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New Report Finds that California Faces Golden Opportunity to Rethink Citizen Engagement in Local Government

October 25, 2011
STANFORD, CA – October 25, 2011 – A new report released today finds that California’s tough economy is causing cities, towns and counties across the state to rethink how they tackle some of their toughest challenges. The result is a new collaborative approach to governance.

The report, “Golden Governance: Building Effective Public Engagement in California,” identifies seven communities across the state that have reacted to the current financial situation by rethinking and restructuring governance and their approach to citizen engagement. The report - available for download at www.goldengovernance.org - finds that while the current financial environment is clearly a driver for innovation, local leaders also understand that they need to fundamentally change their approach to governance to meet the expectations and demands of an increasingly informed citizenry. As a result, the state of California is becoming a hotbed for innovative approaches which establish productive relationships between government and citizens and generate meaningful solutions that meet both the financial and service needs of their community.

Communities highlighted in the report include the City of Salinas whose participatory budgeting process resulted in citizens prioritizing public services to meet city budget limitations. The report also describes a collaborative approach to problem-solving in Redwood City. When a $72 million project to develop a major water treatment plant to recycle wastewater for use in landscaping met with citizen resistance, City Manager Ed Everett invited citizens to come up with alternatives that met water conservation goals for the project, stayed within the city’s timeframe and remained within budget. The solution they came up with – replace public grass fields with artificial turf – was an idea never considered by City Hall, but it fit within all parameters for the project.

The report, sponsored by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), California Forward, the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine University and the Center for Individual and Institutional Renewal, will be released October 26th, 2011 as part of the New America/ Zócalo Public Square Event at Stanford University's Bill Lane Center for the American West which examines how technology and high-touch engagement can fundamentally change the way California communities are governed.

“Redwood City is just one example of how citizens and government officials can come together to identify innovate policy solutions,” said Pete Peterson, Executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement. “The challenge for local government officials is that they need to be prepared to enter into collaborative governance with an open mind and not a predisposed outcome.”

The report features a series of hard-learned lessons which aim to inform civic leaders, elected officials, and citizens on how to best pursue collaborative governance. One challenge that local leaders need to embrace is that a more involved approach requires a higher level of customer service. The report notes that ongoing engagement is critical and often determines the success or failure of a collaborative approach to governance. To this end, the report includes a list of online resources to help foster increased and sustained community participation.

“Technology certainly plays a role in the trend toward collaborative governance,” noted David B. Smith, Executive Director of the National Conference on Citizenship. “Online engagement, social media and mobile applications all work to foster increased engagement, but there is a human element as well. Public officials need to be prepared to meet the expectations of informed and engaged citizens and invest the time required to involve people in the process.”

In addition to the report, sponsoring organizations also unveiled a new Web site – GoldenGovernance.org – that will serve as an ongoing resource for communities and citizens to investigate new approaches to innovative governance. Elected officials, community members, and civic leaders are invited to join in the conversation and share their own stories of success on the GoldenGovernance.org blog.

“The current financial crisis presents a golden opportunity to rethink and restructure governance in California. Given the fact that there are now fewer financial resources available to government agencies, everyone must do more with less. In the end, this fundamental shift will lead to more effective leadership, stronger communities and a more meaningful relationship between citizens and their government.” – Michael Marston, Founder of the Center for Individual and Institutional Renewal

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