by Hunter Gardner, marketing manager,

Public trust sits at the core of a democratic society. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's publication Government At A Glance (2013): Trust in government has been identified as one of the most important foundations upon which the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems are built. Trust is essential for social cohesion and well-being as it affects governments’ ability to govern and enables them to act without having to resort to coercion. 

Why is it important to build public trust at the local level?

Looking at research from Pew and Gallup, it is clear that historically—and especially today—public trust is considerably higher on the local level than the federal level.

The opportunity here lies in the fact that local governments make decisions that most affect the day-to-day quality of life for residents. To build public trust at the local level is to ensure that democracy works from the ground up, for the benefit of all residents.

This aspirational, and frankly lofty, task often falls on local government managers. Likewise, managers are also held to a high standard for community engagement — whether from our own intrinsic motivation, the department, pressure from elected officials, or from the public. We know that great community engagement creates a win-win for all parties, but why don’t our best efforts seem to be creating better outcomes?

Why the current state of community engagement isn’t working

Let’s start with all the different tactics we might use to reach and engage the public:

  • Email.
  • Online surveys.
  • Physical surveys.
  • Meetings / workshops.
  • Text messaging.
  • PR efforts: press, mailers, website updates.
  • Social media.

For these tactics, we lean on technology to help us execute in a way that is efficient, ideally saving time and effort.

So why does it feel like we’re working harder than ever without getting better community engagement outcomes?

  • Overwhelmed by multiple input and communication channels.
  • No clarity on how to organize or analyze input, comments, and communication.
  • Decreased trust from a public that does not feel like they have a relationship with local government.

The problem is that community engagement is disjointed, like having the parts of a bike, but no way to connect them. Siloed off data and communication in a variety of tools means manual aggregation and analysis—and even then we might not know what to do next to achieve the best possible engagement outcomes.

The solution is to combine these efforts with software that integrates every step of the community engagement process, from outreach to reporting. When this happens, we can guarantee more equity engagement, representative of all residents, and maintain relationships through reengagement, project over project.

How does an integrated approach create better community engagement outcomes?

The key insight here is that community engagement isn’t an isolated effort, it relies on relationship building through every interaction. What if we could organize and connect all those interactions to better reach and engage the public, close the feedback loop, and make data-driven decisions that build public trust over time?

To do this, we must stop thinking in terms of one-off engagements—matching tactics with yet-another-tool—and start thinking about bringing a consistent, process-oriented approach to engagement.

A critical shift is to become intentional about the tools we use for engagement, both from one project to the next, and from one department to another. This is a shift Raleigh, North Carolina, made in order to establish better engagement methodology across teams, as well as sharing data from one department to another.

As more organizations adopt public engagement software, those efficiencies extend beyond departmental data sharing to interagency collaboration. This phenomenon is beginning to occur in North Carolina, where NCDOT can share project-level access and engagement data with nearby municipalities on the platform - like Raleigh, Durham, and Cary.

Ultimately, this approach establishes a core set of practices and data management that provide the foundation for an ongoing effort to build meaningful, lasting public trust. But it’s not the infrastructure itself that builds trust—it’s how it supports a core process.

The five key steps that are emerging as the core elements of a process focused on building public trust are the following:

  1. Reach beyond the usual self-selectors.
  2. Lower barriers to participation.
  3. Capture and analyze (all input and communication in one place).
  4. Close the loop.
  5. Build and measure public trust.

We can visualize this as a pyramid with public trust at the pinnacle to illustrate these steps:

When you stop trying to add yet-another-thing, and instead adopt a unified and consistent process, teams are more productive, clarity increases, and public trust can be built.

Here are a few examples of how integrated software and a better community engagement process are creating better engagement outcomes: 

  • Charlotte, North Carolina, has created a central hub for 10+ departments using 10+ tools to integrate all their efforts, department by department, and also to share resident contact information, input data, communication, and share reports across all departments.
  • Skagit County, Washington, used a mixed-mode outreach approach to receive feedback from 645 of 700 residents on Guemes Island. All public input, no matter how it was collected, was captured in one place for analysis, closing the feedback loop, and reporting. 
  • Virginia Beach, Virginia, integrated their community engagement efforts to achieve their best engagement results to date on projects both large and small — earning them recognition from the mayor in the annual “State of the City” address. 

To learn more about community engagement best practices, attend "A Process For Public Trust: Case studies from Charlotte, Virginia Beach, and Skagit County, WA" on Tuesday, October 22, 3:30 p.m.-4:00 p.m. at the 2019 ICMA Annual Conference.

If you aren’t able to attend the conference or the session, we encourage you to download the case study of Virginia Beach from the website. Virginia’s largest city, Virginia Beach, is no stranger to large-scale public involvement efforts on planning and economic development – and public safety issues resulting from inclement weather. See how Virginia Beach used community engagement software to take on big challenges like these, as well as day-to-day projects like choosing public art.

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