A good local government is one that works in concert with its citizens. That may be common sense, but it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to pull off. Even a small municipality will have to listen and speak to a population hundreds of times larger than the staff available to do so. In towns with chronically disengaged communities, the mission of connecting people to the government that’s meant to take care of them can feel hopeless.
Fortunately, there are ways to build a spirit of participation in your community. There’s no list of ten easy steps, and public participation will never be a silver bullet that solves every issue, but it’s still worth putting in the work to get the people of your city involved in the rulemaking process. In no particular order, here are some of the ways you can start.
Understand the Barriers to Participation
One of the essential steps in getting people to engage with government is trying to understand what’s preventing them from doing so? Barriers to participation can be external, like a busy schedule or physical distance from the location of a town hall, or they can be internal, like a lack of trust in government or an apathy about the rules it creates and enforces.
External barriers can be challenging to remove. If the underserved groups in your city can’t find time to participate in government because many of their members work long hours that drain their time and energy, that poverty is an issue that can’t be immediately addressed. What you can do is make participation as easy as possible.
There should be a method to submit public engagement and answer surveys online, and the process involved in doing so should be simple, the website easy to navigate. You can commission a custom website, or use preexisting public comment software. If people live too far from a town hall location to easily attend, or can’t drive, free bus service on the day it occurs might help increase attendance from underrepresented demographics.
Internal barriers to participation might seem like they would be easier to deal with, but it usually takes more than a glitzy PR campaign to do so. The best way to increase trust in government is to show people that local government is on their side. This means taking action to reach out to the communities that trust government the least, listening to their concerns, and working with them to help alleviate them.
The process won’t be quick, but as participation in government increases, so does the ability of the government to serve its community. As long as representatives of local government put their best foot forward, they can build a self reinforcing cycle of good participation and more effective policy.
Show People How Government Affects their Lives
Cold calls and surveys sent by post can get results, but many people see them as nuisances. The best thing for improving participation in rulemaking and other government processes is to help people understand their personal stake in the issues at hand. Some contingents of your community will already be very engaged in local policy, but usually, they will be a small minority. It’s important to connect with the people who will be most affected by a given decision.
Think about the geographical area that will be affected most extremely. Will this decision or project disproportionately affect the lives of one demographic over another? Who’s day to day will be most different if a proposed change goes through?
Those people are the ones whose input is most important, and the method you used to identify them is the same one you can use to help them understand their importance. Get the word out to these people about how their lives will be changed. If they live in a specific neighborhood, erect temporary signs. If you have the resources, it might be worth sending somebody in person to inform people and collect feedback. In person interactions can lay the groundwork for increased remote engagement later on. Consider highlighting the results of previous changes implemented by local government, and how they changed the city or parts of it. Most importantly, make it clear that every citizen can change their community by communicating with the government.
Develop a Blueprint for Public Engagement
Issues that could benefit from digital public engagement appear often in the life of a city. Creating a general plan or set of guidelines for public engagement will help you respond quickly to needs as they arise, and will help make government action and pathways for public engagement more consistent. When local government is able to quickly and consistently respond to issues while involving stakeholders, it shows the people of a city that their leadership is both effective and reliable, and will make them more likely to participate in government in the future.
Every city government will need a different blueprint for public engagement. What kinds of tools are available to you? Do you have access to a means of efficiently gathering and managing public feedback online, or are you stuck with only in person and mailed in comments? How many people can you devote to a public outreach project at any given time?
Once you have a good idea of what you’re working with, make sure you’re addressing the main needs of a successful public outreach campaign. When composing your blueprint, leave enough wiggle room to adapt your strategy to each specific situation you might encounter.
No matter the situation, you should be able to answer these questions:
- How can you identify stakeholders for an issue? Where might you have blind spots?
- How can you quickly inform stakeholders of the situation?
- How can you collect and process responses from stakeholders so that every voice is heard?
Each situation will demand a different level of public engagement. Too much engagement on a simple issue can complicate it and generate more work for everyone involved. Too little engagement on a complex issue can leave key stakeholders feeling betrayed. Take stock of your resources and figure out the maximum you could devote to an important issue is, then work backward from there.
For extremely significant and nuanced issues, public engagement efforts need to reach a wide range of people, and the discourse that it generates needs to be deep. In these situations, government representatives might act as facilitators for groups of highly invested stakeholders. For less controversial issues, it’s still important to hear from a wide range of people, but using public comment software can to do so can save labor. It’s important to figure out when those different levels of public engagement need to be deployed.
One of the privileges of living in a well governed city is being able to ignore its government much of the time, but in order to build a participatory culture, it’s essential that people remember that they can turn to local lawmakers when they want to help change their town. Once the people of your city are on the road to better engagement with government, the last step is to keep showing them that the process can work!