Photo of London Borough of Enfield
The London Borough of Enfield

Effective, ethical public engagement can help build strong relationships between local governments and their communities. Founded on trust, the strength of these relationships can help communities endure unprecedented, challenging times.

High levels of trust stem from ethical public engagement that is transparent, collaborative, and equitable. While ethical public engagement is foundational for public engagement in all areas, we have especially seen it at the forefront of engagement in the last three years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we look back, we see cities and counties that had strong pre-pandemic relationships with the community being successful in their public engagement processes during the pandemic. Their focus on transparent, collaborative, and equitable engagement pre-pandemic provided a foundation for an unprecedented time in which local governments were at the frontlines of sharing important information.

Building Trust with the Community

Having the trust of the public is crucial to not only local government success, but also to help build stronger communities. Trust is the backbone of the relationship between the community and their government, and without it the best-intentioned programs are at a high risk of failure. Local governments can build this trust through effective, ethical public engagement that keeps local government accountable and transparent, while fostering a collaborative relationship that can empower residents to improve their community.

Central to public trust is an ethical, accountable, and transparent local government. Ethical governance requires robust engagement practices that go beyond informing residents to also inviting them to join in the decision-making process. This type of public engagement also clearly communicates how much the community’s feedback can affect the process or project.

Elements of Ethical Public Engagement

Ethics goes beyond what is legally required as a public servant. It is about doing what’s right and engaging in behaviors that would make the world a better place. A shared internal understanding of ethical public engagement is a good place for teams to start. By thinking in terms of values, local government officials can engage residents where they are and focus on common ethical values that guide the public engagement process.

Transparency in local government is foundational to ethical public engagement. Residents of the community have a key role to play in the process and are crucial to the success of any initiative. Transparency goes beyond the legal requirements of state transparency laws. When done right, a local agency should make a commitment to public engagement and a concerted effort to share information with the public about local agency operations and decision-making processes.

By promoting access to information, local government agencies can empower their residents and better engage and foster private sector partnerships and relationships. Increased levels of transparency have been shown to improve trust between local government and civil society. As an effect, accountability improves and local government agencies experience increased responsiveness.

Involving all stakeholders in the engagement process regardless of historical or economic backgrounds is a crucial component to ensure equitable engagement across the community. The United Nations Human Settlement Program and Transparency International has produced a practical toolkit to help local governments to enhance and implement transparency in their engagement practices.

Community buy-in is a crucial component of any successful policy initiative at the local level. Often, without previous relationships and a high degree of trust between residents and local government staff, even the most well-thought-out plan can fail. By incorporating these ethical and transparent engagement practices, cities and local government agencies can have meaningful relationships that are better positioned to tackle both simple and complex issues within their communities.

Ethical Engagement During a Global Pandemic

There are many examples of local governments that have been practicing ethical, meaningful public engagement, and as a result, had robust authentic relationships with the community pre-pandemic. These relationships were instrumental in helping those communities trust their local governments and overall be more resilient during the past few years. Because these cities and counties had invested time and resources in ethical and transparent public engagement prior to the pandemic, they were able to “cash in” all of that goodwill during an unprecedented time. Furthermore, they continued to practice ethical public engagement during the pandemic, despite the challenges we all were facing.

For Edina, Minnesota, a landing page provided easy access to key information for residents navigating the then-unfamiliar landscape of the pandemic. The website served as a tool on the public engagement spectrum to inform and empower residents. The city portal was simple to use for all ages and provided the latest updates on the pandemic. The engagement didn’t stop there as the city still sought to empower residents and inspire them with activities and ideas that residents could implement to enjoy their time and stay safe.

Similarly, Arvada, Colorado, sought to empower its residents through digital public engagement tools designed to not only increase transparency and inform residents about the ongoing pandemic, but also came complete with a social feature for residents to share ideas and create socially distanced group activities to preserve community.Using a variety of public engagement tools together can be a powerful way to build authentic relationships with residents and create better policy outcomes for the community.

In the United Kingdom, the London Borough of Enfield took a unique spatial approach to public engagement. The government created an interactive map that residents could use to identify places in the borough where they felt social distancing measures needed review. This direct consultation empowers residents, and makes them feel that their voice is being heard at a crucial time. As a result, this helps the local government build invaluable trust when it is most needed.

Even in times of crisis, such as a natural disaster or pandemic, there is an opportunity and ethical responsibility for local governments to communicate how they will proceed and to what extent residents can influence that decision. A number of cities across the globe demonstrated innovative and intuitive approaches to engaging their residents during the first global pandemic in 100 years. The lessons learned will successfully guide local governments in the future.

One of the greatest lessons learned is strength through trust. Our communities are only as strong as the bonds holding them together. Local governments that make the effort to collaborate with their residents, and build meaningful relationships through transparent and ethical public engagement processes are successful in building stronger communities. The backbone of this community strength is the trust between residents and their local government. Ethical public engagement is key to building that trust.


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ALEXANDER DESANTIS is a graduate assistant with the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University.

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