I was excited about one session in particular on Saturday morning at the PPMRN conference. The session was entitled “Citizen Engagement,” and the teaser promised that we would hear the panel “discuss their innovative programs that encourage governments to involve citizens in performance measurement and reporting processes.”
What I heard was some really good work in enhancing the way governments provide information to citizens (or residents or people -- the nomenclature has been changing as communities struggle with inclusivity and their non-citizen populations.) There's also interesting work in surveying citizens to see what they want and what's important to them.
Both of these communication strategies are critical in how we link people to the governments that serve them, and how we promote increased information-sharing from government to the people and from the people to government.
The challenge is to move beyond information-sharing to this thing we call “citizen engagement.” We're dealing in communities with disconnects, dissatisfaction, distrust, and powerlessness. Engaging citizens in community governance is both a logical and a necessary strategy to resolve these concerns and create more effective governance. But engaging requires more than an information exchange, especially if the information exchange occurs through an intermediary.
The difficulty is that we can't overcome powerlessness without a willingness to share or transfer power. Real engagement requires shared conversations -- not just surveys -- and participation in the decision-making processes. For those of us in the measurement business, that can be as simple as bringing people and government together in a room and deciding together what is important, what good government looks like, and how to measure progress on reaching a shared vision for effective governance.
One benefit to this kind of approach is to reconnect citizens and government and to begin building trust. A second benefit is to involve citizens in creating the solutions -- how can people help improve their community on their own or in voluntary associations? (See de Tocqueville for our history with these kind of associations and their critical function in making communities work.)
The good news is that this is more than just a theoretical discussion. Across America, these kinds of discussions are taking place -- in Sheriff's Advisory Committees, in committee meetings, and in organizations like the one I work in.
As we continue to enhance the amazing work being accomplished in government performance measurement in reporting, we need to bring the people into the picture. Is it hard to understand? Let's take a moment and talk it through together. Does government have limits? Of course it does, and through shared conversation we can move from wishful thinking to the practical. But those conversation need to happen in order to help both citizen and government understand what good government looks like.
Last story and I will stop musing on the topic: We had, in one community, a named storm come through. Trees fell. Power was knocked out. Our Emergency Operations Center went into action. Plans were put into effect. Goals were met, and the lights were back on and the street debris was all gone within 48 hours. High-fives and congratulations abounded within the EOC. That is, until they started hearing citizen complainst that it took two days for the power to be back on and the debris removed.
The problem wasn't government efficiency. The problem was in developing a shared understanding with the citizens on what efficient government was. The real challenge wasn't the performance measures, but the lack of engagement.
I'd appreciate your thoughts and reactions on this topic. What am I missing? Oversimplifying? Let me know if you want to talk further about the roles outside help can bring to engaging your community with government.