When it comes to involving the public in policy decision-making, there are a number of factors local governments consider, including:
Time. Employees must dedicate working time to prepare for and attend public meetings and work with residents and stakeholders to incorporate their ideas into the final plan. This is time that could be spent administering or monitoring federally-funded programs or fighting bureaucratic red tape to get legislation passed.
Money. It costs money to print flyers, create a website, boost a Facebook campaign, and print oversized maps, etc to share with the public for meaningful participation. Engagement ain't cheap! especially if you want your constituents to fully understand the project or measure you're seeking input on.
Patience. Oftentimes residents take any opportunity to interface with local government as their chance to vent and/or get help with a personal issue they are facing. It might take several interactions before a local government project becomes something that's of interest for the public and that can be frustrating.
Efficiency. These days so many jurisdictions are concerned about budgets and the efficient use of government funds (as they should be). However, that means each action is weighed for its benefits and drawbacks. Contrary to popular belief, public participation is a necessary burden for many local government officials because it doesn't always yield the results we hope despite the investment of time, money and resources. Very few local governments have found a way to make public engagement an efficient, high-yield process.
Sustainability. We hope public engagement is never a one-time thing and the investment governments make in collaborative community development yields dividends: a more concerned public, a more transparent exchange of information and a more thoughtful approach to solving the challenges of our day. However, the jury is still out on whether government-led public participation yields sustained public engagement.
So, is public participation worth the effort? Well, honestly, it depends.
If you do it with intention, creativity and patience -- it most definitely can be! I'll touch on this in Part 2.
If you know anyone working in government (community development, planning, housing, etc), please share this blog with them.
Adria is a community development consultant. She loves all things local and when she's not writing online you can find her enjoying the outdoors.