More Community Engagement for Sustainable Planning

Introduction

Last week, we emphasized the importance of citizen involvement to build a fiscally sustainable community. This week, we focus on specifics to help local leaders and the public move away from reacting to day-to-day challenges and toward a longer-term discussion on priorities.

Stuck in the Present

Local leaders and the public will benefit from an ongoing two-way engagement. Currently, both sides tend to react to limited feedback. Local leaders mostly only hear complaints about specific service problems. Average citizens have a limited concept of municipal operations and tend to lump all public services under “government” no matter what level of government is responsible. For these reasons, current communication tends to support reactionary responses.

Elected local leaders get a general affirmation from success at the polls. Voter feedback is typically responding to high-level priorities promoted by the candidate. Municipal elections seldom depart from generic calls for fiscal responsibility, public safety or more economic development. It is difficult to communicate specifics while campaigning, so there is little detailed information on what exactly the voters are sanctioning the candidate to do. Typically council members and mayors begin exploring options once in office.

Professional city staff like City Managers, Department Directors have detailed knowledge on how to help elected leaders deliver on campaign promises. These staff, however are often overworked and struggle to maintain existing services. They spend much of their time “putting out fires” that are called out by public complaints. It is difficult for staff to have the time to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the public.

The public is also generally reacting to what they perceive as failures in a limited set of municipal services. Missed garbage pickup and slow street repairs are concrete experiences for citizens and can prompt a call or email to their council member or the city’s hotline. Unfortunately, the usual way citizens learn about the more arcane public policies is through a crisis. A good example in the media lately is the serious financial stress of public pensions such as the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund or the Illinois Teachers Pension Fund.

Even in circumstances where two-way conversation is possible, such as town hall meetings, the items under consideration are often only incremental changes in the budget. There are few instances where the public has the chance to reflect on long-term policies or discuss the overall vision for their communities.

Tools for Citizen Engagement

Building a community engagement process that shifts a city from reacting to proactive discussions about the future takes time. This is a cultural shift that will need to be implemented over the long-run. There needs to be education all around – for elected and professional leaders and the public. It is best if cities start with a specific issue or take advantage of the rare opportunities that come along with strategic plans or citywide comprehensive plans. Each community should thoughtfully explore how it wants to conduct the engagement process. Some helpful questions to ask include: Is this process for a one-time action like a city strategic plan or comprehensive plan or for ongoing feedback for a city service? Are citizen interests homogeneous or are there specific groups or neighborhoods that are more affected than others? What is the budget in terms of staff time and funding for conducting the engagement process?

With goals in hand, there are many tools for improving community engagement. One-way methods to communicate issues and options to the public include council briefings, reports on city websites (such as budget documents, performance measures or annual financial reports) and citizen surveys. Two-way methods include the notice and hearings process, town-hall meetings, focus groups and facilitated feedback sessions and social media.

Both one-way and two-way tools have a role to play. The important thing is to use the tool with the intention to shift the discussion to questions of long-term priorities and sustainability. This requires asking the public to consider the costs and benefits of city programs, services and investments. It also requires getting citizens to think explicitly about when those costs and benefits will happen. As examples, some choices have high up-front costs and offer benefits over the long-run. This includes investments in infrastructure paid out of current funds. On the other hand, using debt to fund infrastructure spreads costs among taxpayers today and in the future.

Everyday Language and Citizen Perceptions

Once cities select their communication tools, they can focus on the content. City budgets and operations are very technical. Successfully engaging the public means local leaders translating cityspeak into terms the public can understand. One approach is to recruit a volunteer community group to review presentations and reports to identify confusing terms and jargon.

The public also needs to understand the big-picture of city operations, not just the high-profile services they see every day. Police, fire, streets, parks and libraries are visible. The attorney’s office, fleet management and debt service are among the many mostly invisible city functions. Concepts like “overhead” are a useful term for summarizing support departments. Debt burden can be broken out by service area showing what past investments are being paid off. For example: 50 percent for streets, 25 percent for parks and 25 percent is for the new library.

Finally, local leaders can help citizens understand municipal services and finances in the overall context of local government. It is easy for tax payers to confuse what their money is funding. Simple summaries of total local property tax by school district, county and city government help citizens better appreciate exactly what they pay for municipal services. This can help citizens give good, specific feedback on exactly what is important to them.

Next Week

Next week, we will identify some specific metrics that local leaders can use to track and communicate the fiscal and economic health of their communities. For more information on how Axianomics can help your community start a community engagement process fill out our contact form.

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