Building a Culture of Public Engagement in Marathon County: The Case of Uniform Addressing (Case Study)

Background

  • Marathon County articulated a goal to support a growing culture among county administration and elected officials of the value of public engagement, including the importance of public input as part of governance.
  • Three organizational motivations: 1) to take responsibility for exercising policy discretion (versus “agent of state”); 2) to appropriately respond to “customer expectations”; and 3) to support strategic goal to develop “a communication system with community to improve the public’s understanding of the services provided.”
  • Three practical considerations: the county was 1) faced with increasingly complex policy issues; 2) needed to grow its leadership capacity; 3) was concerned about a disenfranchised electorate.
  • WIPPS, in partnership with the UW-Extension Local Government Center and local Cooperative Extension office, was invited to submit proposal to develop a public engagement training program for the county.
  • Halfway through the training process, a contentious issue around duplicate addressing emerged with various potential solutions. This spurred county leaders to request that training switch to a “live” exercise.

Value Added

  • WIPPS-led team developed a series of training modules for Executive Committee Board members (7 elected officials) on how to strategically plan, organize and carry out effective public engagement.
  • WIPPS introduced best practices in principles, knowledge, skills, tools and processes of public engagement, including co-development of a critical public engagement planning tool.
  • With emergence of rural addressing problem, WIPPS and partners pivoted to coach county board and staff, walking them through a live public engagement planning process, helping to appropriately name and frame the issue, and effectively engaging key stakeholders and the public.

Results

  • The county’s strategic goal of implementing an effective communication system was realized with county leaders reporting development of more robust culture of active and intentional public engagement.
  • In a public report, the county cited an increase in leadership skills and capacity of officials and staff and a stronger team environment as a result of the training.
  • With regard to rural addressing, county leaders reported that they appropriately named and framed the issue—defining it as a uniform addressing problem—with a clear justification: to improve public safety.
  • County leaders reported more confidence among elected officials in delivering a consistent message, keeping it focused, and keeping distractions to a minimum.
  • The county reported that the uniform addressing solution realized strong support among Board members, Town leaders, and the general public.
  • The county successfully adopted uniform county addressing policy and publicly articulated a desire to pursue emerging complex policy issues using the public participation training tools and processes learned.

As a result of the training process, County Board supervisors were able to take on conversations and speak about the issue in a constructive and intelligent way. They felt confident in what they knew and were able to say: ‘This is about safety—and this is why we need uniform addressing.

Marathon County Administrative Staff Member

Relevant Skills/Expertise Utilized

  • Public engagement expertise
  • Training capacity
  • Produce replicable models
  • Adult teaching/learning skills
  • Collaborative problem-solving
  • Project leadership
  • Adaptive management skills
  • Research capacity
  • Neutral facilitation
  • Public presentations
  • Leadership coaching