In California, a Public Engagement Manual for Cities

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Connecting state and local government leaders

San Luis Obispo’s how-to guide to community outreach was just featured by the League of California Cities for improving trust in local government.

City government outreach on projects and services should be as uniform as possible across all departments, which is why San Luis Obispo, California, created a Public Engagement and Noticing Manual for staff late last year.

Recognizing the public’s need for timely, easy-to-understand notices announcing municipal initiatives, the manual was drafted in four major parts: an action plan matrix, outreach tools, best practices, and venues.

Since the manual’s release, more than 400 residents participated in a forum setting goals for the upcoming fiscal year, and 751 other community members provided feedback through an Open City Hall online forum or else mail-in surveys. Open City Hall earned San Luis Obispo a 92 percent approval rating from its users, according to the League of California Cities, which is considering the manual for its Helen Putnam Award for improving government trust, ethics and involvement.

The 64 hours of public testimony on Open City Hall equate to saved staff time and resources.

San Luis Obispo’s action plan matrix is used during meetings to give City Hall better direction on engagement.

Across the top of the matrix the three types of engagement—informing, consulting and collaborating—are listed. Listed vertically down the right-hand side are the players: staff, department head/city manager, advisory bodies and city council.

For instance, developing a Climate Action Plan needs city council approval and, thus, collaboration with the public on recommendations, according to the League of California Cities.

Depending on the type of engagement, outreach tools might consist of website or social media notifications, surveys, focus groups, workshops or neighborhood meetings. It’s important for the city to keep in mind the residents and interest groups it’s trying to reach when deciding what tools to use.

To guide staff, the manual lays out best practices for choosing the right tools for the right type of engagement with the right target audience.

Where the public is engaged is also important, so a list of venues ideal for targeted community outreach were included in the manual.

A glossary of public engagement terms and processes, as well as templates for designing tools like ads or surveys was added as well.

Unsurprisingly, when it came out, the National Research Center featured the PEN manual as a model for other cities to follow.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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