Selectmen discuss goal-setting, civic engagement at Fall Conference

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Effective communication, civic engagement and goal-setting were among the topics discussed at the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association’s Fall Conference on Oct. 14 in Boylston.
Keynote speaker Jon Wortmann, a minister and executive and mental coach, worked with attendees to evaluate their communication quotient (or CQ), which is the ability to effectively communicate clear and essential messages, often during important or difficult moments.
Communication is an “important part of connecting and building trust,” Wortmann said, and elected officials need to consistently work on the building blocks of communication in order to build trust within their communities. As leaders, selectmen must be a strong and confident voice in the community.
Wortmann listed seven starting points to help raise your CQ and prepare to handle any communication moment: quick-switching, active listening, validation, framing, persona switching, providing clear parameters, and using constructive feedback.
To identify areas of communication strength as well as those needing improvement, Wortmann presented a hypothetical exercise, giving selectmen one minute to prepare a public comment on the emergency management plan for an impending hurricane.
Selectmen used their communication skills during one of the four breakout sessions, a discussion on strategic goal-setting for communities of all sizes. Attendees heard from Wortmann and Arlington Seletman Dan Dunn about strategies for identifying and organizing goals. Dunn suggested setting aside informal meeting time for the select board to work on setting its goals, which could differ from the goals for the town manager/administrator role.
Knowing the values of your community can help to facilitate the goal-setting process, Dunn said. Defining categories for the goals helps to keep everything organized as you work to accomplish goals.
“Presenting goals to constituents in structured, easy-to-understand ways” goes a long way, Dunn said.
It is important to identify large goals versus small ones, in part because bigger goals often have a number of smaller goals within them, Dunn said. Framing larger goals can help constituents see them as more manageable.
Selectmen also discussed the increased and evolving role of technology in civic engagement. Selectmen were advised to consider the demographics of their residents, businesses and education institutions when devising or evaluating a communication strategy.
“You have to revolutionize the way you are communicating with your constituents,” said Nichol Figueiredo, public information and records access officer in Framingham. “Think about what you want to accomplish on social media – what is your end goal? – and set a plan before you jump into it.”
Social media is a key part of reaching and engaging a growing portion of the population in any community, but it can’t replace existing methods of engagement, including print, phone, and door-to-door.
Figueiredo discussed the importance of archiving social media activity in compliance with the open meeting and public records laws.
ClearGov President Bryan Burdick spoke about the demand for government data and best practices for creating access.
“The demand for transparency has never been stronger, and it has some real benefits for your town,” Burdick said.
The benefits include saving money and time on public information requests and building trust with residents.
While it’s increasingly important to make data available, it also must be clear for the public to understand.
“Transparency is not the same as clarity,” said Burdick. “The context is critical.”
Burdick discussed three best practices for providing data to the public: data visualization, context and value analysis.
Data visualization can be helpful when presenting financial reports that are typically dry and complicated. Graphical representations can bring the numbers to life.
Putting financial information in context by benchmarking, for example, helps to show residents what the numbers mean for them. Value analysis uses metrics to explicitly show how towns are delivering value to their communities.