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​A Road to Trust in Government

by Dawa Hitch, Communication and Public Engagement Director, Asheville, North Carolina.

In historically disenfranchised communities, trust in government is low and there needs to be an emphasis on empowered decision making. Historically that has been the case in Asheville, and so when a former City Manager said to me “we’ve got to do something to improve community trust,” about eight years ago, I responded with a resounding “yes.”

But then came the critical question: How? This is the story of our journey, and though we haven’t completely reached the desired destination, we’ve worked long and hard on the road map to get there. This is our story.

We began with an internal team to explore the meaning of that precious and fragile commodity: trust. We acknowledged trust in our government had been eroded through a history of systemic racism and broken promises. From there it became clear that building and sustaining trust takes both intention and connection. We agreed there are many practices and actions that contribute to trust and we agreed that actions speak louder than words.

Figuring out where to start felt overwhelming at times, but we discussed actions the organization could take to build and sustain community trust. This process helped us to hone in on communication and public engagement. Three critical components of trust were identified through the team’s discussions and subsequent conversations with community members. Improving community trust would require applying these practices:

  • intention

  • listening for understanding

  • commitment.

In our organization the actions would be applied through:

  • Improving internal communication

  • Communicating through multiple channels

  • Supporting best practices in community engagement across the organization

The team jumped into the work of improving internal communication and communicating through multiple channels. Simultaneously we worked to integrate a standard for engagement across all departments through the use of communication and engagement plans for all projects and initiatives.

Utilizing the resources of the International Association of Public Participation, much time was spent communicating how input for each project would be used in decision-making, who was responsible for making the final decision and then reporting the final decision back to those who had initially engaged with us.

Then, in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, we were faced with the community outrage surrounding the death of another Black man, George Floyd, dying at the hands of law enforcement. That tragic event served as a further catalyst for change in Asheville and it was clear that engagement with the public needed to be improved – and quickly. One of the channels created to affect change was a public engagement effort to Reimagine Public Safety.

Staff worked hard to make sure engagement with our residents about public safety was inclusive. Further, we needed to develop clear expectations for how the input would be used. Since it was probable there would be budget implications, we knew we couldn’t promise all ideas would be acted upon. We made it clear to all concerned that the input we’d be receiving would be used to guide operational changes and budget priorities.

Input poured in through an online survey and focus groups. Survey questions were answered, and comments were submitted. Then, something happened in a focus group conversation that remains an inspiration. A young man who is African American made this point: If the government wants people to provide input that will then only be considered and possibly integrated into final decisions, the government must first find ways to commit to and then implement ideas from people who have been historically disenfranchised.

Empowered decision making isn’t an easy task in a representative democracy. There are many needs and often not enough resources. However, with intention and deep listening there are opportunities to embrace. Whether it's a Neighborhood Matching Grants program, building a database that memorializes neighborhood needs and finding ways to address them, or paying community members to design and lead input sessions with demographic groups with whom they identify, there are ways to give people the chance to have the final say.

We have to push ourselves further. If improved trust in government is on the other end, I’d say it’s worth it.

The contents of this guest column reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc.


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