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The Path to Improving Civic Engagement

More can be done to bring people into the civic conversation. It's good for governments, communities and our civic process.

Years ago a mentor, perhaps to calm my impatient twenty-something idealism, reminded me of the old saying: "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink." It's a folksy and humbling image. Unfortunately, you could argue that it describes all too well the evolving relationship between our governments and the public they serve.

Everyone agrees that public involvement is a good thing, and academics have proved its value repeatedly. But today, for any number of reasons, civic engagement efforts are not taking hold as they should. Municipal budget cuts are partly to blame, but many would argue, and I'd agree, that this challenge is mostly due to the lack of a retail relationship between people and government decisions.

The good news is that many are working hard to transform this dynamic. With fluctuating or declining voter turnout and an increasingly polarized political environment, local and state governments in my state of Oregon, for example, have rallied to try to rewrite the current citizen-engagement narrative.

So what are the next steps? What's working? How are cities and counties that are succeeding at engaging the public getting results?

Technology is one solution, with new online tools helping to popularize civic involvement and engage the most people for a low price. Communities now host virtual town halls, online surveys and news, and real-time conversations that both quickly educate and genuinely solicit feedback. Social media adds to the menu of available tools.

Also increasingly popular is the "go where they are" outreach approach. This involves governments getting out into the community and going to 5K races, summer concerts and other community events to initiate conversations where people congregate. Community engagement shouldn't stop with the more affluent, and Oregon public officials continue to visit diverse and traditionally disenfranchised communities.

This is all a far cry from traditional government communications methods. Issuing press releases and holding public hearings are ineffective as well as antiquated. But let's not completely turn up our noses at the old ways. There is much to glean from centuries of public process. Many governments actively recruit new members for the tried-and-true committee approach. In Oregon, state and federal partners, including the Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service, have brought timber-industry representatives and environmentalists to the same table to collaboratively plan projects that restore national forests, support rural job creation and set a path for future forest projects.

Good things are happening, but there is more to do. We know that improving public involvement with government is the future for propelling civic vitality in our communities. It's time we move past questions about whether public participation is valuable and pivot to dedicating resources for exploring which communication methods work best and which outside-the-box tools produce results.

Tony Andersen serves as the public information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
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