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LOCAL GOVERNMENTS ENGAGING CITIZENS AND KEEPING AN EYE ON THE FUTURE Clay Pearson, City Manager, City of Novi Throughout history, citizen engagement has taken shape in many different forms, from the New England town hall meetings to input at the ubiquitous Planning Commission public hearing, from revolutionary pamphleteering to Facebookl Twitter, from formal service on some board or commission to volunteering on an improvement project. Simply put, citizens of a community are "enga.g.ed" when they inform, direct or help make a deCISion that affects the community in some way. One of my favorite thinkers on the topic is Ed Everett, a California-area city management-guru-turned-consultant. Ed posits that "the concept of community building is at the very heart of the City's values and vision:' He talks passionately about the need to view residents as citizens, meaning that they are ultimately responsible for their government, and not customers (mere purchasers of goods). Personally, I am keen on that distinction and add that we can usually drop the 'taxpayer'label- taxpayers are found in Myanmar and North Korea, but do not have the same responsibility and influence as citizens in the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, Sweden, or South Korea. Our own Novi Mayor David Landry here in Novi talks about the differences between a mere city (a geographic construct) versus a community (which describes both the people in it and how they engage with each other for each other). So how to move from city to community? It is not automatic, even in representative democracies. In fact, with the right to engage in representative democracy comes the responsibility to make the most of the opportunity. The Alliance for Innovation (and its forerunner Innovation Group)
has i?een a long-standing resource for finding new and Improved ways for citizens to engage. But who is going to do this work? John Nalbandian (University of Kansas) has instructed for decades that, for public officials and professional managers, leading the engagement of our citizens in the community is as important as management of our public resources. Dr. Nalbandian, after years of observations, research, and teaching, concludes that such engagement is what leads to greater legitimacy and an enhanced ability to be a part of long-lasting improvements. We in local government can design the systems and make the invitations to bring citizens into genuine engagement. While these concepts are in some ways timeless, the future for engagement is arguably more challenging these days, for all sorts of reasons. First there is the unending cynicism of some of those whose job it is to get the most out of citizen input and involvement. I believe that such assumptions of general apathy (or worse) and incompetence are a convenient cop-out by those who choose not to engage. We public managers aren't going to get more air time from earsplitting TV talking heads. We can only take the hedgehog
appro~ch (Good to G~eat, Jim Collins) and keep plugging away, working towards desired and agreed-upon outcomes; building credibility all along the way. Local government professionals
~re suc~essful when they are actively involved In defining the issues, identifying solutions, and developing priorities for action and resources. The more pressing challenge is time. As the
nc~is~ ~nd clutte~ and demands grow, sorting out priorities to service becomes a more consuming ~ask, a~d efforts to get others engaged get increasingly crowded out. But it's important
: The Ideas Quarterly Report. Winter 2010 10 I
to remember that it's okay for engagement to be simple, clear, and fast. We should not build expectations of huge ongoing time commitments that are going to scare off all but the most dedicated (or those with something to gain personally by the engagement). We must balance between making things look easy, almost on autopilot (well-run cities), and demanding that citizens take part in their own local governments. The City of Novi is constantly keeping an eye on the future, seeking to engage citizens through a variety of venues. We learn from many Alliance for Innovation communities. Novi knows that when citizens are engaged and part of the decision-making process, everyone benefits. Our own proactive approach to citizen engagement takes many forms, but can be as simple as fan pages on Facebook for the City, Parks, and Economic Development. We layer our efforts to provide something for everybody, sharing information in op-ed pieces placed in local newspapers and websites, seeking input on the City's budget process, saying thank you to our volunteers with spending some money on an annual dinner. We stay transparent, sharing all supporting material for City Council agenda items on the City's website. We try to be interactive with hosting quarterly Police and Fire Town hall Meetings throughout the community in neighborhood facilities. Engaging citizens and sharing information about all aspects of government operations has been and will be a top priority for Novi officials. In Novi, it's a team effort and the community belongs to our citizens.
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