Beyond Three Minutes at the Mic: Purposes and Processes

Golden Governance: Building Effective Public Engagement in California

October 25, 2011
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While legitimate public engagement is not lobbying the public towards a particular outcome, it is more than simply asking the public what they think. Participatory governance includes a range of purposes – from informing to empowering the public. As fig. 3 illustrates, the reasons for intentional public engagement can range from informing the public of a decision that has been made by an elected or appointed body, to consulting with the public about a decision that will still need to be reached by an institutional body, to actually empowering the public to either make the decision themselves and/or deliver the public service. As the Kauai and Berkeley examples highlight, governing institutions and NGOs need to be ready to partner with their residents to solve problems quickly and effectively.

Hard-Learned Lessons: One of the most common reasons a public engagement project fails is due to a lack of clarity on the underlying purpose of the engagement, and where the host institution “sits on the Range.” (see fig. 3) For example, one staff member may define the purpose of public engagement as purely consultative, while a councilperson or board member may think the effort is meant mainly to inform the public of a decision they have already reached.

It should be noted that purposes within the range build upon one another, and processes that begin as a consultation can become empowering when attendees learn the scope of public problems and desire to become more involved. Consultative budget processes in the Los Angeles area have turned into volunteer opportunities, and a General Plan process in the East Bay yielded an “Adopt the Watershed” group of concerned residents who want to volunteer to clean up an environmentally sensitive area.

Stories of Success: Redlands Bowl Restoration
Like most cities in California, the city of Redlands has been facing tight budgets for several years. Of the many services that have been affected, maintenance services for the City’s Redlands Bowl were so hard hit the facility received little maintenance and no improvement for a number of years. The Bowl is the center of Redland’s music and arts culture and was in need of restoration as well as beautification and other improvement projects.

Because the Bowl plays a significant role in the life of the community, residents of the city decided that something needed to be done, even if the government couldn’t afford to fund it. Starting in the early spring of 2011, business and community leaders met to plan restoration and beautification projects. As small projects got underway and larger-scheme plans came into focus, it became apparent it was time to seek help from the broader community.

To this end, a group of service clubs and local businesses banded together to organize a community service day on April 30. There was something for everyone to do, from nonprofit groups such as the Redlands Service Club Council and Mormon Helping Hands; to businesses like Home Depot, Larry Jacinto Construction, W. Wood Development, and La-Z-Boy; to education and culture groups like the University of Redlands Town and Gown Organization and the Redlands Community Music Association; to individual resident volunteers.

Businesses donated material and specialized labor. Local residents and long-time Bowl supporters Victor and Lisa Marabella took charge of repairing and redecorating the dressing rooms. Home Depot volunteers installed new boards on 45 rows of benches while hundreds of volunteers painted these, as well as the wrought iron gates and fences. Work was also conducted to improve wiring and electrical work, handicap access, and general clean-up.

Work at the Redlands Bowl was combined with a landscaping project along Redland’s downtown boulevard. Together, these community projects drew more than 2,000 people for the day of service. According to the local paper, volunteers saved the city about $400,000 in labor and materials.(5)

The Redlands community service day demonstrates the potential for community service to fill in gaps left by budget shortfalls. Spearheaded in large part by a local religious group (Mormon Helping Hands), the project gained widespread community support through coalition building. Businesses, community groups and residents recognized the benefits that the Bowl offered their community and offered a modern-day example of the sort of association-driven project that Alexis de Tocqueville commended in 19th Century America, “wherever you see at the head of some new undertaking the Government in France, and a man of title in England, in America you see an association.”

Determining your “home on the Range” is vital because that clarifies a number of other questions about the process itself. As fig. 4 outlines, timelines, along with more organizational issues, all follow from the initial answer to the “Why?” question, because Purpose determines Process.

Hard-Learned Lesson: On the subject of timelines, an objection to public engagement can be that it takes too long. An important response to this is to make sure decision-makers contemplate the possible time costs of not engaging the public. In some cases where the government has attempted to make a decision more directly, there have been ensuing lawsuits or ballot measures that have pushed back the proposed policy implementation by more than a year.

Especially for the more participatory processes (consulting, collaborating, empowering), the creation of a task force or advisory group can ensure success. As fig. 5 shows, the best advisory groups have the structure of a three-legged stool, relying on both internal and external representation for effectiveness. The main purposes of these groups are to vet possible policy options at the stakeholder level and to help promote the eventual gatherings with the broader public.

For consultative processes, the capacity of the task force to produce a finite set of possible policy options, or policy “ingredients”, that will be acceptable to decision-makers and high-level influencers is crucial to reaching a sustainable decision. This also means using this group to assemble an information basis for use in the broader public process, which represents the variety of perspectives on the policy decisions.

