Regaining residents’ trust

Six ways to strengthen the resident-local government connection.

The average resident often feels discouraged from interacting with government, including on the local level. This sense of ‘intimidation’ could stem from various factors, including previous experiences, the persistent stereotype of ‘bureaucracy’, unmet expectations, differing political views, culture, and habits. Regardless of the reason, any type of negative perception can lead to decreased community engagement. In turn, this can lead to a greater gap between administrative government or council officials and the elected representatives themselves. This was clear in the last local elections, with a significant drop in voter turnout.

Fortunately, local governments are uniquely positioned to overcome these potentially harmful misconceptions and change the way residents perceive both the people and the processes behind governmental bodies, especially their local councils, and how they operate within the community.

1. Let’s remember that our purpose is to serve

Working in a service-oriented field – and this is the role of every level of government, including local – is a very demanding job. Most constituents who reach out are either looking for your help or expressing concerns. See these calls, letters, and messages as opportunities; don’t take them personally. They’re a chance to represent the residents who voted for you by addressing their needs. Remember, when someone takes the initiative to contact you, it shows they still trust you can make a difference.

We must recognise that when someone picks up the phone to call, it’s not to ruin our day. They’re calling because that pothole hasn’t been fixed, their street hasn’t been cleaned in a while, or a streetlight has been out for weeks. Perhaps they’re reporting a slippery sidewalk where someone could get hurt, hoping we can address the issue. Understanding this helps us respond with empathy and effectiveness, working together to resolve community concerns and improve everyone’s quality of life.

We must remember that a crucial aspect of working in local government is to address the needs of residents with empathy. After all, those elected are often part of the community, living in the same locality where they ran for office. Responding to questions, phone calls, and emails with patience and understanding can significantly change how people perceive local government.

2. One cannot expect people to fully grasp the systems we have implemented.

We must avoid making assumptions or expecting everyone to be familiar with the systems we use or understands the concepts behind them.

The systems and processes of local government can often seem like a language of their own. Therefore, it is crucial to find appropriate methods and platforms to maintain clear communication that everyone can understand. We need to explain why a system works the way it does and highlight the potential benefits it can bring. Failing to do so risks leaving people in the dark and fostering a less effective form of leadership, which can also increase the distance between councillors and residents.

We need to understand that residents often expect quicker and more effective solutions when they complain or write to someone they have personally voted for at the local level. While this expectation is not always realistic, it is important for us to explain.

We need to be able to delegate as well. A resident shouldn’t have to wait a week or more for a response just because one is traveling or is unavailable for a few days. We should trust our colleagues by passing on the complaint and communicating the type of response that should be given or the steps and actions that need to be taken.

Residents may not always be aware of the information they lack. Consequently, without someone to inform and provide feedback on ongoing developments, they might perceive that nothing significant is happening. This lack of communication can lead to a distorted perception and misunderstandings about the actual events unfolding in their community. Therefore, proactive communication and transparency are essential to ensure that residents are well-informed and have a clear understanding of the progress and initiatives taking place.

At times, procedures that may seem bureaucratic are essential for delivering improved services. As representatives of the local government, it’s our role to clarify the reasons behind these processes, enabling better understanding among the public. Often, fostering effective communication requires us to approach people with increased patience and empathy, ensuring their concerns are heard and addressed appropriately.

3. Providing genuine support to the youth in our community

Another important way for local governments to start projecting a positive image to the community is by actively engaging the interest and trust of young residents. This means implementing programmes that go beyond words to truly involve the community’s youth in practice.

The perspectives of today’s youth will profoundly influence how future generations perceive our towns and communities. It is crucial for our councillors and employees to actively listen and engage with young people. By involving both current and future generations, we not only ensure their voices are heard but also invest in the strength and unity of our community. This proactive approach fosters a sense of belonging and responsibility among all residents, laying a solid foundation for a vibrant and inclusive community for years to come.

4. We act on diversity, equity, and inclusion

Recent events across Europe, including the European Parliament elections, have underscored the imperative for local governments to move beyond mere rhetoric on diversity, equity, and inclusion and take decisive action.

Consistently feeling underserved, underrepresented, or mistreated will inevitably breed negative perceptions within community populations. Thus, proactive steps by local authorities are crucial not only to address these issues but also to foster a more inclusive and supportive environment for all residents.

