How can trash collection be improved? Where does a new bridge need to go? How can we lower crime? How do we help youths advance to college or career after high school? How do we make our libraries more relevant and useful to residents? How do we streamline some government services?
What do residents think? Does conventional citizen feedback at the council meeting or at a public forum add value? Here’s an idea for elected officials to reach out to a selective group of residents, invite their participation, then advance the discussion to the community whiling creating a new, trendy form of resident engagement where other citizens want to join the process. Yes, I did say “want.”
If you’re the chief elected official, or a council member and want citizen ideas or even more knowledgeable input, even expertise on a public project, program or challenge, start small and work your way up.
How? Start by forming a group of citizens that can be a part of a selective focus group. Using the voting rolls, look at precincts, census tracts, or council or school districts, and select 50* or so residents who, as a collective, represent the community at large by race, age, gender, education etc. Contact them via an invitation from the elected official(s) (email, US mail, or phone) asking them to serve on the mayor’s/council’s/city’s resident focus group for a period of one month. (*Obviously, you want to keep it manageable and it has to scale to your community. In a larger metropolis, the number of participants may be in the hundreds –but maybe not if that number is unrealistic to achieve starting out.)
During that month, the focus group members will be asked to provide input on whatever issue(s) may be before local government that could benefit from fresh thinking, outside expertise, or consensus. These could be answering the questions above or may relate to current events in the community, across the state or nationally, but affect the residents of their locale.
Be sure to provide any background or technical information they require in order to understand the challenge and respond with meaningful input. This can be done online in a special section on the government’s web site, or be facilitated by a local civic organization/foundation on theirs. Be sure to state expectations from the start letting them know what you are looking for from their participation and how their input will be part of the decision making process. Participants should also be willing to partake in the process with attribution.
Once the input is received from the residents, the feedback becomes the initial community thinking and “pulse” on the particular topic. The next step is to report the feedback to the entire community along with accompanying support information about the challenge on the local government or third party web site. For the next week or longer depending on the issue, request residents to add their ideas or respond to input from the focus group. Finally, close the process and report the findings. Formally deliberate and decide.
While this is going on, the focus group has begun working on another issue. Continue the process for a month. After the month, replenish the focus group with a new group of resident volunteers who have been identified and invited to participate. Those who have participated are now part of that community’s resident focus group alumni. If the process is done correctly, local government has captured a profile of these residents along with their interests in local government and/or the community and their professional knowledge, experience and expertise where they may be called upon in the future to lend support for another issue or challenge.
The objective, of course is to start the ball rolling for a new form of resident engagement. The goal is to have citizens contacting local government volunteering to join one of the monthly focus groups. Success will be realized when there is a waiting list or when the size of the focus groups increases. In the meantime, government can be facilitating the volunteer process with online sign up forms that establishes and expands “expert resident” profiles.
Soon, local government can begin to engage volunteers — whether they are part of focus group initiative or not— who have interest, knowledge, and better, expertise in a particular area of public policy. There’s a new problem with increasing in juvenile crime? Pull together residents who have expressed interest and knowledge in criminal justice, youth development and education. Supply the needed data and information and put them to work discussing solutions. Facilitate that process through online and conventional engagement; conducted through government or a third party such as the community foundation.
Benefits to be realized:
- Establish a successful public participation program
- Open/Transparent Government initiative requiring sharing data and information with participants
- Citizens learn more about their local government, their community and the its challenges
- Residents take responsibility for their government and community and for finding solutions to problems
- Connect with citizens via online and conventional outreach and engagement methods
- Empower residents who may want to participate but have not found the preferred avenue to do so
- Build a database of knowledgeable citizens interested in helping solve community problems
- Political advantages for elected officials
My county government offers a program where for eight consecutive weeks, citizens can spend the day at one or more government agencies learning about its operations. The real benefit for both citizen and government is to stay connected to those residents who participate in these programs, find where their interests lie in departments and programs, and continue to reach out to them tapping into their interest, knowledge and in some cases expertise to contribute to policy discussions involving those interests.
What do you think? Is this an approach that can scale and sustain itself as an ongoing form of resident engagement and citizen participation?