Community Engagement Resources
This page highlights a variety of approaches for obtaining public feedback and for involving citizens in shaping the plans and programs that significantly affect their lives. It covers promising practices, case studies, tools, and examples for Washington State local governments that you can use to develop and improve your agency’s community’s engagement practices.
Effective community engagement practices create a vehicle for participatory local democracy by giving members of the public the opportunity to become directly involved in guiding policy decisions that will shape the future of their community. Meaningful engagement that is based upon a two-way communication process between the public and their elected community leaders can play an important role in efforts to restore and build trust in government. Community engagement and outreach programs will also be key components of any efforts by local governments to address social equity and inclusion.
New and rapidly evolving communications technologies are creating more ways for local governments to connect and engage with the public through remote meetings, email and text alerts, social media, mobile apps, and more. More people are online today and local governments that take advantage of digital technologies will be more effective at engaging with them.
There are no one-size-fits-all approaches to community engagement efforts. Local governments have a range of options and methods from which they can choose depending upon their particular needs and circumstances, many of which are presented here, along with recommended resources and current program examples.
Resource Guides for Community Engagement
There are many sites that publish, curate, and make available extensive resources relating to community engagement and public participation tools and techniques. Here are a few that we have found to be most useful, together with links to some selected references.
- Alliance for Innovation
- Community Engagement — Offers articles, documents, and publications on the subject.
- Assessment Tool for Civic Engagement Practices (2013) — Helps local governments assess their readiness and capacity for engagement.
- Connected Communities White Paper (2010) — Outlines a variety of engagement strategies communities and includes case studies of successful local government efforts to involve citizens in decision-making and problem-solving.
- Accelerating Public Engagement: A Roadmap for Local Government (2016) — Offers case studies from U.S. cities that have used a technology-based approach to boost outreach to hard-to-reach residents.
- The Modern City: A Proactive Approach to Civic Engagement — Provides an overview of the challenges of traditional public engagement models and how unified civic engagement systems can be used to connect people and their governments.
- IBM Center for the Business of Government
- Beyond Citizen Engagement: Involving the Public in Co-Delivering Government Services (2013) — Highlights three different types of co-delivery initiatives that can increase engagement, each offering different roles and opportunities for people to engage in public services: co-design, co-production, and co-delivery of public services.
- A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation (2012) — Covers why public participation matters, the challenges of evaluation, and how to evaluate both the process and impact of civic participation. Sample worksheets and case examples are included.
- International City/County Management Association (ICMA)
- Creating Sustainable Citizen Engagement: Involve City Residents in Solving Problems (2019) — Offers community engagement solutions from the 10 finalists of the Cities of Service 2019 Engaged Cities Award.
- The Extent of Public Participation (2014) — Investigates the findings of an ICMA survey on citizen engagement/public participation.
- 10 Must Reads on Community Engagement in Local Government (2018) — Offers important community engagement ideas, insights, and leading practices.
- Institute for Local Government (ILG)
- The Basics of Public Engagement — Provides basic principles and explanations of what participation is, what the benefits are, first steps, and other topics.
- Get Your Public Meetings Back on Track (2013) — Covers the options local officials have to reduce disruptions and disruptiveness during public meetings.
- Local Government Commission
- Participation Tools for Better Community Planning, (2013) — Introduces a range of participation tools through summary descriptions, examples of how they are being used, and resources for how to access them.
- Virtual Engagement Tools — Offers a list of digital engagement and meeting tools.
- National League of Cities
- Beyond Civility: From Public Engagement to Problem Solving (2011) — Presents seven principles and a number of examples that can help local leaders build a culture of constructive participation and democratic governance in their communities.
- Planning for Stronger Local Democracy: A Field Guide for Local Officials (2013) — Offers suggestions for building skills, capacities, and spaces (civic infrastructure) for stronger local democracy, model practices from pioneering communities and a collaborative process for constructing a better framework for public engagement.
- Fort Collins, CO: Public Engagement Guide — Helps city employees create a plan, determine the best level of engagement, create a representative group of involved citizens, and develop outreach, education, and engagement methods.
