This week we continue our series on guidelines for engagement with a discussion of following through after the actual dialogue between participants is completed. Note that you can download a check list version of our dialogue guidelines from our resources page.
The citizens who participate in a dialogue are always interested in knowing how their input affected policy or other decisions. By reporting on how that input is considered and applied you not only have the opportunity to strengthen your relationship with those who participated, you are also confirming for others the legitimacy of your decision- making processes and encouraging more citizens to become involved in future engagement efforts. When reporting that you were able to directly implement a citizen-developed idea, it is worth emphasizing both the source of the idea and its path to implementation. If adjustments were needed, or an idea could not be implemented, it is a good idea to explain why, and whether other steps are being taken to address the underlying need or interest. This type of explanation helps you avoid accusations that you ‘ignored what the public wants.’ Remember, if you fail to explain why you were unable to implement citizen ideas, citizens will create their own explanations! It is better to proactively to educate the public on what is or isn’t possible and why. Citizens often have an unrealistic time frame as to how soon a particular idea can be implemented. Again, reporting can serve an educational purpose. In Columbia, MO we used a simple form to help report on both the priorities set by the City Council following a citizen-led visioning effort, and also on progress being made. You can review that accountability tracker here.
Even before reporting outcomes, there are things you can do to ensure citizens that their input is being taken seriously. Also in Columbia, the City Council approved the use of Vision Impact Notes (similar in concept to fiscal notes). These are required on all bills sent to the council in order to inform the council on whether or not visioning goals are affected by the bill. The use of these notes also allows for tracking of which goals have been acted on. There are other processes, such as e-mail updates, on-line surveys, and supplemental dialogues that can be used to integrate ongoing citizen input into a reporting and evaluation plan. There are a number of benefits to such integration. By keeping citizens connected to your implementation processes and keeping them abreast of progress or challenges, you can better keep them involved and excited. Further, those who participated in a given engagement process often have the knowledge and experiences to provide useful critiques and suggestions. Building ongoing partnerships between citizens and government can strengthen both mutual understanding and trust, and promote the development of policies that are both sound and sustainable. Overall, “following through” can add significant value to your engagement process.