If You Build It. They Will Come… Won’t They?
As I was preparing for a recent job interview, I found myself reflecting on two of the most commonly asked interview questions: my greatest professional failure and my greatest success. Combing through the experiences I have collected over the years, I realized that both my greatest success and my greatest failure happen to involve public engagement.
My Greatest Failure: A Field of Dreams
When I began my position as assistant city clerk in Merced, Calif., I didn’t have much experience with public engagement and thought that it was like the movie Field of Dreams – “If you build it, they will come.”
One of my first big projects was an event in celebration of Sunshine Week with a panel of representatives from the city, county, and a local college professor to discuss transparency in government. I met with the local chapter of the League of Women Voters who were happy to assist. We set the date for 6:30 pm on a Wednesday and I went about planning and advertising the event.
Finally, the big night arrived.
The panelists were prepped and ready, a few League members were on hand, and I was ready for the crowd of people to start pouring into the council chambers. When 6:30 arrived and I looked out into the crowd of eight people I was shocked. What did I do wrong?
Thinking about it later, I realized that public engagement is nothing like the movies. Everyone is busy living their lives. Would I have taken time out of my evening to attend that event? It was this experience that made me realize that if you have something the public should know, you need to bring it to them.
My Greatest Success: Hit ‘Em Up
Fast forward another year. A ballot measure was passed directing the city to create elections by district (instead of at-large) and I was to lead the process. The newly appointed district advisory committee was clear: they wanted as much public engagement as possible. Armed with the lessons learned from my failed Sunshine Week event, I knew that if we wanted citizen feedback on where to draw the district lines we were going to have to hit ‘em up where they are.
Together with the committee, we created a robust public outreach plan that met community members where they live: service clubs, churches, schools, farmers’ markets, shopping malls, community events, and going door-to-door. We even hosted a kids bouncy house at an existing community event and asked parents fill out a feedback form in order to “earn” bouncy house tickets for their children.
Over a two-month period, I estimate we visited about 300 homes in person and, in total, reached about 40 percent of the residents with the campaign in the city of 81,000. I was confident we got the feedback the committee needed to ensure a diversity of views on future city councils.
In the end, I am grateful to have worked for a city manager who gave me the autonomy to create a less-than successful event and had the confidence that I would learn and grow from that experience. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to fail, I probably would not have had the same level of success the second time around.
AND, it makes for a great interview response!
Miranda Lutzow, MPA, is administrative services director in Waterford, California. Miranda’s previous government experience includes service as management analyst in Oakdale, California and assistant city clerk in Merced, California where she led the city’s move from at-large to by-district elections.
Miranda earned an honors Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in Political Science and Criminal Justice & Public Policy from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and a Master of Public Administration degree from California State University, Stanislaus. She has spent her career active in several professional organizations, including the Municipal Management Association of Northern California (MMANC), where she has served as Secretary, Membership Director, Program Director, and 2017 Vice President; and ICMA, where she serves on the Advisory Board on Graduate Education and the Digital Strategies Advisory Board.