You probably have noticed that the city government is going to try to encourage citizens to be more engaged with their city government. They've announced programs they are calling COSA university, Citizens 101, and lunch and learn. Looks like they will be spending lots of time of on what city government does and how it does it. This is good and probably necessary. The stated goals are to train people for membership on the various boards and commissions the city has and to "cultivate some well informed community ambassadors for municipal government." I think they are overlooking something very critical to achieving these goals. Why should citizens even bother to engage?
I could get very long winded here but the simple answer is that people engage with the city government because of beliefs, values, and feelings. They engage because they are emotional, even passionate about community beliefs and values. They engage because they feel it's the right thing to do. They believe they can make a difference. Frequently, it's not very logical. It takes time, energy, and resources to be engaged. It won't pay the bills or put food on the table. Without an emotional connection it's hard for someone to justify the tradeoffs necessary to get engaged and stay engaged. Why be on a board or commission instead of working extra hours, going back to school, or volunteering in church? People engage where they feel they can make a difference. They engage with others they trust to achieve shared goals.
Right now I think the city government has a couple problems getting citizens engaged. First off, they don't do a very good job explaining the why of most decisions. They will have slides and spreadsheets and dollars and cents comparisons. They will explain what they want to do and how they plan to do it often in great detail. They have problems when they try to explain the why. The why is what connects the what and how to community beliefs and values. That creates trust, which is key to engagement.
Our city government needs to work on building trust. They haven't been very good at it lately. We could start with the lack of transparency on "furnituregate." Yes, an internal investigation was done and it was finally sort of made public but it hasn't been publicly discussed or explained. It falls far short of what was promised. Throw in how the Hickory Aquifer project, especially radiation and cost concerns, has been handled. Add in the hiccoughs with the new "smart" water meters. We could mention recent budget workshops which have had council and senior staff backs to citizens/observers. What about the budget workshop that was taken completely out of the county and no video recording was made. The public information office routinely records meetings, like CIP hearings etc., for broadcast later so why not this budget session? I've heard it said this was because the citizens could be distracting.
Truth is the citizens aren't a distraction, they are the reason you are
there to do the budget. What about the disconnect between the planning and zoning process and the concerns of the residents close to Lamar elementary. The real issue was not zoning. It was growth and its affect on traffic and safety. And do we need to go into how the bidding and review process on the landfill contract damaged public trust? Do I need to say that failure to answer basic, obvious questions (like what are our current costs/expenses) that would not have given any side a competitive advantage made it look like the city was trying to hide something? I could go on but I don't need to because this is just a list of missed opportunities for the city government to build trust and connect with the citizens of San Angelo. There will be plenty more where these came from.
I know I said I wasn't going to get long winded. Sorry. Could have been worse. In the end I welcome the city managers attempt to get citizens engaged. Hope he and the rest of the city government will do what it takes to get positive citizen engagement. Frankly, I'm not optimistic. If I was a betting man like my friend Jim Ryan, I would probably place the odds at 10 to 1.