Seeking a New Relationship with Communities: How Local Elected Officials Want to Bridge Divides, Distrust, and Doubts


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In 2018, the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation interviewed 30 local elected officials from 25 states to learn how these leaders view and feel about interactions with their community members. The resulting report, released in partnership with the Kettering Foundation, details the officials’ perspectives on local government-citizen relationships: what they see as hopeful and what they find challenging. The importance of a report like this is noted in Rich Harwood’s Commentary, where he states: “These elected leaders do us all a big favor by providing a vital chance to examine and generate a path of possibility and hope for the relationship between elected leaders and citizens.”

The four key findings shared in this report show that many leaders are seeking a relationship with their community members; these same leaders worry about barriers to deeper community connection and about a diminished civic spirit; they are experimenting with new approaches to break down the barriers with their community and deepen engagement; and they realize that they must “enter the room differently” in order to make those deeper community connections.

The report’s Appendix compares and contrasts the 2018 findings with a Harwood report from 1989, The Public’s Role in the Policy Process. While both reports highlight distrust between government institutions and the public as a problem, they note differences in the ways elected officials of the 1980s and those of 2018 work and in how they perceive the public. Perhaps the most notable contrast was that the elected leaders of 1989 wished for a public that could participate; the leaders of 2018 wish for a public that can believe.

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