A Scorecard for Public Engagement

Involving members of the community in policymaking is tricky, but it's worth the effort. Those who do it well share some approaches.
August 22, 2016
By Rod Gould  |  Contributor
A retired city manager and a board member of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership

If you're a local-government manager or elected official, by now you've probably heard a fair amount about the need for better citizen engagement in government decision-making. You may even have your own success stories about times your city or agency made a special effort to involve community members in policies that affect them. And you may also have been scalded when your agency failed to properly engage residents. It probably wasn't pretty.

You likely have a few ideas of your own about what is appreciated and works with stakeholders and what simply wastes everyone's time. As your agency takes steps to strengthen its involvement with residents and businesses, do you know how you measure up compared to other agencies?

There are many reasons to give your public engagement strategies and techniques some serious scrutiny: bolstering local representative democracy, improving governmental decision-making, repairing damaged public relations, increasing civility and trust in government, enhancing public support of important civic decisions -- or just making your work more pleasant and satisfying.

There is no secret formula for public engagement. Some policies and approaches work in some situations but backfire in others. It is trial by error -- or by fire -- a lot of the time. But the overall trajectory is positive, and there are certain characteristics that engaged agencies share.

To give you a quick indication of how your agency is doing in this endeavor, the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, which has been focused on finding and disseminating better ways to engage a wary public for 10 years, has devised an evaluation platform and recognition program. Entitled simply "How Are WE Doing?", It lists 20 practices that are indicative of a government entity that takes public engagement seriously.

Take a few minutes to explore the evaluation platform and ask yourself if your agency or jurisdiction is using the practices and techniques listed and whether some of them might be worth incorporating into operating policies and procedures. And if you feel that your organization is already undertaking many of the recommended actions, consider applying for recognition from the institute. The application process is easy and free, and an award could be a point of pride for elected leaders, staff and community.

In July, for example, the Davenport Institute recognized the city of San Rafael, Calif., in Marin County north of San Francisco, with its highest award (Platinum) for public engagement. The Mission City, as San Rafael is known, has a long tradition of community involvement in local governance. A dedicated cadre of citizen volunteers comprises the commissions, task forces, and community nonprofits; works civic events; and volunteers for special projects.

San Rafael has used advanced techniques for involving its residents in a variety of thorny issues, including the development of a homeless action plan, quiet zones for a new commuter train, business issues, negotiations with unionized municipal workers, climate-change activities, safety facilities, sidewalk maintenance and downtown parking.

San Rafael isn't perfect, of course. The cadres of volunteers, as engaged as they are, represent a fairly small cross-section of the community. Without more widespread community involvement, it is fairly easy to rally several hundred people to derail a decision. We all can think of examples of this playing out, swamping otherwise good policy-making and leaving everyone raw from the experience.

But while San Rafael doesn't always get everything right, the city reflects on its successes and failures and learns from both, thus upping its batting average and building credibility in the community. As we all know, that credibility -- and the public engagement that helps to build it -- is something every local government could use more of.