- International Association for Public Participation: COVID-19 Public Participation Resources — Includes resources relating to online meetings and public engagement tools.
Mercatus Center, George Mason University: Crisis as Opportunity: Fostering Inclusive Public Engagement in Local Government (2020) — Offers ways to integrate digital technology tools into various forms of public engagement.
- National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation: Resource Guide on Public Engagement (2010) — Offers helpful online resources, core principles, and useful matrices to help people decide which approaches are the best fit for their circumstances. Includes descriptions and links to information on a wide variety of engagement techniques.
- Public Agenda: Strengthening and Sustaining Public Engagement: A Planning Guide for Communities (2017) — Intended to help residents decide what kinds of engagement they want and to help people plan for an overall system that features those engagement opportunities.
Frameworks for Assessing Community Engagement Needs
Several organizations have created community engagement frameworks based on increasing levels of engagement and the public’s role at each level. Participation levels typically range from inform, consult, involve, and collaborate, up to empower. The engagement frameworks are usually presented in a matrix, which can be helpful in deciding on the types of meeting formats and engagement techniques that may be best suited for specific engagement needs and objectives.
Probably the first and still one of the best frameworks is the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum of Public Participation and the accompanying Public Participation Toolbox matrices.
Here are a few additional community engagement frameworks that can help you to determine which types of engagement approaches will work best for your purposes:
- Ad Hoc Working Group on the Future of Collaboration and Consensus on Public Issues: Spectrum of Processes for Collaboration and Consensus-Building in Public Decisions (2008) — Offers a one-page spectrum and matrix of what participation tools.
- National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation: Engagement Streams Framework (Revised July 2013) — Provides a comprehensive range of dialogue and deliberation approaches using charts.
Public Meeting Tips, Tools, and Techniques
Even as smartphones, mobile apps, social media, and other digitally-enabled interactions become ever-more ubiquitous, face-to-face public meetings are still one of the most common ways that local governments engage and interact with the public. The most common settings in which local officials and members of the public meet occur during regularly scheduled meetings of city and county councils or commissions. Public hearings account for yet another large portion of the types of meetings where local officials interact with the public.
Regardless of the type of meeting, there are a number of tried-and-true steps that local governments can take to enhance the quality and effectiveness of those interactions. This section offers tools and techniques for planning and running effective public meetings, including general meeting tips, dealing with conflict and disruptions, guides to help citizens participate, and audience interaction and polling tools.
General Meeting Tips
These resources provide general advice and tips for making planning and running better meetings.
- American Planning Association: 6 Tips for Inclusive Public Meetings (2019)
- National Endowment for the Arts: Effective Meeting Facilitation: The Sine Qua Non of Planning (2005)
- Planetizen: 10 Lessons in More Engaging Citizen Engagement (2014)
- PlannersWeb: Holding Effective Public Meetings (2014) — Offers tips drawn from a survey of planning commission members and staff.
- Public Health-Seattle, King County Community Engagement Toolkit (2014) — Created in partnership with external nonprofits, this toolkit offers tips and best practices, particularly on engaging hard-to-reach populations.
- Western City: Get Your Public Meetings Back on Track (2014)
Dealing with Conflict and Disruptions During Public Meetings
From time to time, elected bodies are faced with conducting controversial, emotionally charged meetings or public hearings where tensions are high and tempers may flare. Such meetings can really test the members of the elected body and staff. Here are some resources that can help you to prepare for difficult meetings and manage them in ways that can make them less stressful and more productive for everyone.
- Institute for Local Government
- Public Conversations Project: Fostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide (2006) — Focuses on how to foster dialog, increase mutual understanding, and encourage collaborative action on divisive issues.
- Western City Magazine: Meeting Great Expectations: Dealing With Emotional Audiences (2009)
Guides to Help the Public Participate Effectively in Meetings
For first-time visitors, city or county council/commission meetings can sometimes be confusing and intimidating. To help new visitors or anyone else who may need some assistance with how to participate effectively in meetings, many local governments offer guidelines and suggestions that are designed to help attendees participate in public meetings. These are often posted on a legislative body’s webpage or on advisory board or commission webpages. Printed versions can be distributed at meeting sites.
