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Local Officials Boost Participation by Going Where Citizens Are

New data from Governing and the National Research Center suggest that democracy is hard to do. Only 19% of respondents to the nationwide survey say they have contact local officials in the past year. Only 24% say they've attended a public meeting. Participation in local politics increases with age: 11% of folks aged 18 to 24 attend public meetings, while 32% of the 65–74 set do. (Local political participation drops again for the over-74 set.)

Participation predictably increases with income and with length of time lived in a community, but it does not vary much with race. Blacks and Indians go to local public meetings just a touch more frequently (27%) than their white neighbors (25%). Asian citizens show the only marked difference along racial participation lines, with only 17% going to public meetings.

What's a small-d democrat to do to keep public discourse from being dominated by rich retirees and extremists? How do we get more people to participate in the process? Mohammed, mountain. Go where they are:

Connecting with these groups of residents requires stepping outside of city hall and meeting residents on their own turf. Park City officials say they’ve held meetings in school lunch rooms, performing arts centers and with local homeowners’ associations.

“To truly engage the community,” [International City/County Management Association's Cheryl] Hilvert said, “managers have to think broader about it than in the past” [Mike Maciag, "The Citizens Most Vocal in Local Government," Governing, July 2014].

And remember: a lot of citizens, especially the younger ones, are online:

Some localities employ unconventional approaches to raise the level of citizen engagement. When the city of Rancho Cordova, Calif., debated permitting more residents to raise chickens on their properties last year, it launched an online Open Town Hall. More than 500 residents visited the interactive forum to make or review public statements. “It is noisy and smelly enough with pigeons, turkeys, feral cats, and untended dogs without adding chickens to the mix,” wrote one resident. The city drafted an ordinance reflecting citizen input, then emailed it to forum subscribers.

Outreach efforts through local media or civic organizations help further community involvement. Some residents also form Facebook groups or online petitions to promote their causes.

The city of Chanhassen, Minn., relied heavily on social media to connect with citizens when it confronted an issue that’s about as contentious as any local government can face: a proposal to build a new Walmart. The city posted regular updates on its Facebook page and uploaded all documents online [Maciag, July 2014].

Social what? says Mike Rounds, who is better at going where donors are than where voters are.

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