Strategies to increase civic engagement at the local level
Paul Montagno and Matt Lonnerstater collaborated on this cover story for the October, 2015 issue of the Michigan Township Association’s Township Focus magazine.
It’s a familiar refrain. Everyone from colleagues at the office to neighbors waiting in line at the grocery store, or acquaintances picking their kids or grandkids up from school echo the same sentiments. Life is hectic. So, how can townships actively engage their already-busy residents and business owners to vote in local elections, engage in public participation events, and discuss and plan for the community’s future?Local government is perhaps the most important form of government for Americans. Think about the issues that are most important to us and our residents: ours homes, our neighborhoods, the parks and schools in our communities, where we work and where we shop. A majority of the policies that affect each of these issues are made at the local level. Unfortunately, most residents do not participate in local elections or the policy development process that affects these aspects of their community.In 2012, voter turnout for the national election was 57.1 percent: one of the highest voter turnouts for a presidential election since 1968. The high turnout rate extended to the state of Michigan. In Shiawassee County, for example, almost 70 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, shattering the national average. One year later, several communities in Shiawassee County held off-year elections for local positions. Were they able to ride the coat-tails of excitement from the 2012 election and duplicate high voter turnout for their local elections? Quite the opposite, actually. The county-wide turnout for the 2013 election in Shiawassee County was 17 percent. Only 6,630 out of nearly 40,000 eligible voters showed up to cast a ballot.Low voter turnout for off-year local elections is not a new trend and is certainly not unique to Shiawassee County. While voter turnout for presidential elections typically ranges between 49 and 64 percent, turnout for local elections hovers around 21 percent. Low turnout rates extend to other areas of local government as well. What is the typical attendance like at your average local planning commission meeting? Master plan workshop? For most Michigan communities, the common answer is: low.Low turnout—whether it is for a local election or a township board meeting—indicates that most residents do not have a clear understanding of the planning process, policy development and implementation as they relate to decisions that affect our quality of life. Further, there is a perception that this process is unimportant and difficult to change, and, most unfortunate, boring! But the truth is, as local officials well know, local government is critically important. To a great extent, local government has more of an impact on everyday life than the federal government.Given this, how can Michigan’s townships increase civic engagement at the local level? This article will explore three strategies:
- Make local government engaging.
- Make local government easy to access.
- Make local government easy to understand.
Think local: Why local government mattersElected officials are accountable to the residents of their community, and are directly responsible for overseeing the quantity and quality of local programs and services available. The decisions that elected and appointed local officials make have serious, community-wide implications.Local government is the most accessible form of government. Citizens have a much greater opportunity to learn about, meet and even influence their local representatives. Township residents, board members, planning commissioners and zoning board of appeals members all live in the community. Local government meetings are open to the public and anyone can speak directly to the governing body. Given these facts, civic engagement should come as a natural and informal process, and be expected of all residents. On the contrary, however, the seats in the audience at township board and planning commission meetings often remain empty, and local ballots remain uncast. Local civic engagement remains an uncommon activity for typical residents and is viewed as a stressful inconvenience.Often citizens are introduced to the process of local government when they are faced with a decision that affects their neighborhood. Concerned individuals may show up at meetings or circulate petitions when a controversial development is on the agenda, but rarely do they show up when important policy decisions are being made in the first place. Poor turnout may stem from the fact that the average residents do not have a clear understanding of the local policy development process as it relates to land use, transportation planning, economic development and other community components that affect quality of life.Other factors may affect low turnout:
- A feeling that individual opinions don’t matter or won’t have an effect on a board’s decision or a vote.
- A lack of familiarity regarding how public meetings work or how voting works.
- Failure to understand the issues.
- Social anxiety/fear of public speaking.
