A recipe for effective community engagement

Recently, I have been thinking about the quality of interaction among residents, elected officials, government employees and our neighborhood organizations. Are those relationships always full of respect, understanding and open communication? Many people would reply, "No."

During the last four months, 22 residents, including me, have been serving on the City Council’s Community Engagement Task Force. Its draft report identifies how the city can do a better job of engaging with community organizations. Public comment on the draft report has sparked in me some other observations about how we as individuals interact with "the city," i.e. our elected officials and neighborhood organizations.

I feel that community engagement is best characterized as a healthy relationship between residents and the organization with which they are interacting. Think about the good relationships you have with others. They are marked by respect, responsibility, trust, caring and two-way communication.

We cannot codify good relationship skills between us and those in our government. The task force’s recommendations can go only so far as to encourage such positive behavior. Ultimately, it falls back on us as residents, elected officials, and civil servants to make those interactions be respectful, generate trust, promote communication, and prompt all to meet their responsibilities.

During the last four years, I have worked with many elected officials, as well as city and county staff. There are always those who we think could do a better job or be more helpful and understanding. However, I have yet to meet an individual who wakes up in the morning and says, "Today, I plan to do a lousy job." Nevertheless, many of us treat either government employees or elected officials as if that were their exact intent. This oftentimes leads to an equally undesirable reaction. The result is an unfeeling bureaucrat, an unresponsive elected official or a suspicious tax payer.

I would challenge each of us to set aside our cynicism and practice civil engagement whether we are a resident, elected official, or government employee. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt, treat him or her as someone who is trying to do the best he or she can and take your share of responsibility for the outcome. Courtesy and civility are contagious and will, in the end, be our best hope for a foundation of sustainable community engagement.

Matt Perry is co-chair of the Community Engagement Task Force and chair of the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association. He can be reached at mattp@pobox.com.