Here are a few examples of guides designed by Washington local government:
- Bellingham Guide to City Council Meetings — Offers information on types of council actions, tips for talking to the council, council and committee meeting dates, links to download meeting agendas, packets, meeting notes, and more.
- Kirkland How to Participate in a Design Review Board Meeting — Includes basic ways to participate in the design review board process.
- Mason County Public Participation: How to Testify Effectively — An example of succinct guidelines on effective testimony.
- Whatcom County Participate in Virtual Council Meetings — Includes instructions for speaking to the council during an open session or a public hearing.
- Woodland Citizen Participation Guide (2007) — Simple two-page guide to participating at hearing examiner and planning commission meetings and appealing a decision.
Audience Interaction and Polling Tools
Audience interaction and polling tools include devices like “pulse pads,” which combine wireless hardware and presentation software to collect real-time responses to audience questions, and newer cloud-based apps (e.g., Slido, Poll Everywhere) that collect responses from the audience using various electronic devices like smartphones, laptops, and tablets. In either case, these devices or apps allow meeting participants to register their opinions and see the results instantly tabulated for all participants in the room.
These tools offer an effective way to gather audience input that can be tabulated and stored for future reference. The hands-on interactivity and instant sharing of the results make them popular with audiences as well. Audience input is usually collected anonymously, which can help in eliciting more candid responses.
- AWC: Take the Pulse of Your Community — Using individual keypads, audience participants can respond to questions, rank priorities, and see automatically tabulated answers displayed immediately in PowerPoint format.
- Marysville Special Meeting (2013) — Participants were invited to use pulse pads to register their priorities for short- and long-term needs as part of a downtown and waterfront revitalization project.
- Sequim Citizens help to shape Sequim 120 (2012) — Sequim conducted a visioning open house and equipped participants with pulse pads to provide instant response to a 53-question survey. The pulse pad polling supplemented a variety of interactive activities, including futures mapping exercises, a take-home "word cloud" questionnaire, and an activity focused on transportation values/priorities.
Public Meeting Formats
This section highlights several types of public meeting formats that are frequently used by local governments depending upon their particular engagement needs and objectives. Engagement frameworks like the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation are often used to guide these decisions. A combination of these approaches can generate a better understanding of issues, attract a wider spectrum of participation, and involve citizens in shaping better decisions for the community as a whole.
Each section includes recommended resources and examples.
Local governments are sometimes required by state law to hold public hearings for legislative or quasi-judicial purposes.
Legislative hearings are usually held to obtain public input on important legislative policy matters that affect a wide range of citizens, such as those required for budget adoption or comprehensive land use plan updates.
Quasi-judicial hearings involve the legal rights of specific, identifiable parties, such as consideration of land-use variances or permits or site-specific rezones.
Public hearings can occur as part of a regular or special public meeting or, in some circumstances, can be separate from it. Public hearings are obligatory when due process is required or when a specific statute or local regulation requires one. Local governments may also hold a public hearing when they want public input on a sensitive or controversial policy issue that has broad community interest. Testimony from both sides of an issue is usually recorded for public record, which generates a report summarizing key points.
- MRSC: Public Hearings — Provides an overview of local government public hearings in Washington State, including types of public hearings, procedural requirements, and tips for successful public hearings.
- Institute for Local Government: Getting the Most out of Public Hearings (2005) — Offers practical ideas to maximize the effectiveness of public hearings.
Local governments use remote meeting technology to connect with the public via web-based platforms or phone conferencing tools that allow individuals to attend and participate in public meetings.
Remote meetings became the default meeting format during the COVID-19 pandemic when public health mandates on social distancing made it impossible to hold in-person meetings. They are likely, however, to remain a feature of our post-pandemic world as local governments look for more ways to promote inclusion and participation in their communities. Hybrid meeting formats that mix in-person and remote attendance may become part of the new normal going forward.
These resources offer arguments in favor of a virtual or hybrid meeting format and tips on how to best conduct these types of meetings.
