Are you frustrated about who shows up at public meetings – or, more importantly, who doesn’t? You’re not alone.  A comprehensive and innovative study about the state of public participation in local decision-making in California compared the views of 900 California city and county elected leaders and senior staff with the perspectives of 500 leaders of civic organizations.  Sponsored by The James Irvine Foundation in partnership with the Institute for Local Government and the Davenport Institute, the research demonstrated widespread agreement that most public meetings fall short of an inclusive discussion of public issues.

Close to two thirds (64%) of the public officials said that their usual meetings tend to attract complainers and “professional citizens.”  Three quarters (76%) say that their meetings are dominated by people with narrow agendas.  A Bay Area Council member shared:  “We have the one issue people everywhere. What we don’t have are the people that have an everyday sense of the whole community.” Groups that local officials feel are particularly hard to engage include residents with low income, immigrant communities and young adults.

Among the leaders of civic and community organizations, three quarters (75%) say that local officials only pay attention to the most vocal interest groups. Yet the civic leaders and local government officials both expressed strong interest in including a broader cross-section of the public.  And over 80% of each group has made efforts to collaborate in this endeavor.

Those who have been in public service longer tend to value public participation more over time.  Another quote from the study:  “I now have a greater appreciation of the value of public input.  It provides a greater range of problem solving ideas and creates better consensus for decisions.”

A printable infographic highlights the research findings and recommendations. You can visit theInstitute for Local Government’s research webpage for the full reports, Testing the Waters (research among local officials) and Beyond Business As Usual (research among civic leaders). One of the central findings of both reports is the widely shared commitment to bridge the disconnect between community members and the processes of local decision-making.

Common Knowledge is helping the Institute for Local Government expand the resources it provides to both local officials and community leaders interested in partnering to expand participation. We welcome your feedback on the research and/or your experiences with partnerships between local government and community based organizations that have resulted in more inclusive dialogue about public issues.