The first thing local governments can do is foster better and more transparent communication on the subject. Our country has faced incidents of prejudice, and while there’s an initial outcry, the conversation often fades quickly. To truly address these issues, we need to move beyond emotion and have sustained action. Let’s bring together a diverse group – community leaders, faith leaders (if applicable), activists past and present, and representatives of various ages, genders, ethnicities, and racial backgrounds – for an ongoing dialogue. This open discussion will help us build a more inclusive community that can move forward together. Let’s also remember, not every individual residing in our locality is a Maltese citizen but they are all residents, and as Mayors and councillors we represent the entire community.

The goal should be to bring these different groups together to provide the community with facts that they can share within their own groups, where they have already established trust. We may not solve all the problems, but we can promote the understanding of facts as opposed to conjecture and perceptions. This is a value that every local leader should believe in and work towards.

5. To help residents understand the council’s budget, we should focus on communicating its value, not just the figures in euros and cents.

The council’s budget is a very typical topic. In fact, it is one of those things that residents tend to write about the most when things go wrong. Why? Because people often want money for projects, or they believe you should be saving money through certain actions. When they don’t get what they want, they view the decision as either baseless, politically motivated, or personally affronted by some personal vendetta. Most residents simply do not understand the workings of the town or city’s budget.

But how can you get people interested in your budget? It’s a necessary component. You may have all the good ideas in the world, but if there’s no money to pay for them, they’re not going to happen. That’s why having a strong and healthy discussion about how to allocate your resources is crucial for a successful and inclusive community. The problem is that many residents do not have a financial background, so they either hold back from showing interest or else we assume that they have no interest in knowing. This makes it difficult to get them involved in the subject.

Absolutely, empowering local governments to take proactive steps in educating residents and crafting budgets that truly address their needs is crucial. When local councils foster discussions on spending priorities with residents, it sparks significant changes. While councils ultimately retain decision-making authority, allowing residents to influence how funds are allocated for specific projects adds immense value.

For example, when a council earmarks funds for a project and invites residents to determine the project’s nature and execution, it enhances community involvement and cohesion. Such actions not only democratise decision-making but also strengthen community bonds by ensuring that local initiatives reflect the collective aspirations and priorities of residents. Thus, initiatives like these undoubtedly contribute substantial value to the community, fostering a sense of ownership and collaboration that is vital for sustainable development and harmonious living.

Should these ‘roadshows’ be conducted locally, providing residents from different areas with the opportunity to genuinely participate in the decision-making process and feel included? Shouldn’t the council’s budget be a transparent process shaped by the people it serves? How can we ensure residents have a say in how their money is spent? By involving residents in discussions on budget drafting, we can ensure the budget reflects the community’s real priorities. It wouldn’t be just numbers; it would be a clear document with a narrative explaining how resident input shaped spending decisions. Of course, essential contractual expenses would still be prioritised.

6. Cherishing our towns and cities

The author Peter Kageyama wrote a book titled For the Love of Cities, which I highly recommend for anyone involved in local government. The book discusses how people generally form their opinions about where they live based on small things, not necessarily the big ones, but the aspects that make their communities unique. These are the things that touch them personally and make a difference in their lives. Often, what makes a difference are little things, like how easily I can get in and out of my garage, whether I can hang laundry on the roof without it getting dusty from an uncontrolled construction site nearby, or if I have access to online services.

Therefore, it is crucial for council officials and elected members of towns and villages to actively nurture and promote this kind of affection and sense of belonging among their residents.

Social media and community council or resident technology forums provide excellent platforms to perpetuate positive messages about the little things that inspire people in your community. For example, when a new café or restaurant opens, visiting the establishment and sharing your experience can promote local businesses and foster their growth. These actions not only support local economy but also strengthen community bonds and pride.

More importantly, we need to commend residents who do the same. We should highlight small acts of kindness or experiences related to local associations or clubs, secondary schools, or community group meetings.

The local government sets the rules and provides the structural foundation for our communities, but it is the residents who bring these communities to life. It is their pursuit of passions and engagement in local activities that transform a city into a beloved home. Thus, any measures the local government can take to support and encourage these efforts will result in the most significant achievements, fostering greater resident participation and strengthening trust in local governance.

Bridging the gap

If your residents’ perception of the local government is less than ideal, don’t lose hope. There are many ways you can work to change both hearts and minds. The key to fostering a more optimistic view among your locality’s workers and residents lies in maintaining open communication, continuing to work diligently, and ensuring that all residents feel heard by their representatives.

Implementing prompt measures to bolster the standing of your local council can significantly enhance the productivity of your staff and elected officials, while also ensuring that every interaction becomes more streamlined and effective.

Mario Fava is President of the Local Councils Association – Malta.

Photo: Omar Camilleri/DOI

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