Communication and Citizen Participation: Blending Old Tools with New Technology

By McNeely, Charles | Public Management, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Communication and Citizen Participation: Blending Old Tools with New Technology


McNeely, Charles, Public Management


As local government managers, we face an age-old challenge: how to engage our citizens in ways that make their government relevant and, perhaps more important, satisfying. We all know that one unreturned phone call or one unresolved complaint can create a lifelong disgruntled resident.

In contrast, creating an active, engaged resident can take dozens of interactions, with each demanding stellar customer service. So, what can a manager do to increase the odds that citizens will be satisfied by their participation and interaction with their local government?

First, we should consider what we mean by citizen participation. The traditional definition would typically involve the resident attending a neighborhood meeting or lobbying a city councilmember to fund a particular project. These methods are still alive, well, and relevant, but people interact with their local government in hundreds of different ways, and each of these represents some form of participation in the process.

Those who use city services--and services can range from paying a sewer bill to attending a ballet performance at a city park--actually are participating in their local government. In the city of Reno, we have undertaken a comprehensive program to make all forms of participation satisfying for our residents.

TRADITIONAL METHODS OF CITIZEN PARTICIPATION

When people consider the traditional model of citizen participation in government, they envision something like Norman Rockwell's painting representing the freedom of speech, one of President Roosevelt's four freedoms depicted by Rockwell in advertisements for war bonds in World War 11. This image remains inspiring and reminds us what is best about representative government--policymakers answer to the people. Residents have the right, even an obligation, to engage their elected representatives and influence policy decisions.

Local political power is still often expressed in this traditional, formal meeting format. Whether through a planning commission, an arts funding committee, or a neighborhood board, important decisions continue to be made in town halls and school libraries following Robert's rules of order.

In Reno, we have created a system in which citizens can clearly see the influence they exert at public meetings, in particular, with our Neighborhood Advisory Boards (NABs), as their community activism produces tangible changes in their neighborhoods. Reno's council provides $380,000 each year, divided on a per capita basis, to our eight NABs. The boards use this funding for everything from neighborhood festivals, to improvements at a public swimming pool, to establishing neighborhood watch programs.

Having real resources to dedicate to neighborhood priorities has raised the profile of these boards, and the sense of local participation has caught on. The boards also get involved in projects even when they don't have a hand in the funding. Today, the Reno NABs are the backbone of a citywide Clean and Green program, which draws residents out twice each year to pick up litter, correct code violations, and spruce up their neighborhoods. The NABs have become influential bodies and consistently communicate with their respective city councilmembers as well as with city staff.

Another way to keep council-members connected with their constituents is the town hall meeting, where a councilmember invites the public to bring issues to the meeting rather than have the communication travel from the elected official to the residents. These meetings are held regularly, and elected officials use the messages they get from constituents to formulate their annual list of priorities. If city staff members have not made progress that their constituents can see, councilmembers hear about it at these meetings.

Another formal and traditional method for participation is a summit organized around a particular issue. In Reno in recent years we have held public summits on the topics of redevelopment and graffiti. …

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Communication and Citizen Participation: Blending Old Tools with New Technology
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