community engagement

Our nation was built upon the right to express our opinions, and with social media and other communications platforms, many of usand our community membersare doing just that! 

In this environment, we need to remind ourselves that government alone cannot build a great community or solve any real problem by itself.  Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that we should “never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem.  All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated by, and seen through and by the passion of individuals.” 

With this reminder by Mead, and in the increasingly challenging environment we find ourselves, local government managers are realizing that managing anger, discontent, and hostility is yet one more of our ever-increasing job responsibilities.   As such, we need to ask ourselves a big question. . . 

How do we manage the differing opinions and behaviors of our community members and channel their intense civic passion into effective decision making that can actually benefit our communities?

In a recent ICMA Coaching Program webinar, this topic was discussed by three local government professionals who are ICMA members—Valerie Lemmie of the Kettering Foundation, Bryna Hefner of Arlington County, Virginia, and Seth Sumner of Athens, Tennessee—all with extensive experience in the work of civic engagement and public participation.  The panelists shared some great advice for local government professionals on this very important topic:  

  1. Great communities institutionalize strong, inclusive civic engagement practices that value the ideas and talents of all members of the community and ensure that decisions made will meet the needs of the community and stick for the long haul.  This work needs to be a priority of everyone in the organization, including the elected officials, and must be made a part of everyone’s day-to-day work responsibilities.  When this work is institutionalized in our organizations, it becomes the way of doing business for the manager and staff, as well as an expectation and responsibility for the community.
  2. We need to try to understand the source of anger, discontent, and hostility (as well as understand what makes our communities happy and content).  This requires us to try to put ourselves in the shoes of our community members, understand the origins and context of the issue, and make deliberate efforts to reach out to communicate, even with those least likely to respond to the “typical” local government invitation.  
  3. We need to design deliberate and unique community engagement efforts.  Effective engagement is not a one-size fits all solution to every community situation, problem, or project.  An engagement effort to address a specific neighborhood problem like speeding will differ greatly from an engagement effort designed to engage the full community on a wicked problem like opioid addiction, systemic racism, or police reform.  

The International Association of Public Participation’s Spectrum for Public Participation is a great tool to assist in recognizing that there are varying types of engagement and we should carefully select the type of engagement we seek, depending on the situation at hand. For example, there are some situations where it is perfectly acceptable to have as your engagement goal simply “informing” the public. There are other situations where you might want to involve or consult the public in identifying alternatives to consider while the local government retains the responsibility for deciding the ultimate solution. There are other situations in which you might want to give the public more authority in determining the ultimate answer, in which case you might collaborate with the public in reaching a decision or empower them with responsibility for making the final decision on their own.

In addition to identifying the type of engagement you might want to pursue, the Spectrum also helps us to identify the goal of their engagement effort and then encourage alignment of that goal with the promise we are willing to make to the public regarding its participation and contribution to the effort.

Once you have identified the type of engagement you want to pursue, the goal of that engagement and the promise you are willing to make to the public, there are lots of engagement tools, approaches, and strategies from which to choose. Engagement tools range from in-person strategies (open houses, design charettes, roundtables/deliberative dialogues, and pop-ups in the community, etc.) to online approaches (virtual town halls, Facebook Live, online polls/surveys, etc.). Most successful engagement strategies employ both types of tools in their efforts to reach as many people as possible.

  1. Diverse public participation does not just happen. . .it must be sought after and worked for consistently and deliberatively.  “If you build it, they will come,” does not necessarily apply to our efforts in civic engagement.  Beyond the design, goal, and promise, we must make deliberate efforts to reach out to our communities beyond the usual suspects. These efforts sometimes require working through our schools, faith-based community, senior centers, nonprofits, sports leagues, unofficial community leaders, and others to touch people whose number one priority is not necessarily the work of local government.  Partnerships with these groups, as well as the recognition that they can help break through the lack of interest or mistrust of government by some community members, can certainly help your efforts. Much like our commitment to public participation, these outreach efforts should be institutionalized in our organizations so that everyone understands the importance of outreach to everyone.

    To assist in this work, Core Values as examples to encourage the alignment of the organization in its commitment to engagement and assists in making better decisions that reflect the interests and concerns of potentially affected people/entities and commits us to outreaching to even the most difficult constituencies. When we are all working together to increase our civic outreach and willing to go the extra mile to reach beyond the usual suspects, we can be convinced that we are truly working effectively to reach our community.
  1. Lastly, we need to ensure that our organizations are listening.   It sounds very simple, but we are often so consumed by workloads and processes that we forget that basic human skill of listening that is so very important in understanding the feelings of others.  When many of our mothers said, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason,” she was not only right, but quite profound!  The simple acts of listening and showing empathy for others goes a long way in bridging any gap that may exist between people and between our organizations and our communities, with the result of increased engagement by those parties.

Public engagement is some of the most important work that an effective public manager can undertake.

It requires much more than public hearings, newsletters, surveys, websites, and social media postings.  It requires that we understand the environment in which we are working and create opportunities to listen to, and learn from, a variety of people, opinions, and ideas and utilize those insights to shape the work of the community.  This work is not easy, but it is productive and rewarding.

But when we say—and we so often do—“We tried to engage them, but no one showed up,” we need to be reminded of the great message of the National Civic League, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1894 with a mission to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.   NCL responds to our statements of frustration about engagement by challenging us that we are not following a high enough standard.  Engagement of racial and ethnic minorities and others beyond the usual suspects is not going above and beyond says NCL, “It is the work we should be doing and must become the new expectation and the baseline for legitimate engagement efforts.” As public managers, we need to listen to this challenge.


The webinar on Managing Hostility in Public Discourse to Create Effective Public Engagement: Living in an Age of Anger and Getting Things Done is available on-demand, and learn more about ICMA’s Coaching Program.


Get more content like this in your mailbox!

Subscribe via email