Shannah Hayley provides her contribution to the ELGL and University of Texas at Arlington Challenge. Shannah writes about community engagement which was one of the five issues facing local government as identified in our recent survey.
Talk is Cheap but Dialog is Priceless
by Shannah Hayley, LinkedIn and Twitter
Director of Marketing and Community Engagement, City of Plano
You would think in our hyper-connected society, meaningful engagement would be a breeze. Instant awareness of trending events, birthed in the 24/7 news cycle and matured through the ubiquitous use of social media channels, means that nearly everyone has access to nearly anything nearly all the time.
But do they really?
It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of assuming that because the world has become a smaller place through the interconnectedness of global markets, in-the-moment videos on Snapchat and tweets that can sink a career during the course of a cross-continent flight.
Yet in reality, making a connection or developing meaningful interaction – what we commonly call engagement – is much more difficult to achieve. Engagement requires having two-way conversations with constituents. To do this well requires knowing who your constituents are, what they care about, what they worry about and what role you play in adding value to their lives.
As you explore the issues of citizen input, community engagement and communication with constituents, here are three issues (internal and external) that I believe affect engagement between local governmental and constituent groups.
The use of social media does not equal “engagement.”
Because people interact with one another via social media, it’s tempting to call that interaction “engagement.” But how often does this interaction actually involve changing perceptions, building understanding and discussing differences?
Too often social media is a forum for stating one’s opinion (cue the “unfollow but stay friends” button) without the critical thinking and listening that comes along with actual engaged discussion. In this case, talk is just talk. Or as my grandfather would say, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
Nothing – including social media – is free (or easy).
We’re all subject to resource constraints, including personnel and budget. This is part of the allure of social media. It’s free!
Wrong: Nothing in life is free. A well-run social media effort is part of an overall communications plan, not something that is done in what little spare time the social media champion has on any given day. Furthermore, it takes a significant investment of time to craft effective messages, and to monitor and engage in conversation with constituents. And staff time equals money, because time spent on one priority is time not spent on another.
Government-related issues are rarely front-of-mind items.
Let’s face it – while we love public policy and helping to make our communities great places, many of our constituents don’t share that passion. Before I joined local government, I primarily thought about my city when I paid our water bill, saw road construction on my preferred route to work or if I couldn’t remember what day to put my trash and recycling bins out.
What this means is that for most of our constituents, local government – and all of the related services and issues – only matters when it matters. It simply does not occupy front-of-mind status, where we store all of the important things that we need to think about in any given moment. Not realizing this is why you hear constituents say, “This was a complete surprise,” while local government responds, “We shared that multiple times. What more can we do?”
The disconnect comes in how and when we share information. Successful engagement comes from sharing the right information to the right person through the right channel at the right time. And that’s not easy, because too much information can result in information overload and the inability to prioritize.
So what now?
Do we give up and say good enough is good enough? Not at all! After all, anything worth doing is worth the effort. True constituent engagement is possible with a documented strategy to guide what you’re doing and why, complete with action plans and measurable goals.
I encourage you to keep the following considerations in mind as you develop your unique engagement strategy:
- Know what you’re trying to achieve. If you keep the end goal – the why that drives what you’re doing – in mind, you’ll be able to make better decisions in what you say yes to and what you say no to (and you should definitely say no to some things).
- Research is just as important for local government’s engagement efforts as it is for the private sector. How have your constituents engaged with you in the past and on what topics? (Qualitative research) Use focus groups to ask the harder questions of why people are involved and what you might do to get them even more connected do. (Qualitative research)
- Remember that people are people – not faceless reporting metrics. Who are the different constituents you must successfully engage? What do they care about? Answer these questions and you’re halfway there to understanding the “human side” of our work.
Marketing guru Seth Godin said: People don’t have relationships with brands. They have relationships with people. That’s why Plano’s marketing and community engagement team puts people first. We believe that “If you feel more engaged, you will become more engaged.”
At the end of the day, people – not issues – should be at the heart of everything you do to increase citizen input, community engagement and communication with your constituents.