Effectively Engaging the Public

There's more to keeping in touch with constituents than public hearings.
 

Back in the mid-1970s, according to a Gallup Poll, about 75 percent of Americans had “trust and confidence in the government of the state” where they lived. That number stayed reasonably steady for a while, but has plunged dramatically in recent years. As of September, it was down to 51 percent. It’s hard to believe that government has gotten so much less trustworthy. So what’s been happening?

Whatever the underlying reasons, one big problem is that the voices that relentlessly claim government is three steps short of pure evil can communicate with citizens more effectively than the governments themselves. And that’s where state and local leaders need to step up. As the Sacramento Bee suggested in a story about the state’s budget, “to avoid catastrophe, state leaders of all parties need to engage the public. They can’t continue to cloister themselves in their cones of silence, complaining about how constituents, or the media, don’t understand the scope of this problem.”

The first step, of course, is finding out what the public really wants from its government. For years, we’ve talked to government officials who yearn to hear more from their citizens. Open hearings, though, are not necessarily the answer. They tend to draw small numbers, and those small numbers are often made up by the same people, with the same vested interests, regardless of what topic is being discussed. “At a public hearing, we routinely get five people,” says Michael Matthes, assistant city manager in Des Moines, Iowa. “If we’re lucky.”

Barring a highly controversial issue, the public meetings continue to be scantily attended. But in 2004, Des Moines began making efforts to figure out new ways to engage with citizens. It turned to surveys, with a relatively broad reach. Early on, Matthes and other Des Moines leaders were startled by the answers to a question asking citizens to prioritize important issues. Typically, attendees at public meetings spent a lot of time talking about police, fire, zoning and development. But the survey revealed that Des Moines residents were far more concerned about street conditions. Police came in fifth. Fire was 10th.

In 2005, the city got an unexpected cash windfall and spent it on street repairs. It tripled the amount of money spent on paving. Satisfaction with streets went from 27 to 45 percent. That’s still not a number to paint on a banner over City Hall, but it’s a dramatic improvement nonetheless. Perhaps more important, citizen satisfaction for other services improved, perhaps as a result of a “halo effect” derived from the city’s attention to the matter of greatest concern.

You might think that smaller communities wouldn’t need these kinds of efforts—in the Mayberry-like view of the world, everybody in small towns knows exactly what everybody else knows. But Saco, Maine, with just more than 18,000 people, has used an approach similar to Des Moines’ to good effect. “Having a sampling of 400 residents in the survey process,” says Stephanie Weaver, Saco’s tax collector and deputy treasurer, “provides a good balance and good way to have a perspective on the way the general public is feeling—rather than five people complaining and [the council] thinking that’s how everybody feels.”

Some departments -- often dubbed as orphans -- can be helped greatly when a city, county or state reaches out to more representative numbers of their population. For example, in some communities people may think of parks and recreation as second-tier government activities. Therefore, they’re not inclined to show up at a city council meeting to push for better tree care. But surveys can reveal that parks are a crucial amenity to a substantial number of people -- and leaders can act accordingly.

Are citizen surveys a panacea? Of course not. For one thing, the surveys alone don’t necessarily lead to the right solutions. For example, when cities ask whether people “feel safe going downtown at night,” a tidal wave of negative answers can lead a city to simply try to hire more police. But it could turn out that some of the respondents are convinced that any area with lots of police is unsafe. All they might want is better lighting. Careful analysis is key.

In any case, all the properly analyzed citizen surveys in the world won’t help an entity upgrade public trust if taxpayers don’t know they’re being listened to, and that their words are being acted upon. “If you don’t explain,” says Barbara Cohn Berman of the National Center for Civic Innovation, “then people come to the wrong conclusions and think government doesn’t care or think it isn’t doing anything.” Cohn, who is the center’s government performance director, was one of the moving forces behind its Trailblazer program. Trailblazer has worked with some 70 different municipalities in the U.S. and Canada, helping them understand their citizens’ concerns and then reporting back to those citizens about government’s performance on those issues.

Minneapolis has made some advances with the help of Trailblazer money. A key to communicating performance to citizens is to be honest about the results. When juvenile crime rates spiked in Minneapolis in 2005-2006, “we were upfront and honest, and said it’s getting out of hand,” says Jay Stroebel, the city’s director of planning and management. Although he admits some politicians were worried that the results would be used against them, Stroebel notes that “you can’t run from results. Our politicians here and our city leadership have embraced looking at the results.”

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