Recently for Blog Action Day, the topic revolved around the Power of We and how the continued interaction and connectivity between hundreds and thousands of people can change the world. Not surprisingly, one re-occurring theme that kept surfacing was how Civic Engagement is needed in order to facilitate that change and bring together people to transform neighborhoods, communities and nations.
So, why should we as a society care about civic engagement? There are several studies emerging showcasing the power of civic engagement and the impact it can have on a community. In fact, higher levels of civic health are actually associated with lower levels of unemployment. Why is that? Well, people who are civically engaged are 50 percent more likely to vote, more likely to volunteer and more likely to invest in local businesses. They’re also more likely to establish roots in a community and therefore take ownership of their neighborhoods, schools, and overall environment. As cities continue to be faced with the ever pressing challenge of doing more with less, this kind of active community engagement is vital to a community’s health. The more people care about their community, the more involved they’ll be in the upkeep.
Extra eyes and ears on the street aid local governments in keeping their community healthy and vibrant. This all ties into the Broken Window Theory that suggests when visual cues such as graffiti, discarded debris and unkept lawns are present, people are under the perception that nobody cares about the environment and as a result, no one is watching. As a result, crimes of opportunity become more prevalent. On the other side of the coin, when a community is engaged in the maintenance and cleanup efforts of their neighborhood and 311 issues, crimes of opportunity begin to dissipate as the population believes that these areas are watched and cared for based on their physical appearance. The social cues and underlying message is powerful.
Civic engagement also builds up the social cohesion or trust among family, friends and neighbors which makes it easier for a community to tackle issues such as natural disasters or other economic storms as a unified front. This trust allows people to feel comfortable when they’re vulnerable and more apt to lean on one another during periods of stress. This social safety net is key to creating resilient communities. In short? There is strength in numbers.
Now that we know that civic engagement is important, how can municipalities start to foster that relationship? Here’s the good news, ready? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Take a look around you at what other communities are doing and start to institute some best practices. Adopt citizen-centered approaches. Look closely at what you’re doing and what can be improved upon. Think of citizens as your customers and develop that customer-centered approach. Here are some quick, easy to implement approaches to get you on the path for a more engaged community:
1. Ask Questions!
Civic engagement begins by starting the conversation. What do your citizens want? You can create a focus group and brainstorm for weeks but the simplest approach is to just ask them. You may be pleasantly surprised to hear their answers!
2. Provide a Forum
Give your citizens a platform for which they can share with you their ideas, frustrations and even 311 compliments. This goes a step further beyond just creating a presence on Facebook. Go where your citizens already are so it’s easy for them to connect with you and share their feedback. If your community is extremely tech savvy, make it easy for them to connect with you using their favorite mobile devices and smartphones. If you know the majority of your population takes public transportation, provide forums and access for them so they can connect with you during their daily commute, and so on. Sometimes simply asking your residents where it’s easiest to reach them (see step 1) is the best place to start!
3. Don’t Just Listen, Respond!
This isn’t a monologue, you also have to respond to your citizens or they won’t see the point in voicing their opinion in the first place. Respond to questions, thank your citizens for their compliments, and acknowledge their 311 complaints. This isn’t always easy. You may not want to respond to the aggravated resident that keeps complaining about the same abandoned building over and over again. However, if you can still reach out to them and explain the reasons why it hasn’t been addressed, that can actually help to turn that angered citizen around. People just want to know what’s going on and to know that their voice has been heard.
4. Invite Everyone to the Sandbox
Invite all of the groups in your community to participate! Let them know they want to hear from you. Involve local churches, schools, business development boards, sporting teams and more to get everyone in on the act. These groups also tend to be formed by active individuals in your community, so if you can mobilize them to also be your advocate, half your work is already done!
5. Actually Do Something
When you receive feedback from your residents, actually do something with that information. If a citizen complained about an abandoned car and the issue got resolved, they’ll be thrilled. Not only because the issue was resolved, but because they now know that their voice mattered.
So there you have it! Some quick and easy steps that allow you to foster civic engagement in your community. For additional tips and resources, visit PublicStuff or email the PublicStuff civic engagement experts at [email protected].