This summer, the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences held four panel sessions on Public Governance and Civic Engagement. Based on our panel conversations, we recommend that civic leaders—public, nonprofit, and private—take four major steps to build a stronger civic culture and increase trust in government:
- Strengthen communications with the community. Civic leaders should communicate widely about what is happening in their communities in readily comprehensible, non-bureaucratic language. As many civic leaders have discovered, social media platforms provide them with an opportunity to directly connect with their communities, which has been especially important during the pandemic. Organizations like CivicLex report current events in real-time and give readers resources to act, in order to receive critical community input.
- Provide “spaces”—physical or virtual—where dialogues can take place. Communities need spaces to have open and honest conversations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many state and local governments have continued to provide accessible spaces by switching to virtual town hall meetings. Interestingly, these actions led to considerable increases in the number of people who attended these meetings. One panelist noted that attendance at their community’s town halls doubled after virtual meetings were instituted. This should not just be a feature of pandemic life: moving forward, residents will still need a wide range of spaces, including virtual options, to be actively engaged in their communities.
- Utilize innovative online tools. Civic leaders have a wide range of new tools available to foster civic engagement, increase transparency, and build new connections. One useful tool is MetroQuest, which allows city managers to design visually engaging surveys to collect insights from the community and educate the public about development projects in a cost-effective manner. Finance Dashboards—used by numerous cities, including the City of Denver—can be used to show residents how public funds, such as the recent Coronavirus Relief Funds, are being utilized.
- Recognize community history and context. History can be difficult, but immensely beneficial, for communities to address. By facing history—both positive and negative—in a clear-eyed manner, it is possible to develop a forward-looking agenda that ensures everyone in a community has a sense of belonging and an opportunity to contribute. For example, Wagner, SD, began addressing its racial history about ten years ago. Its school system instituted study circles on racism with administrators, teachers, and students, which led to more inclusive curricula; many businesses added signs written in Yankton Sioux, the language of the native population in Wagner, to their storefronts; and the town established a business incubator with equal governance among Native American residents and white residents. The result was that Wagner became a more equitable, fair, and civically engaged community. Other communities around the country have had similar experiences.
Based on the conversation with our panelists, civic leaders clearly have many tools at their disposal to build trust and encourage people to get involved in their community. By taking these steps, civic leaders can protect democracy by ensuring that all voices in a community are truly heard.
Joe Mitchell is the Director of Strategic Initiatives & International Programs at the National Academy of Public Administration. Jillian McGuffey is a Research Associate at the National Academy of Public Administration.