The role of citizens to actively engage and collaborate with their local government is critical for a strong Traverse City, even if it isn’t always easy or convenient. For the individual citizen it can be a rewarding experience to be part of making an impact on the direction of your community – but first please show up and take your seat at the table.
Last week, I discussed the role of leadership to encourage and embrace citizen participation. This happens when leadership makes a commitment to use the decision-making process as a tool to citizen empowerment and thus help people take ownership of their community. The process also goes the other way – citizens willing to commit time, energy, and knowledge in a less than certain process feel more a part of their community.
Unfortunately, not all of us feel invited to participate beyond sending an e-mail, writing a letter, or commenting at a meeting, none of which are the most effective means to impacting decision-making. To be effective doesn’t necessarily take an extraordinary amount of time and energy, but it does mean thoughtfully engaging leadership on multiple fronts.
Here’s some basic advice for someone who wants to heighten her civic participation.
- Know your city.What is the basic system? Who are the players? What departments address your key issues? Are those departments accessible? (Traverse City charter).
- Attend some meetings. Leave your smart phone or tablet at home for that first meeting. Meetings can be long and they can be dry, so try to attend one meeting without distraction. You don’t necessarily have to speak up, but introducing yourself to leaders is helpful (You might even give a grade to the meeting using this online score card * suitable for any government meeting).
- Discuss over coffee. You can and should get to know the elected, appointed, and hired officials. What are they passionate about? Let them know about your skills and interests – offer to help.
- Stay in touch . Keep government officials informed on community projects you’re involved in. Invite them to participate. If there is something you don’t understand, ask them clarifying questions about decisions they are making at the commission level or in their department. Congratulate them when they make a decision that you support or you know was a difficult one.
- We are the champions . If you are really concerned about one issue or a series of related issues, find the champions. You’re going to need their help and they are going to need yours. You can keep them posted on what’s going on in the community and they can keep you posted on what is going on at the municipal level.
- Look for shared wins . Identify some small projects where a collaborative effort that combines citizen interest and effort and just enough municipal participation can result in a win. Identify those and start working. Develop and bring in your own network of people to show what a small band of concerned citizens can do when given a little support.
- Show up. You don’t have to go to every meeting, but really showing up at city meetings can be an effective way to influence policy. There are plenty of official boards and commissions and each of them also has several sub-committees that are working on all sorts of issues. Pick your interest, ask about current committee work, and seek them out to attend and weigh-in early in the process (check the City’s calendar for your interests).
- The next thing you know . Be careful: Citizen participation has been known to cause people to throw their own name into the hat for seat on a board, committee, or commission. I won’t say it’s inevitable, but it certainly happens. And it’s a positive thing: embrace it. The following Margaret Mead quote is frequently referenced for a reason:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
This is ever more true in the local context.
A strong Traverse City is always working towards a civic participation focused on inclusive, forward-thinking dialogue. Government leaders have an important role, but it’s not all on them. Citizens and private enterprise do their part by reaching out and showing up.