As the local newspaper reporter for Chapel Hill, NC, periodically balanced an iPad with one hand, she took notes with the other. She was poised to receive the presentation, ask questions, and all the while, video the Town Manager as he explained his recommended budget to meet community goals – affordable housing, mobility infrastructure, and parental leave for employees.
She was the only media representative there. Joining her in the Town Hall conference room were the Town manager, business management director, communications manager and a communications specialist.
It has been a longtime practice to hold a media briefing before the recommended budget is presented to the Town Council. As a former newspaper reporter, I remember how difficult it was to put these detailed stories together on deadline. When I became a public information officer/communications manager for the Town of Chapel Hill, I decided to offer the briefings so that journalists have a face-to-face meeting to gain clarity with an opportunity to ask questions about the community’s annual budget.
It wasn’t a grand setting for a groundbreaking announcement – the basketball court of the South Estes public housing community in Chapel Hill. Eager volunteers stood at folding tables under the hoops ready to sign up residents for digital literacy classes and announce the Town’s new effort to bring free internet to all public housing residents. Trays of sausage and chicken biscuits, and jugs of sweet tea sat ready for an estimated 100 people.
The reporting-back communications loop in community engagement is more important than ever. If public participation means to involve those who are affected by a decision in the decision-making process, then participants need to know how their input has affected change. The outcome of their engagement gives meaning to their participation.
The Town of Chapel Hill (pop. 59,000) embarked on a new era of community engagement when it launched the largest community planning efforts in its history in 2010 with the development of the Chapel Hill 2020 comprehensive plan. The plan is a reflection of the people’s values, aspirations and ideas. The outreach was excellent with having achieved the goal of touching 10,000 people during the yearlong visioning process.