September is Civic Awareness Month, and this recognition reminds us of the importance of cultivating an informed, involved citizenry that can work in partnership with its local government.
There are several reasons, according to a “Big Ideas Conference” sponsored by the Alliance for Innovation in October 2009, why local governments should strive to engage citizens, including
- Upholding our beliefs in democratic principles, i.e., it’s the “right” thing to do
- Providing a vehicle for individual community members to become “citizens” in the highest sense of the word
- Developing more creative solutions to public problems that are responsive to community values and preferences
- Avoiding policy failure.
These ideas, summarized in an article published in ICMA’s 2010 Municipal Year Book (MYB), offer opportunities for additional research, and several questions included in ICMA’s State of the Profession 2009 survey (also discussed in the MYB article) provide a context for thoughtful consideration of the role of citizen engagement in local government decision making.
The National Civic League observes on its website that “Some communities allow the future to happen to them. Successful communities decide the future is something they can create.” Strategic planning offers a key opportunity for engaging citizens in local government activities.
Despite the pivotal role informed citizens can play in this process, however, the ICMA State of the Profession 2009 survey results revealed that only 62 percent of responding jurisdictions reported that they have a strategic or long-range plan. The study also indicated that smaller local governments were less likely to have a strategic plan in place than were larger jurisdictions. Cities and counties that operate under the council-manager or council-administrator forms report having the highest percentage of strategic plans, at 67 and 58 percent respectively. Lee’s Summit, Missouri, for example, indicated through the survey that they were working with the National Civic League to implement citizen-based strategic planning. Finally, because strategic plan implementation can have major budget implications, 77 percent of reporting local governments indicated that they link their strategic plan to the local budget process.
Opportunities for Citizen Engagement
Ninety-four percent of survey respondents reported that their local governments offered a variety of other opportunities for citizen engagement, including “council meetings, town meetings, ad hoc task forces/planning teams, citizen review board, neighborhood meetings, participation on boards or commissions, neighborhood action committees/team, and Internet discussion forums….” A considerable number also offer “citizen academies or other programs to educate community members about their local government.” Ninety-four percent of jurisdictions indicated that they also provide the resources (including meeting space; budgets; consultants; access to city staff; and access to data, information, and reports) necessary to encourage citizen participants to solve problems and implement decisions.
The survey results also revealed a missed opportunity for many local governments in involving citizens in the process of making tough decisions around managing budget shortfalls. Only 29 percent of respondents overall reported that they involved citizens in resource allocation decisions, compared with 59 percent in New England, for example, where the town meeting and representative town meeting structures require such involvement.
Use of Citizen Surveys
According to the Municipal Year Book article, “citizen surveys give voice to a broader, more representative group of citizens than do public meetings.” Such surveys can provide valuable information to elected officials and local government staff on the problems the community faces, or on how to better communicate with residents. These tools also provide an opportunity for individuals who, because of work or family commitments or personal reticence, may find it difficult to participate in the type of meetings typically open to the public.
Roughly 51 percent of jurisdictions responding to the ICMA survey indicated that they conduct citizen surveys, and those operating under the council-manager or council-administrator forms reported the highest percentage among all cities and counties.
Communities that take the time to educate their residents and then offer them the opportunity to participate in activities such as local strategic planning and financial decision making are undoubtedly more likely to experience greater success in these areas. For more information, read the ICMA Municipal Year Book article, “Citizen Engagement: An Evolving Process.” Then think about the ways in which your city, town, or county can cultivate a more aware, active, and civically engaged citizenry.