By Gregory T. Federspiel
Historically Manchester residents have always shown a high degree of civic engagement. Residents respond to surveys, share their opinions at meetings, and volunteer to serve on a host of town boards and committees. Relative to other towns, turn-out for town meetings is good (though the bar is pretty low – we see 7-18% of registered voters show up depending on “hot topic” items which is actually a strong turn-out compared to other communities.) Election turnout, again, relative to other communities is good, especially for national elections However, our most recent election saw an uncharacteristically low turnout with only 216 voters coming out, 5% of eligible voters. Hopefully this is an aberration and not a sign of a trend towards less engagement.
Certainly at the national level, today’s political climate is marked by a high degree of partisan bickering, an increased level of coarse and rather inflammatory commentary and less care for using objective facts. Social media platforms have become easy outlets for anyone to express their views often anonymously and with little regard to fact checking or civility. These trends of our national politics can be found locally as well and present challenges to our efforts to effectively manage town affairs.
For example, correcting the amount of misinformation and factually incorrect statements that can be found on local social media sites would require the attention of a new full-time position! Responding to every post whether accurate or not is not practical. The question remains, however, how do we best get the correct information regarding town affairs broadly disseminated?
Are regular newsletters to all households an effective communications tool? Should it be a hard-copy mailed to each household Is it feasible to collect emails from residents and push out information electronically? Should we invest more time and resources to a greater Town social media presence and will residents follow these platforms to stay informed? Having a local weekly paper like the Cricket is a great resource – should this be our main platform for communicating with residents? Is the answer all of the above?
Part of effective governance is the ability to engage residents in timely and inclusive communications. These communications need to go both ways – residents need to trust that their opinions are being heard and form the basis of what services are provided and how. Here in Town Hall we need to convey what boards, committees and departments are doing and how it fits into the desires of the community. Working together we can accomplish this critical two-way communications.
But today’s world is far removed from days long gone of the Town Crier and the physical posting of materials on the Town Common or even the faithful reading of a daily or weekly newspaper. It is ironic that in today’s explosion of information, it seems more challenging to truly communicate! Indeed, there is growing concern of our increasing isolation as people “interact” more and more just through social media. We need to harness the new venues that are available and make them work for us, not against us. I believe each of us can play a role here. Civil, robust civic discourse is a key factor to a successful community. I welcome your suggestions on how best to accomplish this.