| Given the state of our national politics, if your 4th of July celebrations included a healthy dose of cynicism, you're not alone. After all, this Congress is on track to be the least productive in the history of the United States. But it's also important – and heartening – to remember that positive change is happening in communities around the country.
Local politics are close to home, and it seems much easier to effect positive change in your own community than it does nationally. Engaging with local officials on community decisions is only so far as the next public hearing or city council meeting.
This doesn't mean that the attempts that local officials make to include residents in decision making are perfect. There are many examples what Leslie Knope would call "people caring loudly at me." And, unfortunately, these instances of poorly designed and executed public engagement often just to lead to more bad public engagement and an erosion of trust between local officials and the public.
However, via our work in communities throughout the country and from recent research in California, a few trends, practices and outcomes have heartened us. We hope they hearten you too:
Local officials are embracing public engagement more and more. In our recent research with local officials throughout California, 85 percent noted that "their views of public engagement have changed since their careers began" with 42 percent saying that these views “have changed a lot.”
Examples of good local engagement abound. It's not just attitudes that are shifting; it's actions, among local officials, civic leaders and residents alike. Examples include the Participatory Budgeting Project and efforts from the National League of Cities. Many other examples of sound, local civic engagement can be found in the writings of Matt Leighninger and at the websites of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, the Institute for Local Government, the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University and our own Center for Advances in Public Engagement.
Good engagement can be truly transformative. Sound and creative public engagement practices can transform communities in a number of ways. They raise expectations and build communication and trust between residents and local officials. They generate the kind of public support and public-private civic partnerships that get parks cleaned up, bridges repaired, children educated and communities strengthened.
Through well-designed engagement, public officials come to understand that citizens can play a constructive role in shaping the policies that affect their community. They're amazed at how thoughtful and constructive people can be, given a little information, a few tools and a modicum of the right support.
Positive experiences with public engagement can also inspire and energize residents, including those who are often disenfranchised. Leaders of community-based organizations told us in interviews that positive engagement experiences have the power to keep community members involved, generate new local leaders, and show residents that neighborhoods, towns and cities are made better by greater public involvement in government.