- Governing: The Case for Making Virtual Public Meetings Permanent (2020)
- ICMA: Reflecting on Virtual Public Meetings (2020)
- Local Government Commission: Best Practices for Virtual Engagement (2020)
- Monroe City Council Rules of Procedure (2020) — Includes sections on remote meetings, both during periods of a proclaimed emergency and in other circumstances. Lists virtual platforms that are approved for remote participation.
- Fort Collins, CO Telephone Town Hall (2020) — In this YouTube video, Fort Collins Mayor and City Manager answer questions from the public on COVID-19 during a telephone town hall meeting.
Open Houses, Workshops, and Forums
Local governments often convene informal gatherings — like open houses, workshops, and forums — that provide attendees with a “hands on” experience where they have the opportunity to interact with officials, department staff, and each other, to ask questions, provide feedback, and learn about particular issues, proposals, and projects that affect them.
These events are usually facilitated by staff but may also include participation by elected officials. Their informality sets them apart from more formal, regular legislative body meetings and public hearings, which contributes to their effectiveness in attracting members of the public. Don’t forget the coffee, tea, soft drinks, and snacks, which can go a long way toward creating a welcoming environment.
- Government of South Australia: Types of Engagement - Open House Events (2018) — Prepared by the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure, this two-page guide offers staff an overview of what to consider when planning an open house.
- Institute for Local Government: Planning Public Forums: Questions to Guide Local Officials (2007) — Offers useful questions to ask and design considerations for deciding what type of forum will best provide feedback and information.
- Issaquah Public Engagement Toolkit (2017) — Suggests strategies that project managers can use when developing customized engagement plans.
- Mountlake Terrace: A Vision for the Mountlake Town Center (2006) — Winner of APA/PAW Citizen Involvement Award. Process included neighborhood roundtables, developer forum, design workshops, and open houses in addition to public hearings.
- Walla Walla Park Street IRRP Project Virtual Open House — Includes a video providing an overview of a proposed street project near downtown Walla Walla, complete with goals, analysis, and timeline.
Focus Groups and Other Small Group Processes
Focus group meetings provide particularly fertile ground for understanding the unique needs and interests of various community or business groups. They are designed to get at the unique perspectives/opinions of specific groups, to benefit from the groups' shared knowledge, and to understand how various groups would be affected by programs or policies. They generally encourage free expression and interaction.
The back-and-forth exchange of information can lead to a creative combining of ideas and balancing of interests to refine alternatives or create entirely new solutions. Some communities break a larger audience into small "roundtable" discussion groups to focus on specific issues following a presentation to the entire audience. In either approach, the small group setting offers a more comfortable setting for speaking freely, listening, and interacting with others.
- Federal Highway Administration: Public Involvement Techniques for Transportation Decisionmaking: Small Group Techniques (2015)
- ICMA: Engaging Citizens in Oklahoma City to Improve Public Performance Reporting, — A case study on how the city used focus groups to help improve their performance reports.
- Iowa State University Extension: Can You Call It a Focus Group? (2004) — Offers distinguishing features between focus and other small groups, and appropriate/ inappropriate uses of focus groups
- National Center for Civic Innovation: Tips for Conducting Focus Groups and Citizen Surveys to Develop Government Performance Measures and Reports (2008)
- Sammamish Community Center Focus Group Research: Executive Summary (2011) — Presents results from a small group process on a proposed community center.
- University Place Resident Focus Group 2011 Report (2011) — Includes sections on focus group recruitment, group discussion guide, and procedures.
Charrettes bring together citizen and stakeholder groups with a team design professionals and other experts in intense, creative work sessions over a short time period. They can kick-start a planning or design process and lay the foundation for the ultimate plan or project design. Ideally, charrettes provide a climate that stimulates an exchange of ideas, information, and opinions about needs and solutions. The process promotes consensus-building toward a common vision harnessing the talents and energy of design professionals (as well as citizen participants) to help participants visualize alternatives and to recommend design solutions.
- Michigan State University: National Charrette Institute — Offers webinars, in-house training sessions, and other training resources. See their three-minute video: What is a Charrette? for a definition of charrettes and a description of their use. Also shows a video of a charrette in process.
