Platinum. It’s also free!

From bolstering local representative democracy, improving governmental decision-making, repairing damaged public relations, increasing trust and civility in local government, enhancing public support of important civic decisions, or just making your work more pleasant and satisfying, there are many reasons to give your public engagement strategies and techniques some serious scrutiny.

What Platinum Looks Like

On July 18, 2016 the Davenport Institute recognized the City of San Rafael with its highest award (Platinum) for public engagement. The Mission City, as San Rafael is known, in Marin County north of San Francisco, has a long tradition of community involvement in city governance. A fine cadre of citizen volunteers comprises the commissions, taskforces, and community non-profits; works civic events; and volunteers for special projects. They are skilled, knowledgeable, and willing and can be counted upon to give their views of various policy decisions.

The problem is these volunteers are a fairly small cross section of the community. Without widespread community involvement, it is fairly easy to rally several hundred people to derail a decision. We all can think of examples of this playing out, swamping otherwise good policy-making and leaving everyone raw from the experience.

So, how do you get more busy people involved in a time of increasing public distrust of government and other institutions? How do you get folks to work with and not against their local governments? Distrust paralyzes many cities, and good people don’t want to work or volunteer for paralyzed cities.

As is often the case in civic reform, it takes a champion to get things rolling. In this case, a Councilmember (now Vice-Mayor) by the name of Kate Colin convinced the Mayor and City Council in 2013 to convene a two year sub-committee that she dubbed “Growing Resident Engagement and Transparency” (GREAT). It spearheaded a variety of community surveys, working groups, and listening sessions, along with a thorough analysis of the results. It culminated in the unanimous approval by the City Council in 2015 of a Community Engagement Action Plan.

The Plan hinges on five key strategies for better civic involvement:

  1. Demystify Local Government: Clarify City processes and how to encourage effective participation in civic affairs. Better communicate the type of engagement sought on a given topic and how representative government effectively functions.
  2. Engage Earlier: Get the word out early to the community on projects and programs, including items on board and commission agendas, to increase participation prior to City Council meetings and decisions.
  3. Hable Espanol: Improve communication and solicitation of feedback from the Spanish-speaking community.
  4. Enhance Technological Tools: Utilize technology for improved communication, tracking, and online resources and engagement.
  5. Close the Feedback Loop: Communicate better about the engagement process and the feedback that was received. Let people know about decisions and any follow-up actions or next steps.

The City of San Rafael is actively implementing the Plan’s recommendations, including:

  • Assigning oversight of public engagement to a Senior Management Analyst in the City Manager’s Office to coordinate citywide efforts. She is supported by an employee committee of staff of the major operating departments.
  • Exposing staff to ongoing training in effective public engagement strategies through attendance at various conferences, webinars, and podcasts.
  • Using a variety of communications strategies such as newsletters, postings, e-notification and other web based communication, social media, video updates, online surveys, video blogs, and mobile apps, always striving to use “plain language.” San Rafael is currently developing a new website in an effort to be more user friendly and to ease resident communication with the City.
  • Increasing transparency by offering many topic (e.g. pensions and labor negotiations) or project specific (e.g. development proposals and construction projects) webpages. San Rafael also plans to soon display its financial data through OpenGov, holds workshops and open houses on salient topics of the day, and offers electronic updates to residents who register by topic of interest.
  • Holding regular meetings with neighborhood associations, the business community, schools and other community organizations.
  • Working to actively solicit community members from groups not normally well-represented to serve on the City’s myriad of boards, commissions, taskforces, ad hoc committees, working groups, and advisory bodies to increase diversity.
  • Sharing power by sometimes convening meetings where the city is just one of several institution and group partners at the table. Further, the city allows the community to set the agendas for many of the standing monthly meetings, such as a monthly neighborhood association meeting and a business issues meeting.
  • Taking special efforts to reach out to groups not usually in attendance in order to achieve the widest possible representation of the community in public engagement efforts. Impartial facilitators have been used and Spanish language translation has been provided as well as snacks, free parking, and highly interactive and welcoming workshops. A high priority of the Action Plan is to further develop outreach tools for working better with members of the Spanish-speaking community.
  • Developing a Guide to Public Meetings and conducting a Citizen Police Academy and Planning Academy as well as participating in the Chamber of Commerce’ Leadership Institute. San Rafael also makes it easy to meet face-to-face with City leaders at Library Open Houses, Meet the City Manager (at the Farmers’ Market), Meet the Mayor (at various locations), Coffee with the Chief, and pop-up workshops at existing community events.
  • Partnering with schools, the local college and youth organizations to involve students and young adults in community building.
  • Following up with participants in public engagement processes using topic based e-mail lists. The city also periodically evaluates the City’s progress toward the goals set forth in the Community Engagement Action Plan.

The City of San Rafael has used advanced techniques for involving its residents in a variety of thorny issues, including the development of a Homeless Action Plan, Quiet Zones for a new commuter train, business issues, labor negotiations, climate change activities, safety facilities, sidewalk maintenance, downtown parking, and way finding.

While it doesn’t always get it right, San Rafael reflects on its successes and failures and learns from both, thus upping its batting average. This builds credibility in the community that is in short supply in many cities, counties and special districts. San Rafael certainly understands that work in this area is never done and that the City can always strive for better engagement.

If you are interested in improved public engagement please visit the Davenport Institute website and check out the “How Are We Doing?” evaluation platform and awards program. There is much to gain and nothing to lose. The benefits for your agency could be substantial!

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