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Why Ask the Public?

" ... the most important point of excellence which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves."

-- John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 1861

The Collaborative Governance Initiative, a program of the Institute for Local Gov ernment (ILG), provides practical tools and resources to help local officials effectively engage their communities and tap into the knowledge that residents can contribute to municipal decision-making. (For more information, visit www.ca-ilg.org.)  

The goals of this engagement are not only better public processes and decisions, but also to achieve the American ideal of a public with qualities that supply (according to J.S. Mill) "the moving force which works the machinery of government."

Why ask the public? Public involvement -- whether by an elected official, commission member or resident -- adds to the community experiences, knowledge and commitments that are essential building blocks of good government. When it is done well, civic engagement also brings new voices to the process. The results are more fully informed public decisions and policies and a better communitywide understanding of -- and confidence in -- local government.

A recent ILG survey asked local officials why and how they asked the public to participate in local decision-making. More than 1,000 California city and county elected officials and staff responded. Generalizing across all respondent categories, the survey results showed:

  • Roughly 40 to 50 percent of city officials indicate at least some experience with citizen advisory committees, neighborhood discussions and "town hall" meetings, with far fewer having tried online dialogues.
  • There are concerns that "the same people participate every time" and that inadequately informed residents are a challenge to good public engagement.
  • More civic engagement information appears to be reaching city officials from their local agency staff, the League and ILG than from any other single source.
  • Elected officials value learning about civic engagement from peers, particularly in their own region, and from state-level conferences and training. City managers also learn a great deal from peers in other jurisdictions and from national professional groups. All find case studies and "how to" guides useful tools for gaining knowledge and skills.
  • Land use planning and parks and recreation-related issues were rated as the arenas where public engagement could be most helpful.

The Collaborative Governance Initiative is using these survey results to develop civic engagement resources that are responsive to the needs of local officials.