Cities and Citizens Cutting Through the Noise

During one seminar, there were presentations from the cities of Grand Rapids and Chapel Hill and others who shared their efforts in community engagement campaigns. Too often, in cities like Lansing — with bustling economic growth and commerce — there are too many negative headlines. Boosting community engagement and shifting the focus to current government projects are essential to improving a city’s image.

There are two main processes in community engagement. The first one is a grassroots effort that gets the public on board with the goals of the administration. Once this step is complete, cities must engage in the second step: sharing the vision for the future and the successes along the way.

The conversation is not simply a stream of press releases to the public. In the presentations at MIP, administrations had real feedback from their citizens about plans and projects going on in their cities. In Grand Rapids, they actually had citizens play customized versions of Monopoly, LIFE and other classic board games to collect data on public opinion. Not only does this share positive news, but it also initiates a grassroots support system. When people feel that their opinion is valued by their government, they tend to be less skeptical about things going on behind the scenes.

In the next step of sharing the city’s plan, a few tactics can be used to continue the grassroots strategy. Host Mayor Mark Klienschmidt of Chapel Hill mentioned his community leaders in this effort. “We looked at our existing leaders in the community — the university, the neighborhoods, businesses, commercial associations, etc and used those people to drive our vision into every corner of our town,” the Mayor said. “Our goal was to engage 10,000 people, and we made it happen.”

The mechanics of government — the day-to-day processes, the behind the scenes work — are critical to a well-functioning city, but don’t usually make headlines unless something is wrong. But putting together simple, concrete points of focus and progress of city government give the media, the people and the region something to talk about.

To me, this all sounds like branding. When companies (or cities) don’t give the public material, they only have each other and media to rely on for information. We encourage our clients here at M3 Group to brand forward, which to me means, “put your brand out there before someone has time to make one up for you.”

After that data collection and market research, we start with mission and vision statements — and I believe that cities should do the same. The vision is where you need to get people involved.

Let your citizens dream with you, get them to throw their ideas out there and actually listen! You never know, they might just have a great strategy to fund the River Trail or revitalize a neighborhood. The point is, get the conversation going. Have platforms for your citizens to share their thoughts on what’s going on.

Mayors attempting this type of engagement must be ready for the feedback. Remembering that this is a conversation, a democracy and not a dictatorship. The public shouldn’t have to wait for an election to voice their opinions. Chances are if the choices of city administrators are being lead in the best interest of the constituents, these public opinion venues will only serve to confirm that. But in the case of controversial projects, growth and change, the conversation should absolutely be supported.

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