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Developing Legitimacy for Action by Connecting Citizens and Government: Lessons for U.S. Local Government Leaders from a Citizen Engagement Process in Australia, Working Paper Open Access

The four-year “Geraldton 2029 and Beyond” initiative effectively addressed the entwined challenges of "legitimacy for action on sustainability” and “trust in government” that the City of Greater Geraldton faced in 2009-2010. The 2029 citizen engagement process navigated substantial difficulties. The City government discovered and acted to address a “trust in citizens” problem of its own. As of late 2015, two years beyond the project’s planned duration, the citizen engagement effort continues and aims for additional, longer-term, improved governance on many topics. This report concludes that the practice that emerges from the Geraldton experience, which is not without risks, can be considered for adaptation by US local governments. The practice is not limited to the “sustainability” focus. Comparison with other localities that used similar approaches suggests that the practice can produce useful results in many kinds of places and on many kinds of topics. This is an approach, not a mechanism or a tool or an event. It can be described as follows: 1. It is to be used in governance situations where the functional issue is significant, complicated, contentious, and stalled, and is entwined with trust-in-government and legitimacy-for-action issues. The goals are thus both to address the functional issue and also to produce systemic, enduring improvement in local governance. 2. It requires a City Hall leadership committed to hard thinking about and a clear grasp of the “problems” to be addressed (including problems internal to the government) and the goals to be sought, as well as a resolve to address difficulties and unpleasant facts as they arise. 3. It conducts governance–in the short-term engagement processes and also aimed at building a better governance for the longer-term –that tries to be more inclusive of ordinary citizens; more deliberative; and, for the citizens’ engagements, more influential. 4. It requires very strong process design, selection and assembly of apt tools and tactics, and adaptive management of the activities as they occur. Careful consideration should be given to how the processes will involve citizens in dealing with budget constraints or other hard choices.


Barnes, William
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GW Institute of Public Policy
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