Brenda Morrison, Partner Engaged Public
Many cities offer citizens the opportunity to engage in their community by participating in a Citizens’ Academy. These programs are designed to help residents learn more about the specific operations of city government. These programs often provide training for up and coming leaders. A typical program might look something like this:
- Week 1 – City Government 101: City History and Organization
- Week 2 –Budget and Finance
- Week 3 –Community and Economic Development
- Week 4 –Public Works, Engineering and Construction
- Week 5 –Public Safety, Police and Fire Rescue
- Week 6 –Parks, Leisure and Social Services
Recently one city senior staff member from a mid-sized city confessed to me that while she realizes that participants still receive a tremendous amount of information and benefit from the citizen academy, she and the other staff are bored with the program and often don’t put in much time or effort into the content of the presentations because the academy runs somewhat on autopilot.
We’ve all been there; tired of the content that we’re delivering, but don’t have enough time, energy, or motivation to redo it. In the end, it’s easier to recycle the same PPT that you’ve given for the past five years, and say to yourself, “it’s good enough – the participants won’t know the difference.”
One easy way to address this issue is to integrate some readily available technology as well as some interactive face-to-face techniques into your curriculum. Here are a few examples:
- Use Google Earth as a way to give participants an aerial view of the city.
- Utilize the citizens’ academy to gain information about citizen perceptions: Ask the participants to write down what THEY think those departments do prior to the department’s formal presentation. This exercise can demonstrate how well the city or individual departments communicate their mission and goals to residents.
- Tours of city facilities are often a highlight of the program: In addition to taking the group to public works facilities and jails consider integrating a visit to a park. While there, make sure they see and learn about all the “hidden” costs of maintaining a successful park.
- Use simulations and scenarios to teach the budget: It’s critical that participants in the Citizens Academy understand the city budget. After touring the facilities and hearing from staff, they should understand all the services that the city provides and what residents expect. While static PPT presentations serve a purpose, we encourage staff to design scenarios that demonstrate the tough choices that elected officials face every budget cycle. This is why Engaged Public developed the Balancing Act suite of tools in order to ensure that budgets are accessible to the public and to create a way to make budget meetings or educational forums interactive for individuals of all ages and backgrounds.
Investing in a high-quality citizen academy is a good investment because in addition to creating a well-informed community, the program also provides training for those individuals aspiring to hold public office. There is no better training ground for public office than local government.
15 Feb 2017