Is Chapel Hill ready for a Public Engagement Advisory Board?

With all the talk about restructuring Chapel Hill's advisory boards, I thought it might be good time to publicly share my idea for a new board to help foster better civic engagement and more open government, while also addressing the gap left by firing the technology advisory board 7 years ago. I shared this proposal with the Mayor's Committee on Communications in late 2010, but there didn't seem to be much interest at the time. Maybe now there is an opportunity to do something to make Chapel Hill more participatory and democratic.

Not enough Chapel Hill residents participate in public meetings and advisory boards. This lack of engagement leaves the Town at a disadvantage without the valuable input of a broad range of Chapel Hillians, and also leaves many people feeling frustrated and cut off from decisions that impact their lives and issues that concern them.

  • Typical community residents find it difficult to get information about issues of interest to them, either because they do not know to where to look, who to ask, or what documents to look for.

  • The Town has improved somewhat in the effort to disseminate information online, but is still not very user-friendly, and has even more challenges in sharing information to less-connected communities.

  • The Town's communication efforts have mostly been geared toward sending information, and not receiving. There is no formalized listening function, and residents that do share their comments don't receive enough validation of the impact of their input.

  • The town lacks expertise in the use of new and emerging media, which presents a lost opportunity in terms of ways to engage with the public for both information sharing and dialog.

This problem is large and complex, and won't be solved by any single solution, but I propose that the Town Council consider appointing a new advisory board to address the broad issues around how to more effectively reach out to all Chapel Hill residents, and get more people, from a wider range of backgrounds, involved in local government.  For example, this committee could advise the staff and the Council on online and offline communication strategies, shaping and facilitating more effective public meetings, improving the usability and functionality of the Town web site, helping residents get information, use of social media and mobile technologies, and best practices in open government. In addition, board members would act as ambassadors helping to make Town resources more accessible and relevant to diverse constituents, and also bringing good ideas back to the town on behalf of the community.

Possible names:

Public Engagement Advisory Board
Civic Engagement Advisory Board
Community Engagement Advisory Board

CC: Chapel Hill Mayor and Town Council



Anita Brown-Graham of the Institute for Emerging Issues delivered the commencement address last weekend for the UNC Department of Public Policy, and one of the big themes she emphasized (and that IEI emphasizes more broadly in their work) is how poorly NC as a whole performs when it comes to civic engagement. One statistic she highlighted was that NC ranks 44th in the nation for "non-electoral policy activity," which includes things like attending public meetings.She also shared a story about a meetings he had with four NC mayors just last week. She asked them all what the biggest problem they faced in their cities, and all four, she said, gave the same answer: Getting the public to engage with what's happening in their city.My point is that public engagement is a core challenge that our community faces, and that many other communities across NC and the nation are facing. Chapel Hill has the chance now, with this restructuring, to chart a new course for enhanced public engagement and to be a leader in public engagement. I think many of the points you make here, Ruby, are incredibly important to consider as the town reenvisions the advisory process that is meant to engage the public in the democratic and decisionmaking processes, and that, if done right, could strengthen our community and provide a model for other communities on how to enable greater public engagement.

I believe there is a difference in what younger generations expect as far as engagement occurs.  I was struck by this in a column in InformationWeek a couple of years ago about how IT changes can be done well.  Its point was -- If you want Gen X or millenials to embrace a change, you have to give us real opportunity for input.  We don't have to agree on every change, but there has to be genuine dialog.  This same idea applies (IMHO) to government.  It is not enough to disseminate information, whether by the web or Twitter.  If government wants engagement, it must be willing to have a true dialog.  This problem is not unique to CH, or any entity in OC, but given we have leaders who are willing to try different things (and across the board seem genuinely concerned with governing well), we ought to be able to lead in this area.  Also, our opnion-gifted community expects to have a voice and is willing to share if government will listen.One book I'd recommend for anyone thinking about this topic is Citizenville by Gavin Newsome.  Jeff Nash has my copy right now, but you can borrow it when he finishes if you like -- it raises some specific examples of how providing real data to the public and listening in new ways can bring much better government to us all. Thanks, Ruby, for continuing this conversation.  It is important to all entities in OC and something we really should be able to bring change to.-J

I think that this is a great idea, and would expand the conversation here in CH.  Too many times the conversations are limited to select people, and it creates a marginalization of the rest of the citizens.  Perhaps if the town didn't want to add another whole board, they could alter the composition of the existing (or new) boards to have a "Public Liaison" of sorts, just like we already have a Staff Liaison and Council Liaison.  The Liaison position would be in charge of reaching out to the community and pubbing the boards actions and goals through social media or other means.  They would be a full voting member, and the board could elect them within their membership for one year terms.  Specifically functioning basically the same way as a Vice Chair  (which any member can hold), and is an officer of the board itself.  If each board had this position, the town would then have more than a full board's worth of Public Liaisons all reaching out to the communities about their own boards issues.  Cooperation between Liaisons would be encouraged and would also provide inter-board connectivity and cooperation at the same time.

.........maybe.A lot of wise words and thought, Ruby. If you've been involved with Town committees, elections or projects (i.e., 2020), you've gotten a big dose of public disengagement from Chapel Hill's residents. Usually you have to pretend the community has been engaged, spoken, moved, enlightened by your efforts.Did the community care about: two teachers being screwed by the school system; a questionable library expansion; two fired sanitation workers; endless barriers to commercial development; (add your own here)? I don't know. What is caring?  Is silence approval? [oh no, the silent majority concept]I agree, we must explore possible ways of reaching our residents via effective media. I greatly enjoy the messages I get from the town every day about what's going on. Our neighborhood list serv is working well and adding neighbors.I suspect a lot of our citizens, like some very close to me, are just too busy with their lives. Although intelligent and professional they have no interest in reading news, politics or social advocacy. If they have a minute in their exhausting life they try to devote it to their family. Community? Meh..... What community issue is going to contribute to their tenure or promotion?We need some really good minds to work on this public engagement. Do our leaders want to try? There was a time..........

CityCamp NC is this Thursday and Friday in Raleigh, which is a great place to meet other people interested in this topic and see what's going on elsewhere in North Carolina and across the country. (Ruby and I went last year in its previous incarnation as CityCamp Raleigh.) From their about page:

CityCamp NC is three days of open sourced talks, workshops, and hands-on  problem solving, to re-imagine the way the web, applications, technology, and participation will shape the future of NC cities.CityCamp brings together government, business, neighborhood, non-profit, and academic communities to work toward next generation solutions for local municipalities. You don’t need to be technical either–we need ideas from a variety of participants to help create solutions.The purpose is to highlight the power of participation, promote open source in local government, and explore how technology is used to increase government transparency. CityCamp NC will foster communities of practice and create outcomes for participants both during, and after the event.We want to collaborate and create the next generation of government using community-based solutions. CityCamp NC is how open government, “Gov 2.0,” goes local–and you can join the movement.

There is probably still time for you to sign up if you're interested in attending. 


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