- Planning Commissioners Journal: An Introduction to Charrettes (2008)
- Port Angeles and The Gateway Corridor: Reconnecting to the Community: A Sustainable Design Assessment Team Final Report (2009)
- Roslyn Urban Forest Design Charrette (2011)
Equity and Inclusion
Community engagement efforts that are focused on equity and inclusion are designed to increase access to local government information and resources by people of diverse races, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, physical ability, and socio-economic status through the implementation of inclusive outreach strategies, plans, or policies. Inclusive outreach and engagement programs seek to build and maintain strong and sustainable relationships based on trust with community groups that have been historically underrepresented in all aspects of local government and community life.
- Groundwork USA: Best Practices for Meaningful Community Engagement (2018) — Offers tips for engaging historically underrepresented populations in visioning and planning.
- ICMA: Meeting People Where They Are (2019) — Discusses how to lower barriers to civic participation.
- Institute for Local Government (ILG)
- Increasing Access to Public Meetings and Events for People with Disabilities (2015)
- Ten Ideas to Encourage Immigrant Engagement - A Tip Sheet for Local Officials (2015) — Offers tips drawn from the experience of California cities and counties.
- MRSC: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Resources for Local Governments — Provides resources, tools, and sample documents related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives taking place in Washington State local governments.
- Seattle: Inclusive Outreach and Public Engagement Guide (rev. 2012) — Outlines outreach and public engagement processes inclusive of people of diverse races, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and socio-economic status.
- Bellevue Diversity Advantage Initiative — The city adopted its Diversity Advantage Plan in 2014 and provides a range of services to its multicultural population.
- Everett Mayoral Directive: Community Engagement and Inclusion (2018) — Outlines initiatives to increase engagement, particularly with underrepresented members of the community and young people, and to improve access to city government.
- Shoreline Diversity & Inclusion Program — Focuses on increasing the capacity of city staff to promote service equity and inclusion, increasing access to city information and services by diverse communities, and increasing support for diverse communities.
Local governments have fully embraced social media platforms in their efforts to find new and more effective ways to engage with citizens and to create greater trust and transparency. Social media platforms offer a variety of ways for managers to share news about local events and issues, address residents' concerns, provide emergency information, and showcase engaging content. Popular platforms have included Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat, TikTok, and NextDoor.
While most local governments have been using popular social media platforms as a communications and engagement tool, in a new twist, some are also using AI-powered technologies (e.g., Zencity) to tap into and analyze community sentiment about local news and events as it is being expressed on those same social media platforms.
- Digital.gov: mproving the Accessibility of Social Media in Government — Created with the input of social media leaders and users, this toolkit contains helpful tips, real-life examples and best practices to ensure that your social media content is usable and accessible to all citizens, including those with disabilities.
- Forbes: Social Media and Local Government (2019) — Discusses the benefits and uses of social media for local government
- Government Social Media — Supports public sector social media professionals by hosting national events, facilitating local training and organizing a community of social media managers working in local government across the country.
- Maintaining Public Trust in a Social Media Environment, Part One (2020) — Offers tips on how to minimize the potential negative impacts of social media on efforts to foster public confidence and trust. Part Two offers simple steps to guide what you post online to maintain public trust and confidence.
- Social Media in Local Government: Leave or Experiment (2020)
- Your Social Media Strategy (2017)
- Nextdoor: Community Guidelines for Public Services
- Mill Creek Social Media Policy — Guidelines for the city’s social media sites to ensure consistency, accuracy, value to citizens, and compliance with state and federal laws.
- King County Social Media Handbook — Guidelines for the creation, oversight, maintenance and documentation of social media accounts used by the county.
- Benton County Social Media Policy and Procedures (2017) — Policies and procedure for social media accounts and employee activity on these accounts.
- Gilbert, AZ Digital Roadmap — Contains a detailed strategy that helped establish Gilbert as a leader in digital government.
