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Community Engagement's Vital Role in Building Resilience

In preparing for a disaster and recovering from one, residents and businesses need to know that their voices will be heard.

A "Hurricane Hours" sign posted on a business' door.
A sign posted on the door of a storefront before Hurricane Florence hit.
(AP/Sean Rayford)
With tumultuous, divisive election cycles driving so many conversations, how can local-government leaders make progress on such long-term challenges as infrastructure investment, disaster resilience, shifting demographics, immigration and workforce development?

As a starting point, we know that people need confidence that they will have a voice in decisions that affect them. Communities that have meaningful engagement with their residents are better able to address long-term challenges. That takes planning, patience, communicating clearly and often, and sharing results. It also requires leaders to adapt their communications to reach a more diverse population that accesses information in different ways.

Leaders who have the best results put people and service first, openly share information, and engage the broader community before major decisions are made. These practices lead to greater trust, the essential ingredient for dealing effectively with long-term community needs and challenges.

Infrastructure investment, for example, may be easier for residents and businesses to prioritize if they have been through a disaster. But even then it can be difficult to get their engagement and buy-in to a long-term plan in the early months of a recovery. Understandably, the immediate concerns are getting basic services restored, people back in their homes and businesses up and running again.

Examples of leadership challenges in the aftermath of a disaster are documented in a new International City/County Management Association report. One of the lessons learned after the floods that devastated Boulder, Colo., and other nearby communities in 2013 comes from Jane Brautigam, Boulder's city manager. She stresses the importance of developing recovery priorities, getting them adopted by the city council, and regularly reporting progress to the council and the community.

Local-government leaders also recognize the need to use -- and monitor -- social media. After Hurricane Harvey flooded Alvin, Texas, in 2017, then-City Manager Sereniah Breland observed that leaders need to stay on top of these increasingly important means of communication and know what is floating around, especially misinformation and rumors.

Beyond the immediate needs of disaster recovery, community engagement is a key ingredient for success in any significant change strategy. In a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, in 2015 ICMA and its partners helped four jurisdictions in the Dominican Republic develop land-use plans that included climate change adaptation strategies. Participatory planning had not previously been the practice in these communities. Using a municipal capacity evaluation instrument, improvements were observed in governance, professional capacity, access and use of data, and knowledge of participatory planning.

The recent Midwest floods are the latest disaster to capture our attention and to demonstrate the need for a more resilient approach to mitigation, preparedness, and recovery. As levees proved inadequate to the rush of ice and flooding and water infrastructure was overwhelmed, engineers are asking if designs need to be changed to be able to withstand these kinds of events. That's one of many decisions that will need to be informed and shaped by community engagement.

Just about any public official who has gone through the long disaster recovery process will say that their plan had not contemplated an event of the magnitude they experienced. Among local, state and federal leaders, there is a growing consensus that we need to develop much greater resilience to all types of disasters. Accomplishing that is going to require a high level of engagement, compelling stories and considerable patience.

Senior Fellow with the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and director of public policy for the International City/County Management Association
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