Engaging People Who Want to Make a Difference in the Community

When asked why we entered local government, many of us say the same thing: “to make a difference in the community.”  There are others among us with the same love of their community but express it in different ways:  whether rescuing animals, providing housing for the homeless, or outreach programs through church.  Let’s face it, most people take for granted the services our cities provide.  So how do we get these other civic-minded people interested in our local governments? Below are some ideas for “conversation starters” to begin to get people interested and engaged in local government.

1. Political conversation

Most of us are adept at dodging the question, “Who are you voting for?” I usually respond that I will “Vote for Pedro” (reference the movie Napoleon Dynamite). After a dazed and confused look, the other person inevitably turns the conversation to a general statement that the current elected officials are out of touch with the public or, “I may be crazy, but I am not THAT crazy!”  Here is your opportunity!  Ask them why they are not engaged and making a difference.  Remind them we need good people in these positions, because without quality people, we have difficulty creating progress.  Ask them what needs to change for them involved. By taking this opportunity to have conversation, can we successfully engage someone to become the next Board of Adjustment or Planning and Zoning Commission member and mentor them to go on to a higher office, if they so choose?  Sometimes, these conversations lead to people expressing an interest in elected office or even professional local government management.

2. City manager conversation

“What’s a City Manager?” City managers need to do a better job of educating people about our profession and about the importance of civic involvement.  Why not come up with a 10-second elevator pitch to explain what we do professionally?

One possible explanation goes like this: “Think of the city as a corporation.  The mayor as the chair of the board of directors, the council as the board, and the city manager as the chief executive officer.  That is what I do:  I run the city for the mayor and council.”  Of course this is only some of what we do, but it will provide a hook to gauge if there is an interest in continuing the conversation or expanding on it over coffee or lunch.

3. Engaging children

Balcones Heights Mayor Suzanne de Leon started an annual “Mayor for a Day” program with the local Catholic school.  We ask the middle school students to write about a project the city can do to improve life in the community.  Almost all of the students live in San Antonio and not in our 0.7 square mile city.  This forces the students—and I am sure the parents—to find out about the various functions of the city.   When we find the top three to five essays, we interview the students.  The top person becomes “Mayor for a Day.”  We also have a “Mayor Pro Tem for a Day” and a “City Administrator for a Day.” If needed, we will add other positions.  The youth are toured around the city in a police car, brought to the fire station then transported to city hall on a fire truck.  At every stop, we talk with them about our role in local government.  That evening, they “run” a portion of the city council meeting.  Typically, she lets the youth take care of the opening items while we sit next to them and coach them through the process:  pledge, prayer, minutes, financial report, public comment period, and possibly the consent agenda if they are doing well.  And the parents and council do love the photo opportunity!

Additionally, TCMA‘s “Our Town, Texas” and ICMA’s “Life Well Run” videos can be used by city managers or educators to introduce students to local government.

4. Engaging university students

  • Teach or talk to a political science or MPA class;
  • Designate a region member to sponsor an ICMA Student Chapter and designate someone as sponsor;
  • Host a region lunch or mixer before class; and/or
  • Speak to the Student Council leadership about their future profession

5. Mentoring

Each one of us can point to one or many people who helped shape our career.  Make sure you are “paying it forward” and do the same thing. Find someone you connect with—young or old—and talk with them about the profession, about management techniques, how to make a presentation, “extracurricular” activities, etc.  Remember the Nike phrase, “Just Do It!”

6. Preaching to the choir

Local civic groups such as Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis, are full of civic-minded people from all walks of life. I have found that I know as much or little about these professionals’ professions as they know about city management.  Most of these clubs actively look for speakers to talk about what is going on in the public and private sectors.  Whether you are active as a member or just speaking to these leaders, it’s a great way to engage people in the discussion of all things civic.  Go find a club and introduce yourself.  Better yet, if you are a member, invite someone to join and engage in conversation.

While this is not an all-inclusive list, we as city managers are the champions for professional local government management through conversation with our peers, mentors, friends, family, and other professionals.  Just by striking up a conversation, you are helping get other people interested in local government and we can begin to do our part to restore a sense of sanity to this experiment we call democracy.

(Article submitted by David Harris, City Administrator, City of Balcones Heights. If you have interesting news or helpful topics to share, please submit them to Kim Pendergraft at [email protected]. Please keep the information to fewer than 300 words.)