While the onus of participating in local government activities ultimately lies with each resident, citizen engagement can be increased if local officials and staff provide alternative platforms and methods for engaging their citizens. Civic engagement and public participation must be viewed as more than a simple checkbox required by state enabling legislation. Effective civic engagement must provide the public with a sense of ownership—a sense that, “my township government wants and needs my opinion to make an effective decision and has gone to a considerable effort to receive my input.” Local government ownership can be instilled by creating a government that is transparent, exciting, easy to understand, and easy to access.Strategy #1: Make government more engaging Local meetings and public workshops often seem to drag on into late hours of the night. Similarly, elections are often viewed synonymously with long, un-moving lines. Maybe it should come as no surprise, then, that many residents aren’t interested in participating in local politics or view it as an inconvenience.One northern Michigan township has found a way to increase citizen participation in its meetings. For the past four years, Victory Township (Mason Co.) has hosted its August board meeting parkside—on Upper Hamlin Lake in Victory Park. This year, on Aug. 3, volunteers served up hot dogs and nearly two dozen residents—many bringing dishes to share—enjoyed dinner, and stuck around for the meeting following the summertime meal with their local officials. In addition, the township was able to show off some recent township efforts. “We’ve been doing work at the park, and decided this was the best way for people to see the end results,” said township clerk Barbara Egeler.Egeler noted that the annual meeting in the park typically doubles the attendance of the usual township board meeting. This year, at the township’s July board meeting, just three residents attended. A change in venue and a fun idea increased attendance by more than 70 percent.Instead of treating civic engagement events as ultra-serious, somber processes that are only held because the state requires them, these events should be treated as a celebration for the community. Instead of calling your master plan workshop the, “2015 Township Stakeholder Visioning Workshop,” try something more exciting, like, “A Celebration of the Township’s Future.” Including fun activities, games and discussions as a part of these workshops can instill a sense of excitement into the participatory planning process and help eliminate the dull stigma typically associated with local government.Yale political scientist Donald P. Green once compared the election process to a “morgue-like experience.” Public participation should never, in any circumstance, be compared to a lifeless morgue (unless, of course, a morgue site plan is on a planning commission agenda). Rather, a simple re-imagination of the participatory process can spark excitement and promote engagement within a community.Strategy #2: Make local government easy to accessFor residents in many townships, the only way to provide input on a new project, proposal or issue is to attend a township board or planning commission meeting and speak during the public comment period. Unfortunately, these meetings are often held at inconvenient times. Young parents, elderly residents, and those that work night shifts may not be able to attend a meeting on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. In the first instance, you may want to investigate if you are holding your meetings at the most convenient time. Even those who do attend meetings might be too afraid to get up and speak their mind, or may not know when they are allowed to do so. For these reasons, government may seem out of reach for some.There are several strategies that can be used to break from the cycle of relying on conventional public hearings to obtain input. And, while public hearings are still necessary, there are strategies to de-mystify the process to help residents understand how—and when—to give their input.Online engagementNew tools for online public participation seem to be popping up every week. Adding an online engagement platform to the mix is an excellent way to receive input from groups of residents who may not be able to attend public hearings or planning workshops, or those who may be too anxious to express their opinions out loud. It also appeals to hard-to-reach, tech-savvy young people who are often under-represented.Online participation tools can complement traditional face-to-face civic engagement techniques, and can help townships further empower and encourage their residents to become engaged in community decision-making. There are a wide variety of tools available that can assist with garnering insights for a host of township projects, plans and processes. They offer mechanisms for residents to post comments, upload pictures, and even engage in discussions. Some map-based programs are especially useful for garnering public input regarding community-wide land use or transportation plans, or other location specific projects.Online survey tools can also augment the traditional hard-copy survey. Such surveys allow responses to be submitted online at any time, eliminate the need to mail in or drop off physical surveys at the township hall, and provide flexibility to the public input process. Results can be analyzed in quick, convenient reports—all at the click of a mouse.The bevy of available online tools can provide improved, more productive public participation, allowing your township to expand the insights it garners from its residents.Informational piecesMany residents choose not to attend meetings or vote because they are unfamiliar with how the process works or are anxious about doing something they’re not supposed to. Simply providing a guide or pamphlet explaining important terms and procedures can go a long way in de-mystifying the process. Consider providing hard copies of a “how-to” guide at the meeting or polling place, as well as on the township’s website.The following information may be useful to include in these guides:Public Hearing Guide
