05/22/2013 by Christopher Nelson

New study reveals consensus on local reform between government officials and civic leaders

For years here at California Forward, we have been conducting polling that tell us Californians are dissatisfied with their elected officials across the board. They want a government that is smart, efficient and works for them.

So when a study commissioned by the Irvine Foundation and co-authored by several prominent public policy-focused organizations was released this week and showed a strong nexus in the desires for local government reform between local officials and civic leaders, our interest was piqued.

“Community leaders in California have a lot of wisdom and energy, which is why this study is important," said Jim Mayer, Executive Director of California Forward. "The results show a clear cut need for better decision-making, more cooperation among local governments and better communication with the people that public agencies serve.”

"CA Fwd's Handbook for Community Solutions is another tool, like those of the Institute, for helping local leaders engage their colleagues and communities,"  Mayer said.

In the study of more than 900 public officials and more than 500 leaders of civic and community-based organizations across California, three key findings were outlined in the press release:

  • Public meetings and other engagement formats often do not serve the needs of residents or local officials
  • Public comment agendas tend to be dominated by narrow interests and negative remarks
  • Large segments of the public are missing from the process, especially low-income populations, immigrants and young people

They found that in open public meetings, such as City Council meetings, the comment period was often dominated by single-issue people that mostly expressed negative sentiment. Of the 500 civic leaders interviewed, about three-quarters of them said that local elected officials listened most the the most vocal constituents, creating a narrow agenda that falls far short of serving the greater community’s needs. 

Not surprisingly, about the same amount concur that public trust of local officials has been rapidly eroding over the past few years.

Where all 1462 of the surveyed individuals overlap lies the key for moving toward solutions. They all agreed that public engagement is far too low because as it stands, there is an unacceptable level of disconnect between local officials and members of the community. The opportunities for participation are there but the public is simply disengaged.

So how does this connect to our work?

In a nod to the Deliberative Poll we conducted in conjunction with Stanford University and What’s Next California, both groups in this recent study show a clear interest in a more deliberative, inclusive process that fosters dialogue on a wide range of issues. The thinking is that more inclusive translates to better decisions and more trust in the process and the institution.

A vital component to a deliberative process not only includes a wide range of issues, but also a slice of the community that represents all facets across the income, background and age spectrums.

Opinions shifted dramatically across the board after just a weekend of deliberation at our 2011 Deliberative Poll in Torrance, CA. All walks of Californians were represented and experts were available in small group settings to guide and inform discussions. It was a true testament to the power of both dialogue and access to information.

Additionally, our Handbook for Community Solutions is a direct model for bringing all of the sentiments extracted from the study to fruition. It is a guide for anyone looking to find inclusive solutions to local problems. It is scalable to any size, whether it’s a single community, a few agencies, or large projects involving many stakeholders.

In short, it is meant to enhance public participation in community problem-solving. Experience shows that to solve difficult public problems, public agencies must work together. Schools need to work with social service agencies, and social service agencies need to work with law enforcement. With tools like this study and our Handbook at their disposal, local leaders have the incentive and the flexibility to engage the public by better serving all of their needs rather than a narrow few.

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