Email and Text Alerts
Email and text alert services give citizens the ability to sign up to receive updates, notices, and news about the issues they care about and to have them sent directly to their email inboxes or smartphones as text messages. Email and text alerts are particularly effective for local issues and projects that will play out over an extended period of time. For issues like these, alerts provide timely updates, news about milestones, new developments, and opportunities for more direct engagement as the issue or project moves forward.
Alert systems are also used for emergency communications purposes, providing subscribers with real-time information about severe weather events, safety, health, utility disruptions, major traffic incidents, and other similar emergency notices. Anyone with a smartphone can receive text alerts.
Despite the growing popularity of social media, email is still more effective in reaching users than use of Facebook and Twitter combined, making it an effective engagement tool.
- CivicPlus: Create a Citizen Email Notification Strategy that is Relevant, Actionable, and Valuable — Offers nine ways to make more impactful emails.
- Seattle: Alert Seattle FAQs — Offers information on subscribing, types of alerts to sign up for, and privacy and contact information.
- Whatcom County Notify Me email alerts — Provides an extensive menu of email alerts including general notifications, bid postings, departmental “news flashes,” and agendas for the county council and various advisory boards and commissions.
- Sammamish email and text alert updates — Allows residents to sign up for email and text alerts on topics of particular interest to them, including alerts on road projects, city council meetings, parks and recreation news, and many other items on the topic menu.
- AlertSeattle — The city’s official text-based system for communicating with the public during emergencies.
Mobile apps offer a wide range of methods for delivering local government services or for engaging with citizens through the convenience of mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops. For example, popular apps like SeeClickFix allow users to photograph and report problems like potholes, graffiti, or damaged streetlights, and submit them to their city or county public works department, get a tracking number assigned, and status alerts until the problem has been resolved.
Mobile apps deliver content in a mobile-friendly format that can be read on popular devices like smartphones and tablets. Apps also offer the ability to “push” notifications out to subscribers, which has proven to be an effective way of engaging with citizens.
- CivicPlus: The Mobile App Impact on Citizen Satisfaction and Municipal Management — Discusses how having a mobile strategy can help public engagement
- IBM Center for the Business of Government: Using Mobile Apps in Government (2015) — Documents the state of mobile apps at the federal, state, and local levels.
- Bellevue MyBellevue App — Allows residents to request services and access city news, jobs, and social media.
- Federal Way "Eyes on Federal Way” — Powered by SeeClickFix, this app enables residents to report non-emergency issues such as roadside litter, graffiti, abandoned shopping carts and a variety of other issues to city staff from their smartphone. The app also tags the specific location of the issue through the user phone’s global positioning system, making it easy for city staff to respond.
- Shoreline Service Request - SeeClickFix — Online reporting tool allows people to report and track non-emergency issues through the city’s website or via mobile apps.
Web-Based Engagement Platforms
Web-based citizen engagement platforms are used to connect local governments and citizens to share information and solicit ideas and opinions about community issues, plans, and projects. These tools, which are usually embedded in local government websites, are designed to facilitate citizen participation in local decision-making by providing regular issue/project updates, relevant documents, opportunities for providing input, and for asking questions. Web-based engagement platforms differ from social media because they are designed specifically to host and facilitate two-way engagement processes on one or more policy issues.
- Alliance for Innovation
- Institute for Local Government: Broadening Public Participation Using Online Engagement Tools
These webpages offer the public a list of current projects with links to project documentation and the opportunity to ask specific questions, take surveys, share ideas, and discuss project plans with others, all in an online format
- Bellevue: Engaging Bellevue
- King County Engagement Hub
- Mercer Island: Let’s Talk Mercer Island
- Olympia: Engage Olympia
Participatory budgeting includes a range of engagement techniques that center around involving citizens in the local government budgeting process either as an educational exercise, where, for example, they might have the chance to build their own budget through a budget simulation “game,” or more directly as part of a process in which a portion of a jurisdiction’s budget is set aside to allow community members, often through neighborhood organizations, to vote on how to use it.
There are a variety of participatory budgeting methods, and the best match will depend on how your jurisdiction wants to engage with the public, the types of projects that can be funded, and how much funding is available.
