Silos Are Good for Grain—Not Public Engagement

April 18, 2018 – OpenGov


Every day, local government staff tackle challenges like curbing crime, saving tax dollars and planning for future development—which usually means collaborating across department lines to best serve the public.

However, that same collaborative approach is often missing when it comes to engaging the public. Instead, there tends to be a silo effect as each department independently engages the public, or worse, avoids doing it altogether.

That’s unfortunate, because the silo effect can complicate and undermine the process—especially when it comes to engaging the public online. Here’s why you should break down those silos:

Getting everyone on the same page will set clear expectations.

Perhaps this sounds familiar: Staff is near the end of a project when a group of residents cry foul, claiming there hasn’t been enough public engagement, which may trigger concerns from council.

A simple way to avoid that is to create a public engagement protocol. That way, everyone —including staff, residents and elected officials—knows what to expect. This virtually eliminates any hiccups in the process.

The City of San Luis Obispo, CA, has proven that with its Public Engagement and Noticing (PEN) Manual. The document gives clear, simple guidelines for staff to follow—no matter which department they serve. It even has a handy matrix and templates, ensuring the city delivers consistent public engagement every time.

If you could use some help implementing a public engagement protocol, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. We recommend you use the PEN Manual as a good starting point.

It’s worth noting that the PEN Manual nicely integrates the city’s Open Town Hall forum into its bigger public engagement strategy, which we recommend as a best practice.

The City of San Carlos, CA has also done an excellent job of this by making its Open Town Hall forum one of the first steps to engaging the public.

“Open Town Hall fits perfectly within our larger engagement strategy, as it allows us to directly involve our community in decision-making processes early and often,” explains Communications Coordinator, Brian Cary. “Bringing the public into the fold before a project begins, and then taking their pulse as it progresses through Open Town Hall, allows the City of San Carlos to stay transparent and arrive at end-products that are reflective of the will of our entire community.”

If all departments participate, you’ll build a more diverse stakeholder base.

As you likely know, Open Town Hall allows you to accumulate subscribers over time. The key to building a well-rounded audience is to include projects from all departments.

When you post a healthy mix of issues—everything ranging from land use to recreation to crime to budget—you’ll strike-up interest from different segments of your community. Over time, your subscriber base and their feedback will be more diverse. This has been a main component to success in the City of San Carlos.

Offering a variety of topics that are generated from every department at city hall is a crucial component of our online forum,” Brian says. “We named our online forum Shape San Carlos because our goal is to offer residents an opportunity to do just that – become involved in processes that shape the direction of our city as a whole.”

And it’s not just the public that has benefitted from the forum.

“One of the ways that we encourage staff buy-in is to present the online forum as an opportunity for other departments to ‘tell their story.’ Too often, the only direct experience the public has with the city is when they are unhappy about something. Our online forum provides an opportunity for every department to both educate and inform the public on the work they do—but also to build good-will by involving the community in the planning and decision-making processes early on.”

We can help you reach success.

We understand a lot of this can feel like a tall order. That’s why we want to remind you that we’re happy to help you along the way.

Over the past year, the City of Flagstaff has been able to gain significant staff buy-in across multiple departments on its Open Town Hall forum by calling on our team for support. Based on that success, Comprehensive Planning Manager Sara Dechter offers a few words of wisdom.

That’s music to our ears, because we pride ourselves on our client support as much as our software quality. And often, we can make recommendations you may not be aware of, find solutions to improve your topics, and lend some strategic guidance.

If you’re ready to make Open Town Hall part of your agency-wide public engagement protocol, we encourage you to contact us so we can help you get started!

Category: Civic Engagement