On all kinds of issues, people want more choices, more information and more of a say. Whether the topic is how schools should work or what should be in the local budget, people want their voices to be heard. And residents have a lot to contribute, not only with their input and ideas but with their volunteer time and willingness to work together to solve problems. In a variety of ways, people want to be engaged.
America has a long history of public engagement. For one thing, towns across America have been holding town and school meetings for hundreds of years. Citizens have engaged in ways that are less formal but equally signi cant: working with teachers to help their kids, volunteering on projects to improve their communities, and more recently, connecting online with neighbors in order to share ideas and address local problems.
But while Americans may feel that they want to engage, it is also clear that many of the conventional opportunities for engagement aren’t working so well. In fact, many people are highly frustrated with the kinds of engagement they have experienced. Residents sometimes feel like public officials or school administrators have made all the key decisions before the engagement even begins. Meanwhile, people who work in government or the schools are often frustrated that only a few people show up to public meetings—and the people who do show up are mainly there to complain. Even the parent-teacher conference, one of the most common examples of engagement in the education system, sometimes seems like a waste of time: parents and teachers alike often say that these meetings are too short and too unfocused to result in any real cooperation to help the student. Overall, participation in these traditional engagement opportunities has been declining for years.
In this changing environment, the public should take time to think through what kinds of engagement we want today. What kinds of meetings, events or online connections might be attractive to residents, and help make communities more informed, empowered and connected?
This guide is intended to help residents decide what kinds of engagement they want. It is also designed to help people plan for an overall system for engagement that features those opportunities—and is supported by local governments, school systems, businesses, faith communities, other organizations and by citizens themselves.