Article Features Terry Amsler

Hearing the Public’s Voice: Shaping a More Collaborative Governance

Terry Amsler directs the Collaborative Governance Initiative for the Institute for Local Government. He can be reached at or (916) 658-8263.

“Across the country, cities are in the midst of a fundamental shift in the way that citizens and government work together. Frustrated with prevailing arrangements, many local leaders have put a new emphasis on mobilizing citizens in order to make decisions, overcome conflicts and solve critical public problems.”

— The Rise of Democratic Governance: How Local Leaders are Reshaping Politics in the 21st Century, National League of Cities, 2005

Throughout California and the rest of the country, observers note the increase in the number and variety of ways that ordinary people are engaged in helping make public decisions and policies that affect their lives. Public officials, especially in local government, are actively seeking the public’s voice and ideas. Research and experience suggest that plans and proposed public actions are better informed, stronger in concept and content and more likely to be implemented when stakeholders participate.

Collaborative Governance Initiative Tracks and Supports Local Efforts

The Collaborative Governance Initiative, a new program of the Institute for Local Government (ILG), is identifying and charting these new forms of civic engagement in California and providing resources to local officials who want to apply these strategies to local problems and controversies.

The language for these collaborative governance practices may not always be familiar. Public participation and involvement, civic engagement and deliberative democracy are just part of the lexicon. A new publication, Collaborative Governance: A Guide for Grantmakers, published by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, describes three general types of public engagement activities. They are:

  1. Forums for Public Deliberation. These provide the general public with interactive and reasoned discussions that illuminate respective points of view, encourage changes in thinking, and result in a better understanding of issues and/or collective recommendations for action by public officials.
  2. Community Problem-Solving. These activities generally involve interorganizational collaboratives of community, government and (sometimes) private groups who work to address problems together over an extended period of time.
  3. Multi-Stakeholder Dispute Resolution. This is more like “classic” conflict resolution. It typically brings together stakeholder groups representing different interests and points of view (such as environmentalists, business and government representatives) to reach specific agreements through negotiation and consensus building.

Increasing Public Participation in Budget Decision-Making

Efforts at collaborative or participatory budgeting seem to be on the rise. In 2005, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom convened a series of innovative town hall meetings, called SF Listens, to address key priorities in light of likely budget shortfalls. SF Listens attracted 300 residents who discussed the issues, using technology to capture and synthesize the results for everyone attending.

In Menlo Park, a priority-driven budget plan developed by the city council is de-signed to involve citizens in the budget process. A budget advisory committee was formed and a survey has been mailed to 7,000 residents asking for their input on budget allocations. An additional 400 randomly selected residents will be surveyed to ensure methodological rigor.

In San Anselmo, a fiscal advisory committee was established with six resident members, two council members and the town’s treasurer, administrator and finance director. Following several months of committee meetings and larger public meetings, and a thorough review of the town’s finances in the previous five years, the committee’s report concluded that “a new tax assessment is the only means within [San Anselmo’s] direct control to close the gap between the reduced revenue streams and the increased costs of running the town.”

Each approach entails a somewhat different role for the public, illustrating the many choices associated with determining the appropriate public involvement strategy for a given community and issue.

Many Issues Benefit From Collaboration and Deliberation

Of course, fiscal matters are only one topic for public discussion. Communities are also finding means to solicit residents’ ideas and encourage public deliberation and dialogue on issues of general and specific planning, land use, housing, the environment, transportation, the need for and nature of neighborhood services, and much more. Often the question is fundamentally about “What kind of community do we want to be?” This can best be answered only with the participation of many community voices.

When to Use These Approaches

Local officials should ensure that the public involvement strategy is appropriate for the problem or controversy at hand. One size (or form, model or strategy) does not fit all situations.

The first question to ask when planning such an approach is whether any extraordinary public participation is necessary. Why not simply rely on elected representatives’ deliberation and decision or residents’ participation through public hearings? Sometimes that’s exactly what should be done.

However, the use of appropriate forms of collaboration and deliberation should be examined when:

  • Not only the solution to a controversy but the question itself is in dispute;
  • The best answers seem outside the comfort zones of stakeholders;
  • The issue is a heated one requiring the infusion of reasoned discussions; or
  • Broader public understanding and support will be required for any likely solution or policy to be accepted and implemented.

It’s also important to be clear whether the purpose is: a) to honestly ask the public a question; or b) to shape an outcome that decision-makers or policy-makers already want. Both may be valid but they’re not the same thing.

Finally, if there’s not time to really grapple with the issue before a decision has to be made or if there are insufficient resources or political will to carry out a participation process effectively — don’t start.

Making Choices

Even if local officials decide to implement a public involvement strategy, there are a number of strategic choices to consider.


Whose participation is needed? Do you want to involve:

  • A limited number of major organized stakeholders;
  • Those members of the broader public who typically come to a public meeting or volunteer for citizen committees;
  • A random and representative sample of the public; or
  • A diverse representation of your community that you believe you can interest and attract through outreach and education?

If there are communities that should be involved but typically don’t participate, how will you engage them?


To what degree should participants in your process truly have the time to discuss and weigh criteria and options? Are you seeking individual or collective judgments or opinions? Is the process built around face-to-face, survey and/or online approaches? Will the process be facilitated? Will there be informational materials for participants to use, and if so, will the materials suggest specific content or value-based choices?


How will the public’s input be used by policy-makers? Will policy-makers be informed, substantively influenced or (in rare cases) directed by the public comment or consensus? Does the political leadership agree on this? How will you know if you’ve achieved your goals?

Purpose and Approach

What kind of information is needed? Is the idea to develop:

  • A public forum for deliberation and input to policy-makers;
  • A process for ongoing community cooperation and problem solving; or
  • The resolution of a specific dispute by organized parties or stakeholders?

If deliberation and input are needed, there are a variety of approaches, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, to be measured against your specific needs.


  • Public participation strategies, applied appropriately, can:
  • Inform the public;
  • Generate understanding and agreement on problems;
  • Enhance the successful implementation of plans and policies; and
  • Promote trust in all levels of government.

However, when considering any public involvement effort, don’t settle for the first civic engagement process idea you come across. Be a smart consumer. Talk to your peers, learn how other local agencies have grappled with similar issues, ask the questions raised above and, as appropriate, interview different civic engagement consultants who offer the services you seek.

Finally, use the ILG website at as a resource, and share your successes and challenges through the Collaborative Governance Initiative so other public officials may learn from your experiences.

Resources for Local Agencies

  • The Collaborative Governance Initiative offers these products and services:
  • Guides to effectively assess and apply civic engagement strategies and increase the effectiveness of public hearings;
  • Telephone and on-site assistance on civic engagement opportunities and challenges for local officials;
  • Educational workshops at League and other local agency association meetings;
  • Web-based and other resources describing major participatory and deliberative practices in use in California and throughout the United States; and
  • Strategies to encourage fuller and more inclusive participation by traditionally less involved populations.

A list of citizen and police academy educational programs throughout the state is also available online at

This article appears in the January 2006 issue of Western City
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