Mueller Communications has a longstanding relationship with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. We are proud to partner with communities across the State, assisting in times of crisis, supporting communications efforts, and providing strategic guidance.
In recent years, all throughout Wisconsin, we have seen firsthand how municipalities have faced tough decisions about how to meet community needs with limited resources. How can elected officials and municipal staff make decisions – including decisions that require action from members of the community, like voting in a referendum – if they only have input from a sliver of the electorate?
Engaging members of a community in conversation and in governance helps support a functional municipality.
Note: This blog post originally appeared as an article in the September 2022 issue of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities’ “The Municipality” magazine.
Engage your community in the process.
An informed and engaged community is the beating heart of democratic decision-making. Local elected officials and municipal staff are far better positioned to set and implement effective policy when they have quality feedback and involvement from a broad, representative cross-section of the community. It often takes more than posting a public agenda with a public comment period to engage a community.
To ensure the entire community voice is heard – not just the voices of a few vocal residents – requires a purposeful, intentional approach. While not easy, the work to educate and engage residents can pay huge dividends in building community trust, enhancing government decision making and tackling tough issues. There are many steps communities can take to cultivate an information-sharing mindset.
Understand your community.
The City of Fond du Lac recently engaged Mueller Communications to help find ways to increase public participation in municipal matters. The City had become accustomed to only a small number of community members regularly attending council and committee meetings and providing feedback. While these voices are valued for their proactive engagement, the municipality found many more community members were aware of decisions after action had been taken and were calling after policies were implemented, not knowing they had an opportunity to get involved in the decision-making process itself. It was clear to the City that they needed help to better engage, educate and equip community members with the tools necessary to play a role in every step of a municipal decision.
The first step in encouraging community participation is identifying how to effectively share information to educate members of that specific community. Often, it can be as simple as asking the question. Most municipalities have an existing survey tool that can be leveraged to craft a survey asking residents about their communications preferences. A well-crafted survey is a great starting point, but like posting an agenda, creating the survey on its own will not drive engagement. Publicizing the survey through existing communications channels like local news outlets, social media, newsletters and e-mail signatures as well as tailored communications like direct mail and / or text alerts can ensure every resident of a municipality is aware of the opportunity to provide input.
Over a three-week period, the City of Fond du Lac gathered feedback from more than 1,200 residents. These residents provided valuable input on what types of topics they were most interested in learning about from the City, as well as the communications vehicles that were most valuable to them. This feedback is helping the City to hone – and customize – the way it communicates with residents about municipal services, meetings and decisions.
In Fond du Lac, the community survey uncovered several key findings that likely ring true in other communities across the state:
Alignment and brand consistency matter: Often communities have multiple communications channels – for example a website, a newsletter and one or more social media channels – but the content, brand and voice are often inconsistent. Residents benefit from a clear, consistent approach across all channels.
Print is not dead: While Facebook is a great driver of education and information, traditional newspaper stories remain a critically important way for members of the community to learn about what’s happening in their City.
Municipal newsletters are valuable: Community members prefer to sign up to receive notices and information through an email newsletter, ideally in a way that is customized to their specific interests.
Be inclusive: For Fond du Lac, translations into Hmong and Spanish would enable the municipality to better engage all members of the community. Each community should consider how it can ensure its communications are inclusive of all members of the community.
Establishing consistent, clear communication builds trust between a community and its government, increases engagement and reduces the potential for confusion. Based on the survey results assessing the most effective education methods, Mueller Communications is working with the City of Fond du Lac to use this feedback and those preferred channels to bolster proactive communication efforts within the constraints of limited staff bandwidth. The team is building a resource library for department leaders to leverage – including templates for social media graphics, examples of effective news releases or newsletter blurbs, and drafted common messages – to improve communication while easing the process for those involved.
Attending meetings and sharing feedback takes time away from community members’ families, occupations and other obligations. When a resident overcomes the hurdle of attending a meeting, listening to the discussion at hand and sharing their viewpoint, it is important for the municipality and elected officials to recognize the value of that feedback and thank community members for their participation – both verbally and by taking action.
When action is taken, notify those individuals who stepped up and leaned in to provide feedback and insight. Bring them along the entire journey of the municipal decision process, thanking them for their commitment to participating in the process.
Additionally, seek opportunities to further involve those who are passionate about engaging with their local officials. When volunteer opportunities, opportunities to serve on task forces or unelected committees come up, consider reaching out to those residents who have shown an interest.
Dig in when challenges arise and referendums are being considered.
In the best of times, when operations are running smoothly, communication and engagement are important, but the need for community input can quickly reach “critical” status when tough, high-impact decisions are on the horizon. One example is a municipality’s ask for increased funding through a community referendum.
We have seen the demand for referendums increase significantly in the last several years as municipalities across Wisconsin experience budget challenges and increasing costs to provide services to their communities. Often in these circumstances, municipalities are faced with the need to bring residents on a journey they’ve been on for years – crunching numbers, weighing options and determining potential paths forward. It is important to remember the general public has limited knowledge of the budget decisions facing municipal leaders and the options available.
Education is at the core of any referendum effort. Legally, municipalities cannot advocate for or against a referendum, so the measure of success is an engaged, informed electorate. Through our work to educate and inform voters in South Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Pleasant Prairie and Fort Atkinson, the best way to effectively educate the community is to take a fact-based approach that leads voters through a process to understand options, costs and potential impacts.
Effective public information in advance of a referendum may include a three-phase approach that can take place over nine to 12 months and focuses on educating the entire community, not just the handful of “usuals” who typically attend meetings:
Phase one: Do your homework, show your work: We often recommend taking the time to develop an “Options Assessment” report that visually and verbally details the complexities of the issue at hand, including historic information about how the municipality arrived at the situation they are in, how the issue has changed over time, what solutions have been attempted, the results and what options are available moving forward.
Phase two: Gather feedback through a survey that provides context: Once that report has been developed and shared with members of the community through their preferred communications channels (potentially including website and social media posts, news coverage, and discussion at council meetings), it’s time to work with a survey partner to develop and distribute a community survey to all households in a municipality. This approach both solicits opinions from residents and acts as an educational tool, with context and data surrounding each question. A survey also helps identify the concerns and areas of confusion the municipality should address with its community.
Phase three: Bring the message to the community: If, after a community survey, residents support moving forward with a referendum, it’s time for a comprehensive education effort, often deployed over the three months leading up to election day. This final outreach phase is defined by several key pieces, including key messages that ensure consistent communication; answers to frequently asked questions that elected officials and staff can leverage; information sessions guided by a presentation to provide opportunities for public questions; outreach and presentations to community organizations; and publication of facts and impacts on all communication channels the community may use, including the municipality’s website, social media channels, mailers and postcards, and/or newsletters.
An engaged electorate doesn’t just happen.
An engaged and informed electorate doesn’t just happen. It takes work, resources, time, talent and – perhaps most important – listening. By learning what your residents want and need in terms of communication, you can ensure your communications have a return on investment, especially when tough decisions necessitate the entire community to come together to take a seat at the table to learn, make a decision, and vote.
If you have any questions about how Mueller Communications may assist your community, please reach out. Our phone – (414) 390-5500 – is answered 24/7 and we would be happy to help.