- Gov1: How Participatory Budgeting Can Help Cities Modernize Services (2019)
- ICMA: Humanizing the Budget Process (2020) — Covers how participatory budgeting can advance equity and increase engagement
- Institute for Local Government
- A Local Official’s Guide to Public Engagement in Budgeting (2010) — Describes five general approaches that local agencies use to involve residents in the budget process.
- Public Engagement in Budgeting (2015) — Provides an overview and basic understanding, plus links to more detailed information.
- Seattle Your Voice, Your Choice — City residents democratically decide how to spend a portion of the city's budget on small-scale park and street improvements. The city reports on previously funded projects at the History of Participatory Budgeting in Seattle.
- Sequim The People’s Project — Gave residents the opportunity to vote on proposed projects included in the 2020 budget.
Local governments have long used advisory boards/commissions to assist elected officials in a number of policy-making areas. The most common types are the standing boards/commissions, such as those for planning, human services, and parks and recreation. Members of these advisory bodies are usually appointed by the governing body of the city, town, or county, and they serve multi-year terms.
Standing advisory boards and commissions often provide a path for many of their members to seek elected office as they gain substantive knowledge and experience with a range of local government issues.
Ad hoc advisory bodies are usually appointed and convened for a limited period of time to consider a program, project or set of issues and to report back with their advice and/or recommendations to the mayor, council or commission. Members meet regularly and may represent a cross section of the community or may be a set of people with knowledge or concerns about a particular issue.
A task force is similar in some respects but is assigned a specific task, often with a time limit for reaching a conclusion and resolving a difficult issue, subject to ratification by official decision-makers.
For more information and examples, see our page Advisory Boards and Commissions.
Youth engagement programs are designed to provide opportunities for youth to learn more about their local government, develop leadership skills through hands-on experiences, and contribute to the conversation on community issues, including those that uniquely affect young people.
Youth-oriented engagement and education programs give students the opportunity to meet directly with local elected officials and staff to learn more about their roles in leading and managing local government programs and services.
For more information and examples, see our page Youth Participation in Local Government.
Citizen education programs are designed to give people the knowledge and skills they need to understand and more fully participate in their local governments. Active and engaged citizens who have a greater understanding of the structure and functions of their local government can participate and contribute more effectively in the political process and make positive changes for their communities.
Examples include citizen academies, community leadership academies, police ride-along programs, community emergency response team (CERT) training, open houses, tours, and other similar programs.
- Association of Washington Cities (AWC): Cities 101 videos — Educates the broader community about what cities do, covering such topics as population growth, how sewers work, city budgeting, transportation, and property taxes.
- A Push for Civic Education (2016) — Reviews how civic education can be promoted using traditional approaches, digital solutions, or a combination of both.
- How Citizen Academies Help Promote Public Engagement and Civic Education, (2018) — Describes how three communities used citizen academies to address their public engagement challenges.
- MRSC: Using Citizen Academies to Educate and Engage your Citizenry (2017) — Looks at a few examples of citizens academies within and outside of Washington State.
- University of North Carolina School of Government: Citizen Academies — Acts as a clearinghouse on citizens' academies, information, and innovative practices culled from dozens of successful programs across the country.
Many local governments have established volunteer programs in their communities to take advantage of the diverse talents and interests of their residents. Examples include environmental stewardship, park maintenance, community emergency response, customer service support, special events support, and many others.
For more information and examples, see our page on Volunteer Programs and Policies.
Local governments have long produced newsletters as a way to share information about special events, agency activities, announcements, and other similar community news. Historically these have been in a printed format either mailed directly to community residents or distributed through a local newspaper. In more recent years many local governments have added e-newsletters to deliver the same type of content and more (e.g., embedded video) electronically to subscribers’ desktops, smartphones, and other devices.
- City of Boston: Designing a Seamless Newsletter Experience for Boston's Constituents, (2020) — By reducing the amount of text, and regrouping reader’s actions in each section into just one button, Boston was able to make their newsletters scannable and readable in less than five minutes. Grouping information using iconography also enabled them to maintain the amount of information shared with the readers while keeping it organized and accessible.
