Why Your City Might Be Failing at Public Engagement — And How to Do Better

Posted on October 27, 2020

image with quote from aj Fawver

During the many years I spent in city government, there were hundreds of conversations that revolved around one central frustration: the lack of attendance at public engagement events and the lack of responsiveness from the community. Trust me, many of the staff doing the work of putting together plans and ordinances are not excited to be doing this alone, without ideas or an exchange of information from the people that know the community best. Often, we talk in planning circles about how the lack of public trust towards municipal government stymies real engagement. We also talk about how barriers – like language, transportation, and internet access – prevent significant dialogue. There are a variety of resources out there with tips like “go to neighborhoods, don’t make neighborhoods come to you” and “incorporate storytelling in engagement”. These are great tips.

This is where I think we need to be candid about why so many organizations are still not trying to pursue legitimate dialogue and provide multiple opportunities during a process to get input from residents. Unfortunately, I have seen some of these unfortunate realities, and I am sure you have too. If we really want to future-proof our cities, we cannot afford to keep making these choices. I say “choices” instead of “mistakes” because these are often conscious choices being made. We need to ask ourselves why all cities proclaim the importance of hearing from their residents, but so many of them are hesitant to listen to them except behind closed doors. It reminds me of the expression “talking the talk but not walking the walk”. Here are some of the worst ones that must be called out and removed entirely from local government institutions, because they cannot be allowed to persist. Some city organizations are failing at public engagement because:

  1. They want to control the dialogue. This often stems from a desire to “manage” the situation and avoid things like negative press or open criticism.
  2. They fear conflict, turmoil, and bad press. Unfortunately, this prevents real progress. Cities cannot plan their future effectively if they cannot have open conversations about problems that exist.
  3. There is a feeling that citizen’s ideas are far-fetched or unrealistic. Sadly, they do not typically devote time to framing these conversations more appropriately or reworking their questions so that citizens can brainstorm with context and provide responses that are actionable.
  4. They are concerned that residents and businesses may seek things that the city cannot (or, frankly, isn’t willing to) provide, and decision-makers might be pressured to offer explanation. Unfortunately, this rarely happens without being overshadowed by defensive reactions.
  5. They feel public engagement takes too long. Sadly, we all have stories of examples where a public process was rushed for whatever reason (election cycles, fiscal year, fatigue, ______) and the engagement piece was the piece that was reduced or eliminated as a result. Not only that, the project suffered.
  6. They see public engagement as being expensive. You know the tale…we think we should hire a consultant. Let us tell the consultant how critical engagement is and insist it be an ongoing part of the process. Next, we will express our sticker shock at the proposed fee and instruct the consultant to cut some of that previously critical engagement to save some cash.
  7. They already have their decision(s) made. It is simpler to just tell the public the matter has been thoroughly researched and it was the only reasonable decision.

Now, is this list exhaustive? Definitely not. Is there going to be a tendency to read this list and feel that nothing resonates or applies to your community? Without a doubt. But just as with our own personal shortcomings, we can only be better if we have the audacity to examine where we are falling short – and commit to being better. Leadership is critical, and the right culture must be in place. Have these discussions internally and be honest in your self-examinations – there is a better way!

This monthly blog series by AJ Fawver, Community Consulting Program leader for VERDUNITY and based out of Lubbock, Texas. She shares her take on planning for communities and securing their future in a time where legislation, fiscal pressures, disengaged citizens, and diminishing resources make it increasingly challenging. You can access all of the posts in the series and learn more about AJ on the Future-Proofing Cities homepage.

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