How Public Agenda Can Help Local Officials

How Public Agenda Can Help Local Officials

Governing communities is more complex than ever before. Local officials are working to address complicated, multifaceted questions such as:

  • How do you make tough decisions about zoning, budgets, taxes, equity and diversity, public safety and other divisive issues in reasonable, productive ways?
  • How do you balance the need for public involvement with professionally managed city government?
  • How do you transform public meetings that are tense, frustrating, and wasteful – and that make citizens less trusting of government?
  • How do you make transparency really work, so that people are aware of what they need to know, and better able to use the information?

When people have bad interactions with local governments, school systems, state or federal agencies, or other institutions, they become less trusting of the institution, less connected to the community, and less willing to support the community financially. Unfortunately, current public engagement processes – like what you find in many official public meetings – can damage and polarize communities and are likely not representative of the impacted population.

But efficient and effective public engagement can:

  • Create a civil atmosphere for dealing with tough issues
  • Circulate helpful information and counter misinformation
  • Break policy deadlocks
  • Amplify the voices of communities that are often underrepresented
  • Generate new ideas for improving public services and addressing community needs
  • Foster new leaders
  • Increase citizens’ understanding of local government, including public finances and public services
  • Facilitate collaboration between governments, school systems, businesses, non-profit organizations, foundations, universities, and other stakeholders
  • Make a quantifiable long-term impact on social indicators, from safety to poverty to health

How Public Agenda is different

Public Agenda provides insights and tools that help you productively address conflict, transform unworkable processes, and maximize the many benefits of public participation. We help you understand your engagement strengths and weaknesses, and develop strategies for long-term success. Our focus can be project-specific or systemic.

We respond to immediate engagement needs, by helping you:

  • Bring together a diverse critical mass of participants
  • Handle tensions and conflicts in constructive ways
  • Frame issues for productive public discussion
  • Run public meetings that are dynamic and constructive
  • Form relationships and networks that will make good engagement easier to sustain
  • Make engagement creative, accessible, and fun

We also support long-term engagement success, by helping you:

  • Assess how public engagement is working in your community, using both qualitative and quantitative data
  • Understand the legal requirements and limits relating to engagement, and develop new ordinances and policies that support constructive forms of engagement
  • Engage citizens and community groups in a meaningful discussion of what kinds of engagement opportunities they want, and how they can help support those activities
  • Build ongoing relationships with local partners and organizations in order to make engagement more appealing, cost-effective, powerful and sustainable
  • Decide how to use both online and face-to-face engagement as part of a coordinated, complementary approach
  • Develop a long-term plan to help you sustain engagement once our work is done. The plan will work for your context, reflect what citizens want, and build in support from the public, private, non-profit and philanthropic sectors.

Our network consists of partners who tap into the power of:

  • Tech-based engagement
  • Surveys and focus groups
  • Gaming technology
  • Engagement ordinances and bylaws
  • Engagement commissions and advisory boards
  • Participatory budgeting

Menu of Public Agenda technical assistance options

Assessment of the state of public engagement in your city – We understand that government decisions often call for unanticipated, one-off public engagement projects. At the same time, public engagement is more productive, efficient and meaningful when it occurs as part of a community-wide system rather than a series of occasional projects initiated by government. We can help you build and sustain such a system.

Public Agenda can employ a wide variety of assessment tools and strategies, including interviews, focus groups, polling, online scans, and mobile survey technology, to help evaluate the state of engagement locally. There are three main options:

  • An intensive, highly visible, public process, which has the potential to build shared ownership of future efforts to strengthen engagement.
  • A similar process, but applied within a single department or issue area.
  • A much simpler, faster engagement audit that relies on the Participation Index (Leighninger 2015) and draws mainly on data provided by the city.

The results of these assessments can be shared in public reports, such as Strengthening Public Engagement in Edmonton, or in private briefings.

Democratic innovation workshop – Public engagement is a fast-moving field, with new online tools and meeting formats emerging constantly, along with new thinking about how to apply these principles and practices in more sustained ways. When cross-sector teams of government officials and employees, school administrators, neighborhood leaders, funders, university faculty, and other leaders have a chance to learn and plan together, they can produce and sustain public engagement and sustain community engagement capacity that is more efficient, collaborative, and compelling for citizens. Public Agenda holds two-day workshops that help people understand how to minimize conflict, transform unworkable processes, and maximize the many benefits of engagement. These trainings feature practical tools from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (Nabatchi and Leighninger 2015).

Legal and policy framework overhaul – In most cities, the laws and policies on public engagement are not yielding the kind of public participation that elected officials want, or that the public finds useful. As a result, local officials and employees lack the leeway and incentives to try more innovative, productive ways of working with citizens. Using sample engagement protocols and job descriptions, assessment measures like the Participation Index, tools like the Model Ordinance on Public Participation (developed by a coalition that included the National League of Cities, Int’l City/County Management Association, and Int’l Municipal Lawyers Association), Public Agenda can help communities rethink their legal and policy framework for engagement. In most cases, this work would include interviews, scans of the legal and policy documents, and meetings with city staff and the city council.

Comprehensive engagement planning process – Incorporating the other technical assistance opportunities, a comprehensive, three-month planning process engages the public in figuring out how public engagement can be meaningful, productive, and sustainable. This kind of planning can help cities move past unworkable public meetings, take advantage of the new local online landscape for engagement, articulate the impacts they want out of the public engagement, devise a pattern of regularly occurring engagement opportunities that are both powerful and enjoyable. Building this kind of civic infrastructure is difficult without building broad support through an intensive process that includes assessment, workshops, planning meetings, and partnerships with the media; Public Agenda can assist in all of these areas.

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