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Working with the public: time to build a new relationship.

Working with the public is no easy feat these days. Citizens are always asking for more, unwilling to face up to costs. Their demands are constantly changing; their opinions are often fickle. Instantaneous results are not fast enough. They put their own narrow self-interests ahead of the common good. Now none of this is hearsay - citizens themselves tell The Harwood Group these things in our work across America.

Public officials often find these rituals of public involvement tiring, frustrating and, no doubt, annoying. No matter how hard they work with the public, people never seem satisfied. What's more, public officials seldom receive the kind of input from citizens that makes it worthwhile to sit through long public meetings, pay for expensive polls, or actively seek out citizen views.

Yet many of the actions public officials now take to engage citizens are, in fact, more harmful than productive. For instance, public meetings are set up in which citizens have only a fleeting moment to speak their mind. Or, citizens are submerged into the minutiae of decision-making, often leading to gridlock and frustration. And citizens regularly are asked their opinions on issues they know little about, much less the costs of acting.

These and other approaches produce the kind of public anger that plagues the political process today. Many people feel shut out of the process, in the dark on issues, ignored, overwhelmed by facts and figures, and even manipulated. At times they are expected to be passive, but happy, spectators of the political process, other times mini-experts on the nuances of budgets, policies, and technical decisions.

Many officials are now paying a high price for this situation: some are getting booted out of office, many more are being greed with "lynch mob" emotions at places like public meetings originally intented to engage, rather than enrage, citizens.

What's needed is an alternative. As I wrote in NCW last week, both citizens and public officials alike are yearning for a sense of possibility in politics, a sense that problems can be solved. A belief that we are headed somewhere meaningful.

We call this alternative, "constructive input." It is a new deal that must be struck between public officials and citizens, a new way to interact. For public officials, it begins by learning from citizens - gaining a sense of context and meaning on issues from citizens' own experiences and perspectives and thoughts. For citizens, it means taking the time to give thoughtful input. But, to work, both sides must take on new responsibilities.

Needless to say, constructive input is based on a set of ideas that cannot be fully explained here, but the principles guiding how public officials and citizens interact are these:

* Give-and-take discussions must replace citizens and public officials talking at, over, and around each other.

* The focus must be on "public issues" that matter to citizens, and not on minute details of policy or unfocused, complaint sessions.

* Input should be centered on the direction of action, not on judgments about every individual rule or proposal.

* Weighing the costs of acting - the tradeoffs, the expenses, the limitations - should be central to the process.

* A "community view" - not just the arithmetic mean of individual views - must be considered. People must be pushed beyond their narrow self-interests.

Once public officials and citizens strike a new deal, new relationships can be created. Renewed trust can be found. Facing "tough" issues may become easier. Public official can get input they can use; and citizens will begin to find a place for themselves in the political process.

Of course, nothing will change quickly. New trust, new relationships, new constructive input will take time - as do all meaningful changes.

Action Agenda

Five Steps Toward Constructive Input

* Start more conversations. Get constructive input by holding more give-and-take conversations with citizens - moving beyond just questionnaires, surveys, and formal public meetings.

* Focus on issues that matter. Talk with citizens about problems and challenges the public must consider, and not the minutiae of policy, budget and technical decisions.

* Talk about directions. Focus discussions on general directions for action, not on up or down votes or gripe sessions.

* Don't hide the downside. Always explore the costs and trade-offs involved in actions. Don't portray proposals as pain-free. Engage people in weighing which trade-offs they can live with.

* Move beyond narrow interests. Encourage people to think in terms of their community and not just their own self-interests...

Five Keys

to Working

with the Public

This is the second in a five-part series, leading up to the National League of Cities Local Government Professional Staff Conference, Sept. 24-26 in Louisville. Each article explores an important approach for working with the public.

* Creating Possibilities in Politics

* Building New Connections to the Public

* Framing Issues in Public Terms

* Listening Closely to Citizen Voices

* Taking the "Public Soul" Perspective
COPYRIGHT 1992 National League of Cities
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related information on constructive input and on dealing with the public
Author:Harwood, Richard C.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Sep 7, 1992
Words:800
Previous Article:Santa Ana planning 15 years ago pays off.
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