Stories of Success: Water Conservation in Redwood City
When it comes to public participation on controversial issues, early engagement can save a lot of trouble later. But sometimes controversy is unexpected. That’s what happened in Redwood City as a major public works project quickly turned into a major public relations disaster.

The plan was to develop a large-scale water treatment plant that would recycle wastewater for use in landscaping. Saving water in a drought-prone state seemed like a plan an environmentally conscious California community would welcome. No one expected opposition.

Then one resident decided that recycled water was more likely to spot her Mercedes and filed a complaint. City officials decided that the benefits of water conservation were more significant than a few spots on a polished car, and receiving no other complaints, continued to move forward on the project.

Determined to stop the project, the woman organized an opposition group, claiming that using recycled water on the landscaping in public parks would contaminate lawns and endanger children who played on them. Soon several local mothers’ groups began to flood city meetings.

Knowing that recycled water was perfectly safe for use and has been used for similar projects in many other cities, the city’s first response was to bring in expert witnesses from Cal Berkeley and other institutions. It was too late for their testimony to take hold, however. Experts were suspected of being on the other side, so opponents did not trust their scientific expertise.

At this point, City Manager Ed Everett, with the support of administration and council, offered residents a real voice in the process. He assembled an advisory committee composed entirely of community members, ten of whom were in favor of the water treatment and ten of whom were opposed to the project.

In an effort to encourage a workable solution, Everett gave the advisory group clear parameters for decision-making: the alternative project would have to cost $72 million or less; it would have to meet the goals of the original treatment project by conserving a certain number of acres/feet of water/per year; it had to be legal; and it had to be made within four months of the advisory group’s first meeting. Within these parameters, the group could be as creative as they wanted. In addition, the city provided the advisory group with funding to hire their own consultants. The deal? Come up with a better solution, or the city would move forward with the original proposal.

Unsurprisingly, it was a rocky start for the advisory group – could people approaching an issue from completely different perspectives find a solution that everyone was happy with? Turns out they could. The advisory group, recognizing both their potential influence and their limited time, overcame tensions and began to work together to come up with an entirely new solution.

They didn’t quite make their four-month deadline, but the city agreed to a slight extension, and soon they had a proposal ready to go to council. Their idea was to take public ball fields and replace sod with artificial turf, saving water altogether. The artificial turf would not only be functional and require less water, but it would also save the city maintenance. Plus, it did not use the treated water where kids would play. No one at City Hall had even thought of this option, but it fit within the cost, savings and legality parameters set by the city. Council approved the plan unanimously and what began as a public relations disaster turned into a story of creative engagement and success.

Even more than the agreement on a policy solution, this is a story of how public engagement can lead to a stronger community. As a testimony to this, the 20 members of the advisory council celebrated the anniversary of the project. This group of people who started out on opposing sides of a controversial issue learned that collaboration can accomplish shared goals. The city solved a problem and built community at the same time.

Hard-Learned Lesson: More participatory public engagement cannot and will not happen during a regular council, commission, or board meeting. These meetings are the community’s or organization’s business meetings conducted in public, in rooms with processes designed for individual comment, not collaboration. Productive public processes conducted outside these standard meetings will actually make these public business meetings more efficient and effective.

For civic leaders looking to engage their communities, task forces can provide the connection point to local governing institutions. Rather than demanding that the government involve residents, residents can collaborate with City Hall by offering services as an advisory group to help facilitate a broader project. Governments at all levels are under historically difficult strains, and smart public sector leaders are looking for ways to involve residents in these tough decisions. Some might call this getting cover, but whatever the motivation, these strains are creating new opportunities to begin a legitimate public engagement process.

Hard-Learned Lesson: Assembling a task force is an important “red flag” stage for more participatory public engagement projects. Put simply, if representatives from the hosting government institution or stakeholder organizations do not want to participate at this stage, the leader should be very cautious about moving forward.

With the growth in popularity and proficiency of online engagement tools, it is becoming increasingly important to find a media partner that can not only publicize the workshop or town meeting, but may also host an online platform for comment and/or prioritization of results and feedback. In a recent public engagement project around the Santa Barbara City Budget, the online newspaper Santa Barbara Noozhawk led an online participation effort to engage residents on budget choices. Depending on the project, online platforms can be used either “downstream” or “upstream” of a “face-to-face” engagement. Used “upstream,” web interfaces can help distill a large number of early-stage policy proposals into a manageable number for the public process. Used “downstream,” an Internet platform can engage a large number of residents in prioritizing a smaller number of policy suggestions resulting from the in-person engagement.

Hard-Learned Lesson: Online engagement is not about an “if we build it they will come” belief. A better framework should be “if it’s useful, they will use it.” Similar to face-to-face engagement projects, those looking to launch online engagement efforts – especially ones hosted on municipal websites – need to think like web marketers. First, leaders should ensure that the content and demand for engagement is large enough to drive traffic. Second, make sure that the site is promoted effectively through links on community or local news websites.
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