Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | The ideal way to engage with residents age 25 and younger is to network in their community in order to allow everyone to be on equal footing, according to a Gen Z government analyst.
This column was first published by Engaging Local Government Leaders, a professional association for local government officials.
How many commissions or council meetings have you been to? Now, at all those meetings, how many people aged 25 or younger have you seen? How about how many times have you seen a Generation Z community member come to talk to staff or a public official?
If your experience is anything like mine, the answer to those questions is probably not too high of a number. Forging connections with Gen Z community members, both at a person-to-person and organization-to-person level, is incredibly difficult. Numerous roadblocks prevent these connections from being created, and often without that initial connection, it becomes harder and harder to engage Gen Z community members in local government work of any kind.
However, I firmly believe it is not impossible to start off with those strong connections, and I hope by the end of this article you have a few new tools to try out or at the very least an updated outlook on this difficult process.
Gen Z Engagement Principals
To start, let’s review the guiding principles for Gen Z engagement:
- Don’t treat Gen Z as one unified group; acknowledge their diversity and focus your efforts on certain sects of the demographic.
- Use appropriate methods of communication for the segments of Gen Z you’re targeting.
- Use an appropriate tone for the project and group you’re reaching out to. Keep it professional yet casual.
With our framing mindset in place, let’s dive into how we can make and maintain those connections.
The first topic I’d like to cover is the methods you use to make these connections. Many of the traditional methods used in local government contexts are unfamiliar and often intimidating for Gen Z community members. Showing up to a town hall or workshop where they’re 30 to 40 years younger than every other participant is a scary prospect! If the methods that you’ve been using up to this point have been seeing few or no Gen Z community members engaging with you, that’s a sign that it might be time to consider a change.
So what methods are we supposed to use to make these connections then? The No. 1 tip I can give, the biggest takeaway I hope you have from this article, is to use existing networks and connections that those community members already have. By doing so, we aim to introduce ourselves, our work and the whole world of local government through a channel that is less intimidating. When someone or some group that they know and trust is introducing them, the idea can seem much more friendly and aimed towards them than a general event or publication.
So, what kind of network should we shoot for? As mentioned we want the network to be one that the Gen Z community members are familiar with (not just that you as public officials are aware of) and on the same level or at least similar ones as the community members themselves. This means reaching out to people who hold positions over the community members we are targeting is not going to work. Professors, employers, parents and people of that sort will likely create the same amount of resistance since it will seem more like an assignment or order than an invitation to participate.
The ideal network will be one that is maintained or primarily administered by members of the Gen Z community. This will allow everyone to be on equal footing and interest to develop organically among those who genuinely would like to be connected with.
Consistent Communication is Key
Now, once you’ve made contact through an existing network, where do we go from here? How can we make sure this unique investment we’ve made to connect with Gen Z community members returns significant interest from their side? I’ve got two major tips to help keep these community members connected to try out after you’ve gone through their networks.
The first tip I have is to provide consistent communication with the network and community members. Often it is amidst a campaign or project when performing outreach to the community is at the forefront of our minds as public officials, but for our community members who aren’t as in tune with the day-to-day work, this can result in sour tastes in their mouths. Especially when it comes to Gen Z community members who may keep up less than others with local government publications, newsletters and schedules.
When they are reached out to for their opinions on a project once every six months and then hear nothing from the people they have connected with for the rest of that period, it can feel like they are being used to fill quotas and promptly discarded. To show them that you truly care about connecting with them, filling them in during slower periods, offering opportunities to stay in touch, and generally staying in contact with them is the best way to mitigate these feelings. It’s easy for our connections to get lost in the busy work of public administration, but I can’t stress enough how valuable these more consistent, smaller updates and conversations can be.
Follow Up is Necessary
The second major tip is to follow up and through on the opinions and attitudes that your Gen Z community members share. If something is impossible or doesn’t work out for one reason or another, share why! There is nothing more discouraging than seeing the things you shared never make it past an initial discussion without any explanation.
For example, say you’re working on updating some portions of code that pertain to how far back buildings must be from an adjacent park. However, when you’ve been reaching out to Gen Z community members who live in the area, they keep bringing up the lighting in the park at night and how it makes them feel unsafe. To someone involved in public administration, it may seem obvious that the scope of what you’re doing is completely unrelated to lighting, but to them, it may seem like an opportunity to knock out two birds with one stone and fix both the setbacks and lighting issues the park faces. You could just jot down their comments and designate them to be an afterthought in your report.
But, instead, you could explain to the participants what your scope is, why it doesn’t pertain to lighting, and what/who to get in contact with to get the ball rolling on this safety issue. Explaining why and then steering them towards resources that pertain to their interests helps keep your local government in their good graces and can accelerate your public process.
Connections are hard, especially with Gen Z community members. By using some or all of the tips we discussed in this article, you should be more successful at cultivating mutually beneficial, long-term and respectful relationships with those members of your community. Gen Z is the future, and getting a jump start on those connections now can only set you up for success down the road.
Cody Kleinsmith is a climate resistance analyst for Lane County in Oregon.