Local officials in California are increasingly facing tough challenges and are asking residents to weigh in through a variety of ways. These discussions are typically about land use, budgeting, sustainability, transportation, police and fire protection and many other local and regional issues.
However, even with the best of intentions to encourage broad participation, local officials often find that only a relatively small number of community members actually take part in public conversations and forums. Not involving a cross-section of residents limits the effectiveness of these public engagement efforts and negatively impacts the breadth and quality of ideas contributed. A lack of diverse participation can also reduce community support for the decisions reached by the governing body.
Benefits of Increased Public Engagement
Increasing public engagement in your community offers many benefits. Engaging the public early in the decision-making process can help agencies avoid costly pitfalls and mistakes. Involving residents and others in the process can generate more support for the final decisions reached by local decision-makers. Constituents who have helped shape a proposed policy, project or program typically have a better understanding of the issues at hand and the reasoning behind the final decision. Participation helps generate ownership. Effective communication about the public’s involvement in a local decision can broaden community support.
Most California communities have diverse populations, and many are experiencing rapid demographic changes. Community composition varies by age, gender, ethnicity and income level. Providing a variety of engagement opportunities, such as incorporating technology into standard public engagement channels and communicating regularly with your community can increase the reach of an agency’s engagement efforts.
Tips to Increase Community Engagement
Develop Relationships: Less engaged communities are often critical of the public engagement process. Developing personal relationships with the community can lead to a more inclusive process and community buy-in.
Build Community Capacity to Participate: Community members have varying degrees of familiarity with local government processes and functions. Providing educational materials and/or a process overview at the beginning of the public engagement process will allow more meaningful participation from the broad community.
Fit Your Process to the Participants: Once you determine the purpose of a public engagement process, think about the range of participants you hope to involve before selecting your approach or process(es) for that involvement. This will help create opportunities for participation that will be more appropriate and welcoming for participants.
Get Help: Identify and consult community-based and intermediary organizations, including neighborhood and grassroots leadership groups, local clergy, faith-based organizations, community and ethnic media, and others that can provide two-way communication between local officials and community residents on specific issues and polices.
Communicate Effectively and Respectfully: Stay current with the communities’ changing demographics and develop culturally and linguistically appropriate communications materials and strategies. Recognize the importance of communicating with residents in their first language to ensure their maximum understanding of issues. As appropriate, promote public engagement through ethnic media and other intermediary organizations that already serve and work with the communities you wish to reach. Plan ahead for interpretation and translation services if possible. Transportation assistance and childcare can often be helpful.
Be Flexible: Hold public meetings or other public engagement processes in community settings that are known and accessible to the communities you wish to reach. Explore what engagement tools and processes will best meet the needs and conditions of specific populations.
Have Specific Goals: Take the time to create targeted goals for harder to reach communities. In general, encourage attention and learning about inclusive engagement throughout your agency, and include public information officers in these discussions. Individual departments can develop their own outreach plans to reach specific less-engaged communities or populations.
Stay in Touch: As appropriate, keep current lists of organizations and groups concerned about given issues and keep them informed of opportunities to participate.
Say Thank You and Follow-Up: Express appreciation for those who do become involved. Let participants know how their input was considered and impacted decisions.
Keep Learning: Follow up after specific engagement efforts to determine what worked and what could be improved.
Build it in: Explore the integration of diverse community voices as a part of the overall strategy to inform and support the goals and programs of local government.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Well designed and implemented public engagement processes can help local agencies better understand the views and values of residents, improve decision-making, create a more informed and supportive community and lead to greater public trust and confidence in local government.[/pullquote]
While a growing number of California communities and local governments are incorporating innovative public engagement techniques into their decision-making processes, many still struggle to reach a broad cross-section of residents. The Institute for Local Government’s Public Engagement Program offers resources to help local officials and their communities implement effective and inclusive public engagement activities. Well designed and implemented public engagement processes can help local agencies better understand the views and values of residents, improve decision-making, create a more informed and supportive community and lead to greater public trust and confidence in local government. For more information and additional resources visit www.ca-ilg.org/engagement.