This article was originally posted at Englin Consulting - A consulting firm that helps organizations, causes, and campaigns move people to action to impact policy and politics.
Quick, you're faced with the choice of riding up and down the Sears Tower elevator 15 times, with children, or sitting through an entire city council or county board meeting.
Tough choice, huh?
It's no wonder that localities across our country are struggling to find citizen input on everything from changing the name of a street to rezoning. Even though votes taken at the local level will affect people's lives more than votes on Capitol Hill (one reason because there are actual votes taken at the local level), most people would rather watch MSNBC or even CSPAN than read about their local representation.
So, how do you inform, interest and get citizens engaged?
Localities like Boston and Fargo have taken advantage of public participation sites like MindMixer while others have gone the simple route of using social media to connect to people outside City Hall.
Here are a few suggestions to help get more than the same 13 people commenting on the next big change in your area:
1) Let Go.
You know what you should be able to find out about your city on their website? Everything. Recently we looked at the website of a state capital city and we noticed that not only was it hard to find any info, you couldn't even email the mayor or his staff if you wanted to. That just screams, "go away.”
On the other hand, San Mateo, CA took a step toward getting younger people involved in city matters by making their public information, well, public. Not many folks want to call the City Clerk's office to find out how much it took to build the newest firehouse.
If you actually want the ideas from the best and brightest, don't handcuff them. Give them the tools they need to offer up solutions.
2) 1:00 AM Public Comment Periods.
You wake up, metro/drive to work, spend 8 hours at the office, metro/drive home, and then: a) spend time with family, b) watch a baseball game, c) spend three hours in a meeting so that you can speak for two minutes about an issue important to you.
If you're like us, you might consider going to that meeting for 10 seconds before realizing you'd rather drive back to work at that very moment instead.
You want public comment? Move online. Fairfax City, VA launched Our Parks, Our Future, which allows residents to weigh in on the Park and Recreation Deptartment’s Strategic Master Plan. Folks can do that whenever they want. Even at 1am.
3) Urban Planning is just like Nintendo.
Well, that might be a stretch, but it can be fun. Making city planning into a bit of a game can really get a lot more people interested.
For instance, San Francisco uses MindMixer to get people involved in everything from transit to greenspace. You accrue points the more involved you are: 50 for creating a profile, 10 points for submitting an idea, two points for seconding, commentating or voting on an idea and 10 points for someone seconding your idea.
The winner gets their idea or design chosen, like the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's new logo which was designed pro bono and was slapped virtually everywhere in the City. You can also then turn in your points for neat stuff like lunch with the mayor, the mayor's voice on your voicemail, magazine subscriptions, etc.
The point is, it's neat, different, and kinda fun. The kind of thing that catches people's attentions and makes them want to play, er...get involved.