Connecting state and local government leaders
It's not always easy for cities to collect feedback from residents. Officials are looking at fresh ways to get the job done, while trying to avoid pitfalls like “engagement fatigue.”
Gathering input from residents can be a tough but important job for local governments. Done right, it can help build trust in programs and projects, and give people a greater stake in their communities. Done poorly, it can fuel the idea that city or county officials aren’t paying attention to what residents want, or that certain groups hold outsized sway over decisions.
Just figuring out the best methods to conduct outreach is one challenge. Is it a survey? A meeting? Some other forum? Another consideration is how to convince busy citizens to take the time to weigh in. What’s the best way to even connect with people in the first place? Social media? A mailer? Working through other organizations? And, importantly, how do you reach segments of the population that have been traditionally disadvantaged and overlooked?
For fast-growing cities and towns, thinking about these issues can be especially crucial, as newcomers flood in, as longtime residents want their concerns to be heard and as pressure rises on the housing market, as well as public assets like parks, transit and parking.
Bozeman, Montana is a city that’s seen its population boom in the past decade, rising to about 50,000 in 2020, from around 37,000 in 2010. Melody Mileur is communications coordinator there. She noted how community engagement can at times seem like a buzzword. But she explained how the city established a framework to try to make it more than that. This includes a definition of what “engagement” means.
“For us, engagement is two-way, back-and-forth conversations, where the city is collecting input in the form of experiences, data, information from the public, and then using that information to actually influence outcomes,” Mileur said, speaking during a panel discussion at this week’s International City/County Management Association conference in Portland, Oregon.
Mileur highlighted an upcoming four-week trail closure that Bozeman is imposing as a safety precaution, as logged trees are removed by helicopter from nearby land. This is part of efforts to reduce wildfire risks. The trail is popular with local residents. It would be unsafe, though, to have people in the area with logs being lifted overhead.
The city reached out to residents with a survey as it planned the project, giving them three options for the closure. One would’ve stretched the work out longer, but left the trail open at times like weekends and evenings. Another was a kind of a middle option, where the trail would’ve been accessible on weekends only. And then there was the speediest alternative, where the trail would close for roughly four weeks and then reopen completely.
Residents opted for the fast option with the total closure. “People wanted us in and out and done,” Mileur said.
A notable aspect of the city’s outreach around the closure: It presented residents with a fixed menu of choices. That’s opposed to asking an open-ended question about how to conduct the work and potentially getting suggestions that were unrealistic. Mileur stressed that it’s important to be clear with the public about what input officials are trying to collect and how it is ultimately used to make decisions. This helps to build trust in the engagement process, she added.
Amanda King, communications and public involvement director for Fort Collins, Colorado, said the city tries to build “mechanisms for listening” into its engagement program. She described how the city solicited resident input as it pressed ahead to explore and provide municipal broadband.
Fort Collins has a vibrant craft brewing scene. So one technique the city used was organizing a series of events, dubbed Broadband and Beers, where city officials talked with constituents about what they were looking for with the broadband initiative.
“It was a really fun way to engage,” King said.
One-size-fits-all approaches don’t necessarily work. Diane Arthur, deputy city manager and marketing and communications director for Surprise, Arizona, said, for example, that while the city doesn’t use printed mailers for the most part, it does rely on them when communicating with a predominantly Hispanic section of town, sending out information printed in Spanish.
“We’re very intentional in our outreach with that community,” she said.
Overcoming 'Engagement Fatigue'
Fort Collins, like other cities, relies on a framework from the International Association of Public Participation to design its outreach efforts. King said the city got to a point where the system it built around the framework was running smoothly. But attempts to engage with the community were also stacking up, she noted. A risk is “engagement fatigue” on the part of residents, where they feel they’re being solicited over and over for input.
King said the city is now looking at ways to foster more of an ongoing and consistent back and forth with the community, rather than reaching out only transactionally when it is looking for input on a proposal. But, she added: “It’s challenging to do that.”
Something else Fort Collins is looking at is how to take feedback gathered for one initiative and use it for others, as well as how to combine outreach efforts, in order to cut down on the amount of times the city has to bug residents. For instance, it recently sought input on the budget, a recovery plan and a strategic plan update in one swoop. “We’re collecting feedback one time,” King said.
Mileur emphasized that there can be value in trying to engage with residents at times when the city isn’t looking for specific feedback or data. She pointed to a recent city block party she helped throw. “They are so stoked to have you there,” she said. “Those are all people who, the next time you have transactional engagement, come to the table.”
She also said that sometimes she’s urged city staff to hold off launching a project because she doesn’t believe the public is ready to participate in the kind of engagement process it will require. “Sometimes that engagement fatigue means you have to slow down," Mileur said, "or be very, very specific about how you’re engaging with people."
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.