RECAP- Connecting People & Place: How Local Governments Can Build Trust and Strengthen Communities

December 14, 2022

This webinar, hosted in partnership with GTY Technology, brought together city leaders to address the vital role of trust in allowing local governments to co-create results with their communities. Our panel shared insights on the challenges underlying distrust, civic apathy and polarization as well as practical steps to improve engagement, transparency and accountability in local government, and why there’s reason for optimism.

View the top discussion highlights and takeaways below. 

Trust goes two ways

“Our mission in local government is to take care of people,” emphasized Dianne Miller, City Administrator of Eagan, Minnesota. In order for a citizenry to thrive, the residents and business members need to be able to trust that their government is capable of providing public services. “At the same time, as employees and staff, we need to have a level of trust in our community [to allow us to authentically engage with the community],” explained Miller.

The panel described a vacuum of information (caused by a decrease in local media coverage) and the influence of social media narratives that often distort reality and sow discord at the local level. Local leaders must step into that vacuum and build legitimacy of the institutions they represent, or else politics will fill the vacuum, explained Paul Grimes, City Manager of McKinney, Texas. He noted that legitimacy must be practiced in both formal and informal ways: The institution itself, its policies and processes are the formal aspect.

But managers must also deliver leadership through informal ways, by connecting to the “locus of power” in the community, which are the informal allies and relationships that help build social capital, make residents more sophisticated consumers of politics, and create habits of cooperation, which can improve service delivery. City planning brings both formal and informal legitimacy, by setting the conditions in communities for relationships to flourish. Click here for notes shared by Paul Grimes.


The importance of showing up (and pausing to listen) 

For local governments operating with exceedingly lean staff, “efficiency and excellent customer service don’t always go hand in hand,” said Miller. Staff may be dedicated to getting the job done, but unless there’s effective communication with constituents, all that work may be for naught. Mia Blom, Director, Government & Community Affairs at Visit Baltimore, suggested deploying grassroots techniques of “just being in the room” or out in the community and listening and raising awareness about local services and assets to help generate a sense of agency and partnership among the community.

“I see my role as making sure people are aware of when it is time to comment and [that they know] what you’re seeing right now is a result of this action that took place at this time [based on input received],” described Blom. Within the government organization, it’s important to foster culture in whatever role you have and park one’s ego at the door and commit to listen and learn, emphasized Miller.

Be forthcoming with information, serve the entire community

“Data can be one of the ways to be transparent and show the community what work we’re actually doing,” said Blom. In McKinney, the City Council and staff collaborate each year on developing a strategic plan and establishing performance measures, which are used to inform the budget process, and ensure resources are invested in those strategic goals and track progress, explained Grimes. That transparency can go a long way to promote trust.

Another key step is to disaggregate data and identify underserved pockets of the community to understand where services may not be reaching residents and why. Use data to evaluate where your government is investing its resources and to what effect. Ensure resources are allocated to where there is the greatest need rather than simply responding to those members of the community who are best-positioned to demand services.

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