Meaningful Community Engagement Is Like Exercise: Difficult, Emotional and Gratifying

July 6, 2017

Last week while at a public meeting in a small town in northwestern Vermont, I witnessed a community sing-along break out. Parents, teachers, school board members, local elected officials and other community groups had gathered to discuss a set of legislative reforms affecting their school, forcing it to merge with a larger district nearby. The spontaneity of this moment showed how, even when faced with an emotional process of coordinating a big change in the community, people will come together to share their perspectives and seek understanding of others’ views in civil ways.

This is not meant to paint an effective engagement process as a giant kumbaya moment. It is often a long and difficult process. But meaningful engagement can produce smarter policies, public trust, encourage volunteerism and build stronger networks in communities. It instills bonds that are hard to do in conventional public meetings that only give participants 2 minutes at a microphone. Public engagement is difficult and often emotional, and that’s why it’s so important to do it deliberately because of the feelings involved and what’s at stake.

Public engagement is difficult and often emotional, and that’s why it’s so important to do it deliberately because of the feelings involved and what’s at stake.

This is true for both citizens and public officials. My colleague Matt Leighninger worked for many years with the Democratic Governance Panel of the National League of Cities, which gave him a sense of how local officials experience public engagement. “I thought we would mainly be developing tools and conducting research,” Matt says. “But at first, it was more like group therapy: these mayors and city council members had come into office thinking that they’d been elected to make decisions on behalf of residents, but those same residents were yelling at them as soon as the first controversial decision came along. Officials often wonder why residents treat them so badly, and why they don’t have the trust of the community. Learning how to engage the public much more intensively is not just a matter of tactics and techniques—it is an emotional transition for officials, to a way of working they didn’t expect but which, in the long run, can be even more gratifying.”

Creating a space for productive interaction is part of developing connections that result in workable solutions. Especially in Vermont, we were able to get farther with participants. Typically, people at our workshops spend their time understanding the weaknesses in their systems of engagement, but many of them don’t get to the point where they can develop solutions. This time, they left with better answers and some concrete next steps.

At a workshop we held in Edmonton, Alberta, Bev Zubot of the Federation of Community Leagues said, “What I’m really learning is a perspective from the city employees and some of their challenges, and really getting an understanding that they want to have meaningful engagement with citizens. But they too are facing a lot of roadblocks, and it’s going to take a lot of effort to change the culture in this city, but it’s going to come in time because I think there is a real will there.”

Matt talks about the importance of public engagement in the video below, which was taken during the Edmonton workshop. Edmonton City Council is undergoing a special initiative to review and improve the City’s public engagement with citizens.

What do sustainable systems of public engagement look like to you?

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Nicole Cabral

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