by Inbal Naveh Safir, director of strategy & communications, ZenCity

Proactive governance requires an invested interest and effort by a local government organization to engage with residents and embrace their feedback. This means taking feedback into account for policies, priorities, initiatives, and other needs that may arise for the community. An open line of communication - and responsiveness to it - in turn, creates public trust and improves the services that a community provides.

That being said, effective proactive governance is a delicate balancing act. How do civic leaders know if they are doing it right, especially when communication has mostly shifted to the digital format? How can a community implement new initiatives or improve upon the status quo by being more proactive? Based on Zencity’s work with dozens of communities across the country, we’ve assembled some of our best practices to help cities and counties govern more proactively.

1. Get on Board with Resident Engagement and Be Ready to Listen

Resident engagement won’t be successful or productive if a community doesn’t show its support for it. It goes beyond websites and online complaint forms or community hotlines. Adults in all age groups are more digitally savvy than ever before, and the younger generation, in particular, are increasingly interested in improving the quality of life in their cities. This is a fantastic resource for local government, but a community can only benefit from resident engagement if it’s prepared to accept and embrace it by revamping the engagement tools it uses.  This includes getting on board with social media and informal channels. More importantly, though, a city or county must show that it listened to what its citizens said, otherwise any future engagements will potentially fail.

2. Find a Way to Really Process and Understand the Feedback, and then Be Prepared to Respond

Once a community is on board and is engaging with its residents through multiple channels, whether it’s through online forums or traditional town halls, what is it supposed to do with all that data and information? How can it manage the volume of feedback it receives, and how quickly does it respond?

Well, this is where planning comes in. City Hall needs to manage and integrate all that feedback as part of its weekly tasks as well as its overarching strategic planning. Just as dealing with an annual sports event or deciding on what streets need to be repaved are part of the package of managing a city, regularly understanding resident feedback also needs to be a standard priority. This might mean investing time and resources, or it might involve a cross-organizational shift that integrates and processes feedback. Regardless, without the steps of (1) seeking feedback and (2) creating space for that feedback in daily municipal work, it’s impossible to govern proactively. Ultimately, both the city and its residents can only gain from an open line of communication that gives cities a better way to understand what their residents need, as well from residents feeling like their voices are being heard.

3. Have a Plan B in Place, but also Be Flexible

While planning is important, sometimes Murphy’s Law comes into play and all plans get tossed out the window. In proactive governance, sometimes the best Plan B isn’t going to be written and planned for, and a community will have to be quick on its feet and deal with things as they happen. Unlike in a crisis-management scenario where a city or county has no choice but to deal with what’s happening, proactive governance is like an in-between step where there may not be an emergency situation, but time and resources can be saved by acting rather than just reacting. Proactive governance helps a community stop a potentially negative situation from ballooning by nipping it in the bud while it’s still a small issue, since a city/county is already listening to its residents’ concerns. This might mean that certain parts of a plan might have to change along the way, but it’s better for a modified plan to proceed than to have to scrap an expensive project altogether because City Hall did not want to listen to the warning signs that it was receiving. So this means (1) engage with and listen to residents; (2) have a mechanism in place to actually understand what they’re saying - and make this process part-and-parcel of how the city operates; and (3) be flexible and ready to change things around a bit now that you understand the feedback.

4. Let Residents Know that Their Voices Were Heard

Finally, communicate the community's vast efforts back to your residents. Once a city or county has engaged with residents, listened to them, and changed a policy recommendation or a project based on their feedback, it shouldn’t stop there. Rather, a community should inform residents exactly what it did, otherwise, it won’t gain the full benefit of the proactive governance process. Even with open data portals and a community's best attempts at transparency, our experience has shown that most residents won’t know that an issue has been addressed. This is why it’s vital that a community actively communicates when it responds to resident feedback and shouts its efforts from every rooftop. In turn, residents will have a positive outlook when it comes to their local government due to both the transparency and accountability demonstrated.

Everyone Benefits in the End

By taking a proactive approach to governance, a community can provide a better response to their residents’ needs. While it requires time, sometimes money, and often flexibility, the positives outweigh the negatives since residents are more satisfied with their local leadership and feel like they have made an impact on the quality of life within their city. Additionally, responding in real-time can be cost-saving down the line, preventing small issues from spiraling out of control and the city or county from exerting staff effort and spending resources on low-priority items or the wrong initiatives. Finally, the icing on the cake is that proactive governance builds trust between both parties and helps improve government services across the board. The result is a win-win situation both for City Hall and residents alike.

You can check out Zencity’s complete Best Practices Guide for Proactive Governance here, or reach out to Zencity to learn more about how their technology can help you automatically aggregate and anayze resident feedback for better governance practices here.

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