- Groundwire: Writing Email Newsletters: Best Practices
- New Hampshire Municipal Association: Reach Your Audience with Newsletters — Five different approaches to newsletter communication and tips to help you develop a newsletter that meets your needs and goals.
- Bellevue It's Your City Newsletter — Packed with information about city projects, activities, calendar events, resources, and city contacts, and issues. Also see Neighborhood News.
- Snohomish County e-newsletters — Subscription topics include county executive updates, council district updates, emergency management preparedness, and more.
Community surveys play an important role in gaining insights into the public's views and opinions about a wide variety of issues including feedback on service quality, input on service priorities, support for proposed new programs and services, quality of life perceptions, and many more. Community surveys can reach hundreds or even thousands of individuals via phone, mail, email, or online, to give city and county leaders valuable insights into the views and opinions of their community members.
Due to small sample sizes and low response rates many local government surveys have difficulty achieving results that are statistically valid. When that is the case, their primary value is to provide general insights into community attitudes and opinions that may or may not accurately represent the opinions of the entire population.
- Bloomberg Cities: 5 Secrets of Successful Community Surveys (2019)
- Governing: What Citizens Really Think (2018) — Discusses the pros and cons of civic-engagement platforms and public opinion research.
- Ten Common Community Survey Mistakes to Avoid (2018) — Offers suggestions on how to avoid conducting a survey process that hurts response rates, yields inaccurate data, and hinders the usefulness of survey results.
- The Voice of the Public — Examines why surveys are valuable for finding out what residents want and need.
- Public Technology Institute: Citizen Participation Processes — Reviews popular survey methods, looking at relative cost, response rates, and implementation speed.
A number of communities have established speakers bureaus, populated by staff or other speakers, that are available to make presentations on local government programs or topics.
Since service organizations, school classrooms, and other community organizations need short programs or speakers on a regular basis, it is a great opportunity for local jurisdictions to get the word out about services and programs, emerging issues, or to discuss plans on the horizon. It is also a great way to stay connected with the community and to glean the interests/concerns of the community group hosting the talk.
- Florida Water Environment Association: Forming and Utilizing a Speakers Bureau — Covers three distinct steps: (1) Recruiting willing and knowledgeable speakers; (2) Preparing presentations; and (3) Finding and scheduling speaking opportunities.
- Kentucky Transportation Cabinet: Speakers Bureau — Includes a how-to section and is part of their Public Involvement Toolbox
- Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization Speaker’s Bureau Guide — Offers agency staff and overview of Speakers Bureaus, including benefits, uses, how to attract speakers, and how to build one.
- University of Kansas: Developing a Speaker’s Bureau — As part of the university's broader community toolbox, this chapter offers an overview of steps involved in creating a speakers bureau, including how they can be used to raise public awareness of local issues, increasing your organization's visibility, increasing public understanding, and providing positive role models.
- Richland Speakers’ Bureau — City staff are available to speak to community groups or schools on a variety of topics by appointment. Tours of some city facilities also available through the program.
- Snohomish Speakers Bureau — Includes a roster of public employees who have volunteered to speak about their areas of expertise to area groups.
Guided, self-guided, or even virtual tours offer a first-hand look at local government facilities and operations, giving viewers an increased understanding and appreciation of how thier government works. Popular facility tours include water and wastewater treatment plants, police departments, fire stations, city halls, and county courthouses.
- Smart CitiesDive: 10 Lessons in More Engaging Citizen Engagement — See lesson 7, “Walk the Talk,” and lesson 8, “Open the Doors to City Hall.”
- IAP2: Public Participation Toolbox — See sections on hosting open houses and tours and field trips.
- Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments: South Loop Trail Tour — Offers a Google Maps tour of the proposed South Cowlitz River Trail Loop via YouTube
- King County Wastewater education and tours — Offers guided tours of the county's wastewater treatment plants
- Richland Tours — Lists facility tours available for appointment, i.e., city hall, fire station, wastewater and water treatment plants.
- Infill Housing Self-Guided Tour — A collection of local examples to demonstrate how well-designed infill projects can fit different types of areas.
- Waste to Energy Virtual Tour — Watch the virtual 360 tour or take a look inside of the boiler.