Outreach and Engagement are Just Good Government

Three Reasons Your Community Needs A Strategy for Engagement

ARTICLE | Mar 20, 2017

nextERA Voice

by Katherine Hendricks, Assistant Town Administrator, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
Town of Mount Pleasant

More than ever before citizens have access to volumes of information formerly only easily accessible by municipal leaders with the help of robust websites, GIS based and interactive maps, and even mobile apps! Equipped with pages of readily available data, citizens have a desire to feel heard and work towards solutions, which is often difficult with only two minutes at the microphone. Further compounding frustrations, there is a great deal of unfiltered misinformation posting every second onto social media platforms, and in communities like Mount Pleasant, SC where growth is rapid, the change is disruptive and it defines nearly every public policy debate.

Residents often express concern that the community lacks of a common identity as the region grows 48 people every day from a once quaint fishing village to a metropolitan area recently named the fastest growing city east of the Mississippi River. Impactful decisions are being made every day that will impact the community now and into the future. The challenge we face today is how do we facilitate meaningful two-way conversations on complex issues in a world where people gain their information on-the-go and in less characters than a tweet- regardless of the source. A robust government engagement strategy is essential in having meaningful conversations in which both sides make decisions based on fact and work towards building common ties and trust.

Here is an overview of some low-cost ways you can get started today and starting shifting the climate from one of distrust to one of collaboration.

1. Participants become ambassadors for the Town and know where to find accurate information.

Whether its delivered through Coffee with the Mayor, Town Administrator’s Mobile Office Hours, or the Planning Department’s Code for Lunch, meeting residents at places they know and at times that work for them, helps to build ambassadors. The Town has experienced great success through these programs and many more because it humanizes elected officials and senior staff, and it removes the screen (whether it be a phone or computer) and allows for accurate information to be shared face to face and unmodified. We find that we get repeat visitors to these events as they have become ambassadors for the programs and they know they can get immediate answers- unfiltered by media.

By bringing town officials out of their offices, it makes them more approachable where often times residents would never call and make a formal scheduled appointment with the mayor or town administrator.

2. Town Council and senior staff know community priorities.

During events such as Community Roundtable, staff and elected officials learn about a specific neighborhood’s issue and sometimes these conversations have taken place in the HOA President’s living room! Meeting in someone’s neighborhood allows leaders to see and experience many issues a neighborhood may have and solve small, local problems. Town leaders also learn candidly about issues and concerns on a resident’s mind and they hear it, instead of reading it in a Facebook post. The conversations are more meaningful and most importantly, are two-way and build trust by educating both sides about priorities.

3. Community relationship changes from one of “customer service” to one of “collaborative partnerships”

“The customer is always right”. Isn’t that the motto? What happens when citizens become accustomed to be treated like customers? A rise in calls for service, demands that outpaced limited government resources, and often times unreasonable expectations about what a local government can do under state and federal laws. Taking the time to have meaningful dialogue can help to slowly erode unreasonable expectations and demands on local governments. So often our own social media and press releases are overshadowed by social media posts by others. Traditional media can no longer keep pace with the conversation and through effective outreach programs, leaders can work in smaller groups, like HOAs, to gain insight on how they can bring solutions to the table. A great example is a neighborhood asking for safer routes for pedestrians in their neighborhoods. The conversation can be guided in a way that allows leaders to request the HOA gain support first from their residents and other neighborhoods effected and bring forward one collaborative voice that is reading for funding.

Even if your community is not experiencing rapid growth like Mount Pleasant, getting out into the community and engaging in meaningful, two-way dialogue is essential. It’s almost a “back to the basics” approach before everything was conveyed in a tweet. While I am a millennial in a management role, what’s quick and inexpensive about social media doesn’t mean it solves these big issues. The reality is that distrust even in local governments is higher than in the past and it takes a new, more targeted approach to slowly start building a community that understands complex issues take time and collaboration.

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