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You might recognize those words as a Bob Dylan song title from the ’60s but it is also a theme that holds true every minute of every day, amplified by the world we live in. Everything from food to your government is faster, more accessible, and available at any hour of the day – 24/7/365. The pace never slows down, and we in turn grow hungrier for more information to help us better understand our place in our communities, our regions, our countries, and our globe.

[72% of citizens would like to access government information via their smartphone, while 62% of citizens would like to see their government adopt more innovative technology.1

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that communication of information is crystal clear, is consistent, is broadcast through multiple means, and reaches every audience. This is especially true for municipal officials. You are the keepers of your residents’ safety, security, money – and their trust. Providing the opportunity for their voices to be heard is no longer just as simple as placing an item on your evening’s meeting agenda and checking the box. You have to invite them in, meet them where they are, and, most importantly, listen to them. Just like you, your residents are busy facing real world challenges as they juggle many responsibilities between work, family, and life. Value them, for without them, you wouldn’t be in your seat. You may have strong opinions, but in the end you have to answer to the voice and the will of your voters. 

Public engagement, public meetings, public information sessions, public forums – they all are variations on the same theme: community engagement. Some might cringe at the mention of the term as they recall a brutal public meeting during which things got ugly. But this is the exception, not the rule, and it is largely preventable if the engagement is planned, prepared, managed, and led well. Warnings, posting agendas, minutes, etc.– these are the legal bones of the “public” process. Think of them as the skeleton or framework. The “community” (engagement) component humanizes the “public” process. It adds the flesh and blood to the skeleton, giving it personality and life. 

There are three types of community engagement. Which one are you?   

  • Passive. You meet your legal requirements but haven’t done anything to modernize your engagement strategy. People rarely show up to your meetings and often tell you they had no idea about particular issues the community is facing.   

  • Reactive. You take the initiative to foster engagement, but your efforts are inconsistent. They advance in intervals, are typically attributed to one person, and don’t have a unified strategy. Your meeting attendance bumps up because there is a specific, potentially contentious issue that rattles some of your residents. They are educated about the topic but little else in their local government. 

  • Active. You have a consistent and measurable strategy for approaching engagement. Seats at every one of your meetings are filled with members of your community actively listening and participating in the process. They understand what their local government does each day, how it problem-solves challenges, and capitalizes on opportunities. Community members feel part of the process, not run over by it.   

“Active” is aspirational but should be everyone’s goal, and how you decide to spend your ARPA funds presents you with the opportunity for reaching it. At this point in the process, many organizations may have already approached you for some or all your ARPA money. But before you commit a penny of it, have you asked your residents how they would like to see it spent? If not, you should. It becomes a matter of openness and transparency – two things that are incredibly important when it comes to money. If you do not include the townspeople in this conversation, then you run the risk of dividing your community and losing their trust – something that, right now, we need more than ever. Think “active”! 

If “active” community engagement intimidates you, then don’t be afraid to ask for help. Maybe there are some in your community who are superstars at getting the word out, drawing crowds, or hosting civil discussions about local issues. Tell them exactly what you want to do. Ask them to partner with you to create a community engagement strategy. Or, you could contact your regional planning commission (RPC) to ask for help. Each RPC has a diverse team, most of whom are seasoned in facilitating public conversations. If you want to take a more comprehensive approach to active community engagement, consider hiring a community engagement consultant (yes, this is an eligible use of funds) to help you develop a strategy around not only your ARPA funding but how you involve your residents in their local government now and consistently in the future. Create a plan and execute it. And always remember: the goal of the meeting is to facilitate community discussion and hear their ideas, not talk at them. 

Regardless of the approach you choose to take, here are some ideas to consider to help ensure a more open and inclusive community engagement process. 

Identify barriers to participation and eliminate them.

  • Provide childcare
  • Offer a Zoom/hybrid participation option
  • Host multiple meetings on a topic at different times of day/week to accommodate people’s work schedules, school schedules, meal times, family commitments, etc.
  • Offer translation services, if appropriate
  • Provide snacks!

Choose the right location.

  • It must be accessible to all – if possible, located on a public transportation route. Can you offer a rideshare program for those with transportation limitations?
  • Neutral, familiar space
  • Decent acoustics so people can hear
  • Wi-Fi (for the Zoom option)
  • Screen and projector, or easel and flip chart, that everyone can see

Invite everyone. Publicize the meeting.

  • Create a colorful, engaging flyer (It doesn’t have to be fancy!)
  • Post flyers:
  1. on the homepage of your municipality’s website (not buried five clicks in)
  2. at your regular posting places 
  3. on local bulletin boards 
  4. if you have a local school, ask them to include the flyer in their students’ handouts or reference it in their weekly newsletter to parents/guardians 
  5. at your general store, café, businesses, as applicable and allowable 
  6. on Front Porch Forum 
  7. in social media 
  • Plug the meeting during your other public meetings; include a reference to it in the minutes with a link to the flyer on your website 

Extend specific invites to:

  • Parents of school age children
  • Millennials
  • Seniors
  • High school students
  • Members of the BIPOC community
  • Baby boomers
  • Local non-profit leaders
  • Local business owners

Before the meeting:

  • DO NOT wing it
  • Prepare, prepare, and then prepare more
  • If you can create a presentation to share on a screen, then do so
  • If you cannot create a presentation, then definitely have an agenda written out on a flip chart at the front of the room
  • Prior to the meeting ask someone to be the scribe
  • Arrive at the location early with enough time to set up the room, ensuring that the audio/visual system works (if applicable), food/drinks are set out and ready, and the temperature of the room is comfortable

During the meeting:

  • Listen more than you speak
  • Avoid using jargon or acronyms – use easy universal language
  • Offer translation services, if appropriate
  • This is not business as usual; it is special and should be treated that way
  • Be organized and well prepared
  • Make the relevant introductions (including yourself and the scribe) and give the appropriate thanks
  • Project/post the agenda and goals of the meeting at the very beginning
  • Set meeting rules at the start to establish meeting culture and expectations for participation, including time limits for speaking to allow time for everyone to speak
  • Ask elementary school age kids (your future voters) to carry the microphone to speakers
  • Frame presentation points for conversation and deliberation
  • Balance – too much information can be overwhelming and most often is unnecessary; stick to the important points and eliminate the fluff
  • Support your points with data whenever possible
  • Stay on topic
  • Create a “parking lot.” When people get into the weeds, ask the scribe to move the topic to the parking lot and return to it if time allows or address it outside the realm of the meeting
  • Help move people past wishful thinking in a positive way
  • Be gracious and respectful with feedback and criticism if it arises
  • Be open, honest, and transparent – always

The benefits of a successful community engagement exercise are:

  • Community members hear the facts, not speculation that breeds rumors
  • Community members become more educated and fluent on local issues
  • Community members feel that they are heard and part of solutions
  • Trust in local government is strengthened
  • The desire in community members to participate in local government grows

Footnote
1. Conduent - Innovation, Ease of Use and Trust: Improving the Citizen Experience with Digital Government Services

Katie Buckley, Director
VLCT ARPA Assistance and Coordination Program