How did you get started in local government?
I spent almost a decade as a journalist. My passion was watchdog reporting on government and politics.
One day, I was writing a story about how the mayor and council of Ferndale, Washington had violated the Open Public Meetings Act. A few days later the mayor called me and said, “You keep writing these stories about us getting it wrong, why don’t you help us come fix it?”
They had an opening for city clerk, I thought that from there I could enhance their overall city communications—to be an internal champion for open and accountable governance.
The chance to take action and be a part of the solution was too good to pass up.
It’s easy for them to say that they wanted to change, but how receptive were they once you were hired?
From day one, I realized the mayor meant what he had said.
I challenged the team to be more transparent and the entire staff was incredibly open to change. I’m really proud of the communications systems we built to inform the public. We made a tangible difference helping the community understanding the impact of their government.
What holds governments back from being more transparent and open in the first place?
First off, the vast majority of local governments strive to be transparent and accountable.
Even in some of the most open municipalities, though, there are times where the public could be better engaged. One of the largest challenges is that municipal employees are often so passionate about what they do. They are often experts in their fields so it can be hard to take input from a less-informed public.
It’s not nefarious; we’re all human. We’re proud of the work we do and we want it done well. But public sector employees can become so focused on the day-to-day work that they lose sight of the larger goal: facilitating of the public process as a whole. That requires engagement from both sides.
How do we channel that passion while still including the public voice?
I’d like to issue a challenge: Let’s work harder to inform community members about the things we’re doing on their behalf, so that we can all have an educated and inspiring community conversation. We’re here to serve, not control. We should be facilitating dialogue.
This is not a black and white issue, of course. Often times we hold early informational meetings or seek feedback quickly in the public process, and few people show up. This leaves staff to devise policy or projects and only after the impacts are more fleshed out do we get people to speak up.
How can governments get the community involved earlier?
Try to make sure it’s clear to community members early on in the process what the topic means for them. How will it impact them? Why does the issue matter to the whole community? What happens if they don’t participate? If we can make it clear why the topic matters, we can work to get them engaged early. Take the topic to them and find novel ways to increase public engagement.