- Public hearing procedure
- Explanation of the agenda layout
- Ground rules for speaking
- Important terms
- How to read and fill out the ballot
- Important terms
- Explanation of political parties
- Description of offices that are being voted on
- Explanation of proposals on the ballot
Strategy #3: Make local government easy to understandBuilding a resident’s desire to participate in his or her community means changing the atmosphere of local government meetings and workshops, and making engagement opportunities more available and user-friendly. It also means giving residents the knowledge and skills to better understanding the role and function of local government, and how their participation is a welcome and fundamental component of the process. Changing the paradigm surrounding residents’ understanding about local government requires a two-pronged strategy: start early and offer continuing education.First, start early: While children and young adults do not pay taxes and cannot vote in elections, they play an indirect role in the decision-making process. Children serve as one of the major considerations for residents, township officials and local school boards when it comes to access, safety, housing, recreation, education and land use. In Michigan, nearly31 percent of households have children under 18 years (U.S. Census, 2009-2013 5-Year American Community Survey). That is a pretty significant demographic. Unfortunately, many voting-age residents do not realize that decisions that impact the quality of life for children are typically made at the local level. Young parents should be aware of local issues that could potentially affect their children.Children and young teens also serve as the next generation of voters and civic engagers. Most high school students take a civics or government class, but these classes rarely focus on local government. Township officials, planners, teachers and parents are all trying to create stimulating environments that will support, protect and nourish the next generation of thinkers, doers and leaders, but our children are growing up without understanding how local government can affect quality of life. They need to know the role of a township clerk as much as they need to know the function of the speaker of the house.Teachers are the pathway into the minds and hearts of future citizens. Make it easy for them to connect youth to local government in a positive and mutually beneficial way:Create a standard field trip to the township hall, with township staff and elected leaders committed and prepared to talk about their work.Require that professional staff make subject matter presentations at schools. They could range from “Where does the garbage go?” in elementary school to “What do you mean they can build a shopping center next door to my house?” for high schoolers.Invite young people to serve in ad-hoc positions on township committees and create a system to recruit them.Create meaningful community service opportunities for middle and high school students in community gardens, senior centers, and at festivals and events.Build campaigns with high school teachers to get 18-year-olds to register to vote.The Michigan Townships Association offers a thorough, high-quality package of learning materials at www.michigantownships.org/curricula.asp. The American Planning Association offers curricula geared toward planning that embrace many of the facets of municipal governance, available at www.planning.org/education/youth/.Poor access to local government is more than an issue of busy schedules and inconvenient meeting times, it’s also about access to information. Planning, zoning and public policy are full of technical terms, acronyms, nuances and cumbersome procedures. Residents should feel comfortable with the process and should have ample opportunities to learn about local government so that they can present their ideas and suggestions with confidence.Civic engagement must be engagingTo overcome obstacles to local civic engagement, townships must throw out the conventional methods and re-invent the system. We can’t ask residents to provide their input or vote if these processes are inconvenient, difficult to understand or uninviting. We cannot expect residents to participate if they do not truly understand the importance of decisions and policies at the local level. This must begin at an early age so that understanding of local government is as common place as that of the federal government.Truly effective civic engagement must be engaging! Townships should synchronize fun public events, online platforms and educational opportunities to encourage residents to speak their minds and participate in the local government process. To build better communities, townships must help residents understand the importance of their voice, and give residents multiple ways to express that voice.And remember … free food never hurts.Ideas for master plan workshopsTownship master plans—whether they are comprehensive township-wide plans, parks and recreation plans, or neighborhood plans—typically require public participation. More often than not, this takes the form of long (and boring!) surveys. As an alternative, consider the following hands-on activities at master plan meetings to make them more exciting:
- Mapping exercise: Utilize large, colorful maps for exercises and encourage participants to sketch out their vision using markers and colored pencils
- Highly interactive, small group discussions
- Use building blocks for 3-D modeling/visioning
- Active brainstorming: Use stickers, get up and walk around
Continuing education recommendations
- Reach people where they are already engaging, such as a traditional downtown or village center, chamber of commerce, farmers’ market, public schools, parks and recreation programs, etc.
- Offer procedures handouts at board and commission meetings (as discussed within strategy #2)
- Utilize online platforms to update and educate