What often passes as citizen engagement in government is anything but engaging. Public meetings are often poorly attended. Formal hearings are deadly and can result in deepening antagonism. “Providing one to three minutes for public comment is generally not productive,” says Grayce Liu, general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment in the City of Los Angeles. “For me, there’s no point to throwing the doors open to city hall and then slapping people with procedures that are complex and make no sense. You lose the opportunity to connect.”
In the ten years she’s worked for the city, Liu has been focused on finding better ways to create a more productive dialogue between citizens and government. She uses Improv techniques with her staff, emphasizing how to get to a “yes” answer instead of automatically saying no; she encourages innovation and speaking up because “we can’t say we want to empower the community to speak up, if we don’t model that with our staff.”
One key, she says, is getting citizens to understand how government actions affect their day-to-day lives and then helping them learn how to advocate for what they want. In providing information, it’s important to learn “how to speak human again.”
Liu’s department supports the city’s 97 neighborhood councils, which tend to get more respect than in many other cities. In Seattle, for example, Mayor Ed Murray dissolved ties between the city’s 13 neighborhood district councils and the government in 2016. (A lack of council diversity seemed to be the factor that led to disbanding a three-decade old neighborhood council system.)
In Los Angeles, the neighborhood councils are built into the city charter and provided with funding ($37,000 each). The system has a robust reputation and often attracts visitors from other countries who come to learn how the neighborhood councils work. Visitors are often surprised. “They’re shocked at how much power our councils have over influencing what’s happening in their communities,” Liu says.
Encouraging citizen engagement in Los Angeles is not without its challenges. There are a variety of smaller cities within Los Angeles County and many residents are unclear about whether they even live within City of Los Angeles borders. As in many places, people are also very unclear about which services are the responsibility of the county and which are delivered by the city. Then, too, there’s a communications challenge – there are 200 different languages spoken in L.A. So, identifying the need for translation services is part of the job.
Over the years, Liu has seen stereotypes about government-citizen interaction fade away – not just among the citizens she works with, but in her own attitudes. She says people start out with an almost antagonistic view of the relationship between their neighborhoods and the government. “When I started and people asked me what I did, I’d say ‘I teach people how to fight the government.’”
At one point, a business owner pointed out to her that what her office was really doing was teaching people how to get along with the government. “That humbled me,” Liu says. “That’s exactly what I want to do, but I got caught up in the stereotype of government vs. the public.
“When you join government, they teach you about sexual harassment. They teach you about supervision. But they don’t teach you how to do civic engagement effectively. That’s something that needs to change if we’re going to get the type of public participation that is effective for creating a sustainable dialogue.”