Special Reports

February 28, 2013

City explores new ways to communicate with residents

Wichita officials are intent on tightening the bond between the city and its residents, launching a remake of how they handle citizen engagement.

Wichita officials are intent on tightening the bond between the city and its residents, launching a remake of how they handle citizen engagement.

The first example of that remake has hit the streets in the form of a survey to determine which city and county services and projects taxpayers value.

City Manager Robert Layton said the impetus for the remake grew out of two years of citizen surveys, in which city government scored below 50 percent on public trust ratings.

“There were some questions regarding engagement and the ability of residents to have meaningful input, and only 39 percent of residents said we were excellent or good at that,” Layton said. “We’ve got preliminary information from the 2012 survey that hasn’t been fully validated yet that appears we dropped a little below that.”

So, led by Mayor Carl Brewer and Layton, the city has launched a makeover of its interaction with residents.

“We’ve used a traditional government model of exchange,” Layton said. “I want to identify problems, allow the residents to identify causes and possible solutions, develop alternatives and bring them back to the residents to solve in a partnership fashion.

“You can’t do that with everything, but a good example is golf. What we should have done is say we had a significant problem with our golf system, so let’s talk about the financials and get the public’s ideas, then fashion alternatives instead of running out and saying we’re looking at a possible closure.

“That puts people’s backs up against a wall, and those skeptical of government get defensive instead of saying they’ll talk.”

Brewer said the engagement changes boil down to one thing: The city needs to bring itself closer to its constituents.

“The changes are necessary because they give us the best opportunity to find out citizen priorities,” Brewer said.

And because governing has become a regional issue, the mayor said.

“We’re no longer the city working by itself,” Brewer said. “We’re needing to work more regionally. We’re the largest city, so we need to find out what the county and the other communities think.”

Layton is prepared to double down on tighter community engagement, crafting plans for an “office of community engagement” that will include neighborhood city hall assistants, the city’s communications office and its call center.

“We have a lot of tough decisions to make as a community,” Layton said. “The council is responsible for some of their decisions, and they’re saying they want to follow a model with better input before they make those decisions.”

The results of the city’s first effort – the citizen priorities survey – will be available later this year. Layton and Brewer guarantee they will be taken seriously.

“The critics of the survey have said this assumes governments are going to spend at increasing levels. Not so,” Layton said. “And they’re acting like this is the end of the process, that we’ll see that people are willing to spend more for X. Again, not so.

“This is the start of a new engagement model. Once we get the survey results, we’ll get to as many community meetings as we can, associations, church groups, and say here’s what we heard from the survey. Are they in line with your priorities? If so, let’s talk about them and move forward.”

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