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3 Ways Government Can Build Trust and Partner With Citizens

In our recent guide entitled, “Innovating at the Point of Citizen Engagement: Making Every Moment Count,” I highlighted the activities of Raleigh, North Carolina, and their citizen-led, government-approved movement around innovation and open data. It’s an exceptional model of government-citizen partnership, and one that I’m trying to replicate and expand just a few miles away in Durham.

I’m engaging in these activities not in my role as the Community Manager at GovLoop, but as a private citizen who is interested in making Durham better. My hope is that the city and county will release relevant data sets and allow developers and interested citizens like me to transform services and information into valuable online and mobile apps. In the process, I am learning from Durham City and County government regarding how government can keep citizens like me invested in the process. Here are three ways that Durham is getting it right:

1) Commit to Regular Meetings: Early on, our meetings began with me and a developer here in town. We put a stake in the ground to meet every Friday at 5p to hold ourselves accountable for progress. We knew that we’d be sure to get things done if we had to look one another in the eyeballs in 7 days. As our coalition grew to more than a dozen people, including many city and county employees, we moved the meeting to every Tuesday to better accommodate their schedules. What impressed me most was that these busy public sector professionals were willing to commit to that kind of regular checkpoint. It showed an openness to accountability in the process and I appreciated it as a citizen.

2) Offer Up Your Space: Another aspect of our early meetings was that we’d meet at local coffee shops or pubs – wherever there was a community vibe, good beverages and free wifi. Eventually, we started having more and more people around the table and it became a bit too hard to hear with the ambient noise. In fact, I felt bad for one city council member who had to hold his hand up to his ear the whole time to get the gist of the conversation! That’s when Durham County IT offered to open up their conference room to host the meetings each week. It was a move that took the entire effort to another level. I thought to myself, “they’re really serious about this endeavor,” and solidified everyone’s resolve to press forward toward our goal together.

3) Don’t Say “No” (Just Say “Not Yet”): Over the last 2-3 months that I’ve met with Durham City and County, I have not heard the word “No” even once. Seriously, they have never shut down the conversation around opening datasets with a definitive statement like, “we can’t do that.” Their approach to the process has always been constructive – more along the lines of “it would be harder to do that or it could take more time, but let’s keep working on what’s possible.” They keep gathering more information and exploring the best approach. Admittedly, it’s taken longer than I originally anticipated to get to a couple early wins with a dataset or two being opened, but because of their willingness to keep engaging in constructive conversation, it’s given me patience and trust that no doors are closed and a number of options are still on the table.

If more government entities could take this type of approach around citizen engagement, I think we’d see people get more involved in productive initiatives that are happening in their communities. We’d better leverage the enormous amount of energy that former U.S. Deputy CTO Beth Noveck called “citizen surplus”. And we’d see even more innovation that saves both government and citizens a significant amount of time and money.

Is it reasonable to expect that other government entities would commit to regular meetings and host them in government space?

How has your organization partnered with citizens to build trust and accomplish big things together?

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