Concerned, Communicating, Connected, Commitment: Building Community-Local Government Relationships

My old – but-not-so-old friend Bill Lutz wrote to me recently about his perceptions of how local governments should pursue community engagement, and as usual he brought a perspective and insight to the issue that went well beyond anything I would have thought of.  His differentiation between transactional and relationship-based interactions, and his framework for building those relationships, captures a significant and necessary sea change in how we should relate to our residents.  And as Piqua has demonstrated through its impressive Citizen’s Academy, building those relationships takes a pretty small investment for a pretty substantial payoff.

Let me know what you think, and I’ll share with Bill.  Thanks!

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Local government officials and staff tend to think about community engagement as a purely transactional exercise, and that’s not surprising.  Think of our typical experience: our residents, businesses or stakeholders come to us and want something, such as a service or asolution to a problem.  Once that need has been met, the transaction is over and the other person vanishes from our offices.  To be fair, the reverse is also true.   When local governments need public input for a project or an activity, we publish notices or get the local paper to write an article and (hopefully) residents come and provide input… and then leave.  In both cases, citizen engagement is reduced to a series of transactions.

While working in terms of transactions may be efficient and effective, they are, in a sense, damaging to the business of local government..  Every day, our residents make judgments and assessments of our community and those thoughts lead to a well formed (although, yes, not necessarily well informed) perception of the community in which they live.

It’s hard to influence those perceptions when our rules are reduced to a series of transactions.

Here in the City of Piqua, we struggled with that very issue:  How can we change the dynamic of local government being seen not as a transactional relationship but something more transformational?  We made a concerted effort to increase citizen engagement strategies, to create situations where residents felt more ownership in their community and had a better understanding of what our city staff does, with the expectation of engendering trust and confidence within the city government.

We’ve come to understand community engagement as a circular process,  –as four interrelated steps  that build an ongoing relationship on the foundation of  mutual understanding, not transactions.

Diagram of public engagement process

In the first step, we need to find residents who are Concerned about their community.  Many times, residents in this stage are those who are coming to the public hearing or a council meeting to voice their perceptions on a particular issue, sometimes in a negative fashion.  Often these residents are afraid of the future consequences of a proposed action, and that fear calls them to action.  At this point, we think local governments should not treat the interaction as  a transactional event, but rather the beginning of a relationship.

In Piqua, we encourage this relationship by Communicating to these residents that our local government is concerned about the well being of the community and has their concerns at heart.  This stage can be difficult because, at its root, it is not transactional, but relational.  A local government manager or an elected official can’t simply state from the dais that they have the community’s best interest at heart – like any relationship-building, actions often matter much more than words.  We Communicate these residents by involving them — by demonstrating to them the decision making processes and the internal struggles that local government goes through.  Taking time outside of the meeting and showing residents the information that the government knows can go a long way in convincing residents that the local government is making the best decision for the community.

The third stage is to Connect residents to each other.  It is at this stage where the true power of community can really be unleashed.  Many times, our residents may feel disconnected and isolated as they want to tackle community problems that the local government is not well equipped to handle.  The local government can play a major role as connecting residents to each other to other neighbors to develop opportunities to forge substantive change.

The final step in the process is Commitment.  Once residents are linked together, things happen.  If a resident sees a litter problem at the park, the local government can link them with other likeminded and committed individuals to start a litter collection program.  For many residents, giving back is easier with strong support from their neighbors and the local government.

Community engagement is more than just a series of sterile transactions; it’s built through continuous and conscious efforts to forge positive relationships.  This four step process helps explain how the relationship develops to build trust and commitment among residents and the local government.

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