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Over the past few months, I have used this column to sketch a model of community development that calls for cities to cultivate their local capital. The assets model of development is activated by a city developing and implementing a sustainable vision for its future. As in Berea, Kentucky and many other communities, visions are successful when they are based on tolerance, education, and diverse economic strategies. However, a community’s vision is meaningless unless it is the product of broad-based support. To develop effective visions, public officials have to move beyond traditional public participation tools, such as public hearings and passive citizen boards, to more participatory forums for soliciting citizen input.
Recent public administration scholarship and commentary has focused on questions of communication. PA Times online columns have discussed the role of communication and technology in strengthening trust and transparency in public decision-making. Additionally, the current issue of Public Administration Review includes an excellent article reviewing the scholarly literature on public participation in administrative decision-making. From this review, John M. Bryson and his colleagues develop detailed guidelines for how organizations should design public participation processes. I’d like to contribute to this ongoing discussion by examining the importance of communication, between government and citizens, in community vision-building.
Citizens must play a role in developing their community’s vision through bottom-up, participatory processes. Public officials should facilitate these processes and offer expert advice. But due to the lack of community buy-in, a vision authored by a small number of government workers will fail. For a short time, I worked as a consultant helping a rural community update its comprehensive plan. The officials in that community had two previous updates that were sitting on a shelf not being used to inform decisions. The plans were authored by outside agencies that did not understand the goals of the community. The documents did not interest the elected officials and citizens because the goals and strategies didn’t stem from their vision for the community’s future.
When developing public participation processes, there are roughly two broad approaches to how local governments can communicate with their citizens: top-down, government-controlled and bottom-up, citizen-engaged. Top-down processes are what public officials traditionally employ. These processes are often legally mandated, such as public hearings before zoning and tax changes, and held after the major decisions have been made. When I worked as a comprehensive planner, my community conducted a series of public hearings that were largely ineffective because the forums were scheduled after the plan was completed! Bottom-up mechanisms involve the public in a more effective manner than traditional processes.
In an article entitled “Reframing Public Participation,” the planning scholars, Judith E. Innes and David E. Booher, call for citizen-engagement forms of participation, and discuss a number of success stories. One of these examples is Oakland, California. The city is having public participation success through active neighborhood boards. The members of these boards have become knowledgeable about municipal issues and have developed strong working relationships with city staff. Therefore, in Oakland, citizen engagement is leading to more public knowledge and closer bonds between public officials and their voters.
Governing magazine often profiles cities that are implementing innovative public participation strategies. Manor, Texas, for example, is seeking public input in the selection of problems and the development of solutions to those issues. Citizens can submit solutions, and if their alternatives are selected, they are rewarded with “Innobucks” that can be exchanged for small prizes.
Other communities are taking the ultimate step of public participation by involving citizens directly in the budget process. As Aaron Wildavsky often said, “public budgeting is the lifeblood of government.” Without the allocation of funds, public policy does not turn into action. In the past, Danville, Kentucky has used neighborhood focus groups to develop the goals for their operating budget. Another example is Durham, North Carolina. The city is also involving the public in the budget process by administering opinion surveys and conducting neighborhood meetings, like Danville.
Nevertheless, many cities fail to properly communicate with their citizens. Officials have little confidence in innovative public participation mechanisms. These officials often have experienced failure with traditional public participation methods. Public hearings, for example, are often forums for citizens to vent their anger at officials, which may serve a role, but most often simply cause both sides to become frustrated and step away from the discussion. As Brian Adams writes, “public officials never look good when yelled at.” The failure of traditional public participation tools make it less likely that officials will take a risk on participatory methods, which to them seem even riskier. To quote the warden from Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Our communities need visions that are based on public support. Without widespread support from citizens, a vision is simply a plan that will not be implemented. This is a major governance problem because our cities need robust visions to help them deal with modern economic and social challenges. Public administration scholars and practitioners need to do a better job selling cities on the merits of citizen engagement. The recent work by John M. Bryson et al. provides an excellent guide for this sales pitch. If participation in vision building is not improved, our communities will continue to suffer from a failure of communication and will continue to write plans that will merely collect dust on shelves.
*I’d like to thank my graduate assistant, Michael Ward, for his assistance with the research for this column.
Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the department of government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be contacted via [email protected]