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Re-Thinking Governance Levels and Communication Systems to Assure Safety, Civic Engagement, and Outcomes

The response to the current public health crisis has fallen heavily on local Municipal and School Department Leaders. Their ability to implement and design communication systems which build trust and keep people safe in this constantly changing landscape has been nothing short of heroic.

Given that the crisis is ongoing, we have not had the energy or time to reflect on how we have historically dealt with different national safety threats whether they be an outside threat or an internal one. In the USA outside threats from a foreign adversary are handled at the federal level with our defense department. At most we would ask governors to activate the National Guard to perform vital functions. The federal government is routinely activated for policy and leadership when the issue or threat does not recognize state borders as in air pollution, water resources, workplace safety, consumer safety, food safety, transportation safety, etc.

As a country we will need to reflect on the unintended consequences of not getting the level of governance and leadership at the correct level from the onset of a public health crisis. Knowing which level of leadership and governance to activate for the best results has been a long-term on-going debate in the USA but the impacts of not understanding the criteria for when something is best handled locally, state-wide, or nationally can cause serious unintended consequences.

Ideally, all three levels of public leadership would be aligned and work together. We recognize that a good deal of the face-to-face communication and service delivery is the responsibility of our local government officials   Given the dramatic changes brought about by social media it really is time for a re-invention of how all levels of public leaders (particularly local) are trained on enhanced outreach skills to assure civility and partnerships with citizens.

Some cities and towns in New England are leading the way. Public leaders in Foxborough, MA, Dedham, MA and Pawtucket, RI have trained their leaders and developed systems to assure enhanced civic engagement which they are applying to multiple topics with great success.

Some cities and towns in New England are leading the way. Public leaders in Foxborough, MA, Dedham, MA and Pawtucket, RI have trained their leaders and developed systems to assure enhanced civic engagement which they are applying to multiple topics with great success.

Foxborough, MA wanted more diverse sustainable housing options to serve the varied needs of citizens, corporate partners, and the town’s unique character, as defined by the community. To reach this goal the town leaders needed to hear from a wide variety of citizens and then make decisions, so they did just that. They learned that Foxborough’s housing inventory and regulations did not provide for the population’s generational needs. Some residents were dissatisfied with the type and cost of housing choices. The leaders  needed to learn more about the needs of their citizens. The town was also interested in establishing a permanent protocol for civic engagement which they could use with multiple important topics.

Like Dedham, MA and Pawtucket RI who preceded Foxborough in these enhanced outreach investments, Foxborough took the following actions:

  • Created a comprehensive email list of their residents (in almost all cases this does not exist at the town/city level)
  • Trained 25 of their leaders on: facilitation and enhanced meeting design skills,
  • Designed a short survey with questions to support their topic (housing options) and diversity representation goals,
  • Executed their goals for diverse representation at the focus group meetings,
  • Brought 60 residents together for a 90-minute focus group session (facilitated by Foxborough leaders) with a well-defined purpose and outcomes
  • Conducted an exit survey to measure the success of the meeting
  • Shared the feedback with everyone and used the information to establish action items and changes

Foxborough has used this civic engagement protocol to great success with the annual budget process, challenging traffic issues in the town and the creation of an outdoor beer garden style restaurant. In all cases the results have been civil, with strong consensus or majority agreement outcomes.

Dedham, MA successfully used this same civic engagement protocol to address which areas of concern the residents wanted their leaders to focus on among the many areas that needed attention. They also ran a highly successful focus group process to help them with the development and policy to help mitigate costly infiltration that takes place on private property. Infiltration on private property due to leaking sewer pipes is estimated to represent somewhere between a third and half of all infiltration (noting that it is difficult to know for sure until we finish inspecting all lateral connections). Some of the leaks on private property were bigger than the leaks in town-owned pipes. Click here to see how they did it.

Pawtucket, RI, who was the first to use an enhanced system of civic engagement, also invested in the skills of its public leaders and successfully conducted multiple focus group sessions to address the way residents receive information from the city and school department. They asked the residents how they prefer to receive different types of communications from the city. They also changed the format for how the mayor meets with residents in the different neighborhoods to do his annual updates on the state of the city. Pawtucket was the first to also change the focus of the original public relations job description to incorporate the skills needed to design civic engagement systems and use social media to enhance participation and civility.

The exit surveys from the civic engagement meetings mentioned above included the same question for the residents who volunteered to participate in person. The question was “Would you be willing to volunteer your time again to participate in another civic engagement process”? In all cases they received over 90% affirmation that they would return and appreciated the thoughtful well-designed process of engagement.

In an era when public trust and satisfaction is at an all-time low, we hold up these examples of how the investment in leaders and systems can go right. To learn more, feel free to contact us at