Art of Engagement: Building transparency and trust

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Great Falls, Montana

It has been a memorable winter. It got so cold in Great Falls that the hydraulic fluid in our parking garage elevators gelled and the Fire Department had to get someone out of a car that couldn’t rise from one floor to the next!

Principles of Public Engagement

That incident is a melodramatic reminder of the trust we have to place in our world, in our technology, in our institutions, and in the people around us. The fifth of National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation’s (NCDD) principles of public engagement is also about trust and a reminder that trust must be proactively cultivated.

#5 - Transparency and Trust – Be clear and open about the process, and provide a public record of the organizers, sponsors, outcomes, and range of views and ideas expressed.

Previous columns have made the point that people need to understand the steps in the process and where it’s headed. Making sure that happens is critical, but not hard. Likewise, record-keeping is mainly a matter of awareness and diligence. BUT, while we’re on the subject of record-keeping, I have some advice, based on 40 years of watching the process flow, for those elected officials and other managers who read this.

Taking Minutes, Mismanaging Meetings

If you want effective, well-managed meetings of your planning commission (and other boards, whatever their task) do NOT expect the staff responsible for managing the flow of the meeting and interacting with the board and the public to take minutes. This will result in some combination of poor minutes, meetings where important points are missed because someone was trying to remember who seconded the last motion when they should have been focusing on the conversation, and low staff morale.

If you don’t have clerical staff to take minutes – and I know that many of you don’t – there is someone, somewhere in your community who would love to earn a little extra income for taking minutes a few hours a month. Make someone like that happy. Free your staff to be effective meeting managers.

Maintaining Trust

That may have seemed like a digression, something I just had to say. True enough, but it also loops us back to trust. It is good to have an open process. It is good to have a clear record. But in the end trust is about personal interaction. People have to believe that you’re listening. People have to believe you’re paying attention.

That’s why we don’t want to be fidgeting with the minutes when we should be following the energy in the room. We’ll come right back to this point in the next column, when we talk about NCDD Principle #6 and the impact of public engagement.

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin in 1974. Today he is the Deputy Director of the Planning & Community Development Department for the City of Great Falls, MT.

Published in April/May 2014 Issue

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