City and county officials are trying different techniques to encourage civic engagement and involve residents more directly in government decisions. Ed Everett, a consultant for the Malibu, Calif.-based non-profit Common Sense California, led a meeting on the topic during the International City/County Management Association’s conference in September. American City & County spoke with him about the best methods to make government a collaborative effort.
Q: What is civic engagement?
A: If done very well, and if done in sort of the graduate level of civic engagement, it is actually convening your citizens and letting them decide what topic they want to discuss or what issue is most important to them and letting them come to the decisions about what can happen around that particular topic. Often times, though, to be more simple for people within government, civic engagement is the government bringing forth an issue, but then letting the citizens begin to comment on it, begin to discuss among themselves about it and to be in partnership with the city on how to solve that problem.
Q: What do you think about the role of Web 2.0 technology, such as Wikiplanning, in civic engagement?
A: I think it’s been underutilized. I think it’s an important piece [of the process]. [Younger people are] used to going to the Internet and Tweeting or Facebooking, all of those things, so why wouldn’t we want to use those? It is just another tool, and we capture some people who simply won’t, or don’t, or wouldn’t care to go to a meeting.
When you use it, though, there needs to be some sophistication. A chat room where nobody uses their own name is not civic engagement. You don’t engage civically when people can just type away and slam other people [and] don’t own their comments. That will just tear a community apart.
Civic engagement is about people listening to other people, paying attention to what they say. It’s OK to disagree, but you have to own your own position and then be willing to let go of your position and say, ‘Gee, I think the majority has a better idea than I had even.’ So, I think you have to monitor [those applications] carefully.
Q: What are some of the forms of civic engagement?
A: Civic engagement does not happen in a council meeting. [And,] it doesn’t happen in a planning commission meeting — does not, will not. Those are business meetings. And, if we understand that those are business meetings, then we take civic engagement where it belongs, and that is outside the council chamber.
There’s never a head of the table [at civic engagement meetings]. There are always round tables. There is never anybody standing in front answering questions, be they the mayor or the city manager or someone else. All discussion happens around tables of six to eight [people,] and that table of six to eight has to come to a consensus. And, you have to give them time to both understand the issue and to listen to each other. It has to happen early enough that the output of civic engagement is useful and important to the elected officials but not so early that you haven’t had some chance to educate people. They need a chance to learn about the issue before they intelligently discuss it.
Q: What is an example from your career of an incident that helped you understand civic engagement?
A: [Redwood, Calif., where I worked as city manager] had an issue, as maybe other cities do, where we were using more water than we were allocated [from the Hetch Hetchy Water System that services the San Francisco area]. That’s just because other cities weren’t using it, we’re all in the same pool on [the system], and we realized that. When I became city manager I said, ‘Wow, seven years from now when they’re all using their [water allotments,] we’re going to be in a deep hurt. Let’s fix this thing.’
So, I turned it over to my department head who did a marvelous job of pulling together a cross-sectional team of the city [and] got some of the brightest consultants out there, and we really stressed that we could do massively better at conservation, and [that] we have a sewage treatment plant, a regional sewage treatment plant, in our city limits, [so] let’s use the effluent [from that plant] and start using recycled water. It made sense, [but] it was going to cost a lot of money. We were out talking about it, we were putting it out, [and] not too many people were upset.
One person, working the Internet 24/7, who didn’t like the idea, [complained first] that [the recycled water] would spot her Mercedes, [then said] she was allergic to it, it could make her sick, [or] if it got put on grass and babies ate the grass they might get sick, the babies might die. She had hooked into the mother’s club by then.
My council looked at me, especially the mayor, and said ‘Ed, this is turning out badly. We’re not civically engaging people.’ And I said, ‘You’re right, give me a week.’ And we stopped that process and we said, ‘OK, here it is: We’re going to appoint a task force [consisting of] 10 people who were absolutely in favor of [the plan] and 10 people who were absolutely opposed to it. Then we said, ‘We’ll give you professional facilitation. We will give you $60,000 to hire your own consultants. You have to save 2,000 acre feet of water a year, you can spend no more than $72 million — that was [the cost of] the retrofit for recycled water — [and] you must do this in [approximately] five months.’ [The task force also had to] come up with a consensus and not a minority report [or] the council [would go to] Plan B.
It took them six and a half months [and] they met the criteria. This was a group that could hardly talk to each other at the first meeting. At the end, they had a celebratory dinner. They made a recommendation to the city council. It was like a love-in instead of a contentious situation. Everyone was clapping, the council loved it, they endorsed it, and it’s 80 to 85 percent complete right now, and there’s been no blowback by the community, and they love it. That’s civic engagement.