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Dialing for Citizens

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You’ve worked hard to organize a community visioning initiative. You’ve raised the money. You’ve thought through how citizens will participate, how their ideas will be incorporated in the plan, how the plan will be compiled and presented. You’ve even considered how to bring along community leaders, like city council members and business leaders, so they embrace the final product.

There’s just one problem: how do you get citizens to participate? How do you persuade a cross-section of your community to attend vision meetings and share their ideas about the future?

This is critical because, in my experience, visioning efforts don’t succeed on the quality of the plans they produce. They succeed because citizens recognize these plans as — reflections of their ideas and ambitions — and support them. And for that to happen, you need the citizens to … well, show up and participate.

I’ve worked on a number of community visioning initiatives and, along the way, tried many ways of coaxing citizens out of their homes and into meetings, from publicity efforts to working with civic groups and neighborhood associations. We’ve built web sites, cranked out press releases, placed flyers in public libraries, advertised with online groups, mounted speakers’ bureaus, and conducted e-mail blitzes. We even persuaded one business to donate time on its outdoor marquee signs to promote meetings. Most of these things work to some degree. My advice is to do them all.

But the single most effective way we’ve found of convincing citizens to turn off the television and spend a winter evening talking about their community’s future is with phone trees. That’s right. The old, reliable form of communications: one person calling another.

Make no mistake. Phone trees are demanding. We spend twice as much time organizing them as we do on all other communications efforts combined, including building web sites. If other ways of involving citizens worked as well, we’d hang up on the phone trees in an instant. But they don’t.

End of excerpt

… Otis White continues by describing how to organize an effective phone tree, and some things to watch out for.


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