Countless emails have been sent out from executives in the private industry: emails meant to comfort us during a time of stress and uncertainty that promise we will continue to move forward during and after COVID-19. The emails reassure us “we are all in this together,” that “we have systems in place to make the best of this situation,” and that “we will make it through this stronger than ever.”
By contrast, many public officials are perceived to be in a holding pattern, not moving forward, and not planning for the future. But the reality is, most civil servants do have the public’s best interest in mind and are looking to support the common good. It is hard for public officials, particularly during challenging times, to make decisions about funding for the future. But remember, these decisions are not made alone.
No obstacle, including COVID-19, provides a legitimate excuse for failing to engage citizens in the decision making that affects them. While right now may not seem like the appropriate time to reach out to the community to talk about future finances, as civil servants we should continuously look to constituents for feedback.
Granted, there are occasions when engaging the community is not the best course of action. If the issue at hand is of low concern, an emergency, a matter of rights, or there are not enough resources, then engaging the community for collaboration may not be appropriate. In contrast, a large majority of situations allow for great opportunities to engage the public in collaborative governance efforts. For example, many agencies continue to shy away from public engagement during COVID-19 and focus purely on supplying information (outreach) rather than asking for feedback. However, stay-at-home orders have created new opportunities for broad participation in electronic surveys and study groups as a larger demographic has focused on technology to stay connected.
An agency that is at the top of its “public engagement game” is continuously working with the community. Discussions start long before the need for a solution. Some problems are inherited and there is no choice but to begin public engagement late, but this should be the exception, not the rule.
As soon as your agency starts to discuss any project that affects a substantial portion of your community, your natural reaction should be to take the concern to the public. Of course, give yourselves a chance to evaluate the problem and consider practical solutions internally. Staff should be prepared to share factual information with the community about an issue long before the answer has been chosen, and sometimes even before the issues have been completely defined.
Keeping the community involved in topics that naturally, over time, require a higher level of funding, such as water rates or maintenance contracts, is the perfect example of proper public engagement. Together with regular interaction and continuous review of funding availability, the community will not only be aware of impending issues such as a lack of funding, but they may demand action before elected officials. Consistent public engagement activities should be the doorway to collaborative governance, which aids public officials in their goal of representing the community and supporting their values. Zoom has become a verb, and the right time to engage our citizens is now.