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By Mayor Pro-Tem Paul Wyatt
When I decided to run for Dana Point City Council, one of my campaign promises was to give a voice to the residents; to be their representative to city government. Accomplishing this goal requires great two-way communications with a broad cross-section of the residents. As I approach six months in office, I’m learning that keeping this promise is more difficult than expected. I’ve had many discussions with my fellow council members and with city staff where decisions could have benefited by a better understanding of the residents’ priorities.
The Institute for Local Government encourages cities to move from community communications to community engagement; to effectively involve the community in priorities and policies. Online technologies can allow residents to provide input at their convenience and make it possible to reach diverse audiences. A broader audience provides a broader perspective that better represent the larger community. A small number of residents are very involved in city government, they attend Council meetings or watch them online, speak to or email the Councilmembers and provide feedback. These interactions, while helpful and appreciated, provide a very limited perspective that we in government must work to broaden.
As the city of Dana Point enters Fiscal Year 2018 on July 1, the City Council has directed the city staff to initiate a priority-based budgeting process. A key input to this is a poll of the residents. It is the intent of the city to repeat this poll every two years so priorities can be adjusted at each budget cycle. For this to be as effective as possible the polls need to reach all residents and the residents need to believe that participating in the polls is worthwhile. This is one tool that the city hopes will result in a sustained engagement with its residents.
Community engagement relies on and promotes better informed participants. Traditionally cities have relied on the news media for their communication with residents and today this is still largely true. City web sites contain event information and meeting minutes for those specifically seeking this information but do not publish information to a broad audience. The Western Cities Magazine, June 2017 article titled “10 Changes Shaping Local Government Communications,” states that cities can “no longer rely on the media to interpret and distribute our organization’s news and perspectives.” Technology now provides cities, and everyone else, direct, unfiltered, immediate access to their audiences. But tools and access only provide the opportunity; transparency, accuracy, and authenticity are essential to overcome skepticism and truly engage our residents.
Once trust is established, the city can provide essential information with appropriate levels of detail to better inform residents. Whether the audience likes the message or not, trust is built by trustworthy, relevant communications.
When all segments of our community are engaged in key public decisions and the decision-makers’ choices are driven by their best sense of the public’s interest, I’ll feel that I have achieved my campaign promise…but not until!