Youth Councils Can Strengthen Local Government and Build Trust

Posted on May 29, 2023

A group of students wearing backpacks is shown from behind as the group crosses a plaza.

By The Davenport Institute

Youth are often overlooked during public engagement processes for multiple reasons; they are not old enough to vote, own property, or pay taxes. However, they represent the future of our communities and they are the next generation of local government leaders. In order for a local government to exercise 360 public engagement which includes the entire community, they must also seek opportunities to connect with the youth population.

Youth councils are one popular way in which local governments can work with schools to engage with the next generation and provide an introduction to the world of local government. For students, youth councils are a way to gain professional experience and exposure, and to connect with peers from other schools within the district.

Bouncing Back After the Pandemic 

The pandemic posed new challenges in public engagement, and while cities immediately transitioned to online avenues of reaching community members, it was still difficult to reach marginalized communities. Students were facing digital learning and engagement fatigue as they navigated their coursework online. Digital fatigue became synonymous with the experience many had during the pandemic staring at zoom meetings for several hours at a time.. During this period, it was difficult for cities to effectively maintain youth council programs and many entered a status of hiatus during the pandemic.

However, as we slowly entered the era of post pandemic(ish) engagement, cities sought to revive opportunities to reach young people. In Newport Beach for example, it was a priority to restart the Youth Council program which plays a valuable role in lending an ear to an underrepresented population and engaging with them for the long-term.

Building Trust

Voter turnout at the local level has always been low. This is especially true for younger voters. As Mayor Kate Stewart of Takoma,WA, emphasized that “Having more people vote, particularly at a local level … is super important” for a healthy functioning democracy. Providing meaningful public engagement to our younger residents keeps them invested in their community and striving to give back through acts of public service both small and large. Youth councils provide an opportunity for students to learn more about civic engagement, their local government leaders, and the impact of staying actively involved in your community. Youth councils create a dialogue between students and local government, and is a way in which the two groups can build trust through open communication and interaction.

Building Relationships and Fostering Local Government Collaboration

Youth councils are much more than just titles for students to put on their resumes and public engagement activities for local governments to put on their websites. They are an opportunity to build meaningful relationships centered on civic engagement, professional development, and mentorship. Youth councils provide the youth a forum to share their voice and for local governments to make a long-term investment into the lives of its residents. Communities seeking to strengthen their own youth engagement strategy should consider partnering with their local school district to involve students in local government and provide a meaningful educational experience.

Read our full feature here on youth councils and public engagement in ICMA’s premier publication PM Magazine.

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