Bringing the Community Into the Process of Governing

Local governments have a lot to gain from the kind of transparency that involves residents in decision-making.
October 10, 2016
By Scott Fadness  |  Contributor
Mayor of Fishers, Ind.

People want to feel that they can trust the entities that affect their security and well-being, so they are demanding new levels of transparency from employers, educators, companies -- and certainly from governments. This is why so many governments struggle to engage with their residents: They aren't meeting the public's demand for transparency.

In our city of Fishers, Ind., we're been working on a variety of approaches to improving transparency and inclusiveness, looking for effective ways to bring the community directly into the process of governing. We've found some approaches that could help to jump-start other communities' efforts, and we've learned some lessons along the way.

So what works?

To begin with, cities need to open their doors. This was the impetus behind Citizen Academies, a series of eight 12-week classes for Fishers residents that allows them to meet department leaders and learn about city operations, including the police and fire departments, and the challenges of delivering critical services.

An ongoing program like this helps citizens understand the big picture and how they can best contribute; when they do contribute, they are more invested in the outcome. In the area of public safety, for example, participants ride along with police officers, take part in firefighter training and even develop alumni groups, which have raised money for bulletproof K9 vests and served as support units for large fire events.

The open forum breaks the ice, helps transform attitudes and allows a relationship to develop. My team can better understand citizens' concerns, prioritize, plan and gain trust. In fact, we often reach out to former participants for board and commission appointees.

Another strategy we've found effective is to come up with ways for leaders to operate inclusively. That's why it's important to provide open forums to hear residents' ideas. Many of them have ideas that can be of value to city leaders, but it's our job to go into the community and seek them out. So consider outreach -- even in unlikely places.

One wouldn't expect third-grade students, for example, to be a source of knowledge for city planning, but educational outreach and time spent with students gave my team the opportunity to engage with the city's youth and hear their thoughts on redevelopment and its impact on companies, business competition, noise and traffic concerns, and the dynamic of developers wanting to build vs. conservationists wanting to preserve land, particularly for historic sites. The students thought through these concerns and presented their plans and recommendations for city planners.

The effort was a fun, interactive way to teach city planning, and my team gained a lot of insight into a younger generation's perspective. This knowledge may not play into immediate decisions, but it does affect how we think long-term about city development. The children of today will be tomorrow's taxpayers and decision-makers. What's not to gain by spending time understanding their point of view?

Another important ingredient in engaging members of the community is to go the extra mile to find out what people really want and need. City leaders making decisions based on their own assumptions rarely get it right. When creating policies or making decisions that affect a specific group of people, it's not productive to assume you understand their needs. Rather, include these people in the information-gathering process to ensure you not only get their buy-in but also roll out a program that will be more widely accepted.

Consider, for instance, the challenge of compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Most cities simply try to follow the regulations closely and/or retain consultants to guide them, but a more effective approach would be to also ask members of the affected community to join a task force. People who have a disability, or who care for someone with a disability, are the best sources of compliance information. They help make sure that important details aren't overlooked, and such outreach helps cities take action in an inclusive way.

Now more than ever, local governments are laboratories of innovation and social problem solving. It is critical that we open our doors and invite residents in to observe and experience our work. By doing so, we can start to bridge the divide between our residents and the governments that serve them.