Changing Attitudes and Community Engagement

Local prosperity is like two sides of a coin. On one side, you have what the public sector does and the other you have what the private sector does. You can’t build a prosperous community without both. Like sides of a coin they are bound together. Public engagement is the glue that holds the two sides together. Proper engagement, whether for budgeting, long range planning or community development will transform the way both cities and their stakeholders work together for mutual benefit.

Done correctly, local leaders can build processes that harness the energy and initiative of households and businesses to build the tax base that will sustain the services needed by the private sector. The private sector also needs to reimagine its role and assume its place through a renewed civics.

Even with an economic recovery, many communities around the country face resource limits but expectations for services remain high. Local leaders like city managers, mayors and council members can take the lead in working with their communities to build an environment that will support both private and public pursuit of prosperity. Some local leaders are already pursuing a number of technical reforms, but these will not deliver the same long-standing results as community engagement. These include trying to do a better job with service delivery through more effective operations, adding on complex management systems and planning process and transparency in the form of open data.

We have talked before about community engagement here and here. In the remainder of this post we will discuss existing attitudes and how they should change to use community engagement to rebuild civics as a collective practice.

Currently our communities are too often characterized by assumptions and behaviors like the following.

Residents can:

  • Act like consumers and not citizens
  • Think local government is solely responsible for quality of life and economic development
  • Assume their responsibilities end with paying taxes, and sometime voting

City staff can:

  • Unveil policies and programs without a prior public discussion of options, implementation and consequences
  • Think the public is an obstacle to getting their job done
  • Assume private interests are automatically trying to cheat the public or others

These need to change and the root of that change can be found in better engagement by all. Sustainable communities will be ones where public and private activities are coordinated, complementary and mutually supportive. This can only happen with a more robust public engagement process.

For all but the most charmed cities, we believe prosperity in the next few years will require a renewed civics. That means residents and business owners will shift from being passive consumers of municipal services to partners with local government in securing successful community outcomes. They can reclaim their role as citizens and participants in local political life. At the same time, local leaders can coordinate a process from which a new community vision can emerge. City staff play their part by becoming consultants on how residents and businesses can make the most of local services and participate in collective outcomes.

Some examples of the changed attitudes and behaviors include:

  • Management and staff appreciating that community members have skills and assets that can help at each stage of the policy and operational chain.
  • City staff cultivating a mindset that expects the best of local families and businesses (without abdicating their responsibility to protect life and property.) Staff can start looking for ways to help the private sector solve shared problems.
  • City staff learning to craft important policies in a more participatory process that starts with open data and analysis. This process will maintain public participation in evaluating options and creating the implementation plan.
  • Citizens accepting that social, economic and community outcomes depend on their actions too. Public provision can’t possibly achieve meaningful gains in areas like neighborhood vitality, safety, sanitation and health.

Unless your city has all the revenue it needs and your community goals are being perfectly achieved, you are probably not taking advantage of all your community’s potential unless you tap it through real community engagement.

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