Your role in citizen engagement


In last week’s edition of Nest City News, I made a provocative statement – citizens choose to engage.

Here’s the rub – they do choose, but how do our decisions as community leaders encourage or discourage their choices to get involved in city decision-making? How can we, as leaders on city council, in city administration or in our community organizations and businesses create the conditions for citizens to choose to engage, and choose to engage well? As leaders, we need to look to ourselves, and what we believe, first.

Last week I shared 10 conditions that encourage citizens to involve themselves. Here’s a reframe of these for those of you in leadership roles. As a leader, you will best work with others when you:

  1. Bring your best self. Leave the negative at the door and appreciate all points of view, all sources of information. When you bring your best self, so will others. You set the stage.
  2. Create time and space for people to tell stories. Stories are ways for people to connect to what matters to them, and to each other, even when they have differences in opinion. This feels like it takes a lot of time, but its about moving slow to move wise and fast later. Stories allow us to see what is really going on.
  3. Trust that people want to contribute and take responsibility. This is a choice for you as a leader. If you believe that people have something to offer, you will see it. If you do not believe this, you will not see it. Be open to be surprised.
  4. Offer minimal structure. Too little structure means confusion. Too much structure stifles what people have to offer and closes off opportunities for communication and collaboration. Find the balance of just the right amount of structure for the processes you use to work with each other.
  5. Pursue unusual partnerships. Get together and bust the silos right from the start. To engage a wide variety of people, you don’t have to do it alone. Partner with unusual people and organizations to broaden your reach. Integrate points of view from the outset.
  6. Practice working with each other. It isn’t good enough to organize for a one-time relationship. Or even a series of meetings that will end at the end of a project. Build longer-term relationships and spend time talking about how you can work together, and under what conditions it works best.
  7. Take action. All the possibilities in front of us can paralyze us from taking action. The specifics of how to proceed can also paralyze. If the intention is to build relationships, we don’t worry about specifics because we are also agreeing to learn to work together. We do not need a specific plan about how to work together. We just need to get started.
  8. Pause to look at what’s really going on. Take time alone, and with the people you engage, to reflect on your relationship, what its for, what is working well and what needs to be improved. This allows you and your colleagues to bring your best selves.

City governments are making more efforts than ever to involve citizens in their decision-making, and it is not easy or clean-cut work. It is messy . The processes city governments use to make decisions are complicated and take years of experience to understand. Residents get frustrated. City governments get frustrated.

Many citizens engage themselves because of their interest to improve some aspect of city life. Others, get engaged when something is going wrong, there’s something they don’t like – NIMBY (not in my back yard). This needs to be said – there is nothing wrong with when a citizens chooses to engage. Everyone is busy making contributions to our city life and it is not reasonable to expect all people to be engaged in all things at all times.

Are we ready to involve citizens when they choose to engage?

In what ways do you go beyond the usual to engage citizens in your city work?



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.