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Improving Public Engagement in Local Government

by Public Agenda

Monday, May 20th, 2013



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While it's no secret that Americans tend to hold federal policymakers in disregard, they are much more likely to trust their local city or county officials. Local officials are close to home, and local government is often only so far as the next public hearing or city council meeting.

Local officials recognize this connection between their constituents’ trust and government’s proximity to the people. New research in California by Public Agenda suggests that, in communities across America’s most populous state, local officials are interested in engaging citizens in more thoughtful, robust and inclusive ways.

The research includes a survey, interviews and focus groups with local, elected and nonelected public officials throughout California, as well as with leaders of community-based and civic organizations. What these leaders and officials have to say offers important considerations for public engagement in communities around the country.

Nearly 8 in ten California public officials say they're interested in learning about public engagement practices that have worked elsewhere, and 85 percent report that their views toward public engagement have changed since their careers began. Many say they have come to understand and value public engagement more over time.

Yet both local officials and civic leaders see hurdles to improving their efforts to engage residents in public decisions. Sometimes officials and civic leaders-- potential partners in engagement-- disagree about the root of the problems they face.

Regardless, local officials and civic leaders share concern for a disconnect between the public and local decision makers, and desire greater public participation and stronger collaboration. The research suggests some avenues for improvement.

Current Engagement Models Are Lacking

Though the perspectives of local officials and civic leaders differ, neither group is too positive about the current state of affairs. Neither local officials nor civic leaders are enthusiastic about the most common instances of public engagement -- traditional public hearings and public comment at Council and Commission meetings.

Local officials and civic leaders both say these formats fail to lead to thoughtful discussions or can turn into gripe sessions. They also worry that such meetings exclude large segments of the public, particularly those who are already often disenfranchised—low-income populations, ethnic minorities, immigrants and young people. At the same time, both groups also worry that the public is too busy to get more involved and uninformed about the issues facing their communities.

Regardless of who or what is to blame, both local officials and civic leaders express interest in implementing better public engagement processes. While they do have a few hesitations, they feel that more thoughtful, inclusive processes that foster dialogue can:


Increasing Collaboration to Improve Public Engagement

In the two reports, "Testing the Waters," which provides perspectives from local officials, and "Beyond Business as Usual," which offers civic leader points of view, we suggest a number of ways to improve public engagement in local decision making.

One key theme is increased collaboration. If public officials and civic leaders can form partnerships, taking into account each other’s concerns and perspectives with clarity, they can potentially deliver robust and meaningful public engagement to their communities.

Positive collaboration is already happening in some instances. Civic leaders have had productive experiences working with public officials, and 61 percent say that collaboration has been effective in building community trust. Officials worry they might lack the capacity to implement more robust engagement processes, and they are interested in greater public involvement, which civic leaders can deliver.

You can read about other innovative and exciting suggestions for improving public engagement, including providing training to staff to increase public engagement skills, evaluating existing public engagement strategies, publicizing public engagement initiatives that work, and providing space and funding for experimentation.

We also invite you to share your thoughts about the research and your own ideas and experiences when it comes to public engagement. You can do so in the comments below, or join the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #demopart.



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current engagement models

Submitted by: on Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Your research showing deficits in public engagement in public meetings is important as the Legislature considers amending the California Environmental Quality Act. The proposed amendments prevent the public from invoking CEQA at the local planning stages, exactly where developers and other monied and powerful interests are able to influence decision-making at a fraction of the cost of a lawsuit brought in the public interest. Watch how the public loses control of precisely what CEQA sought to protect, once these amendments take hold. There is no upside for corporate interests to permit the candidates they funded to engage in collaboration with the public.