New citywide audit suggests Denver needs better public communication
It’s no secret that Denver residents aren’t exactly happy with the city’s ability to communicate important information. Almost everyone in Denver remembers the last time they found out about a bike lane construction project just when it disrupted their morning commute. The Denver Auditor’s Office found that this type of disruption happens too often.
The Denver Auditor’s Office recently released a report to address residents’ concerns. Each year, the Denver Auditor’s Office reviews every detail of the city’s operations to determine the level of accuracy, transparency, and efficiency of city government, alongside established standards for government operations. They are best known for conducting financial audits, though they also look at other ways to see how well the city is performing, including benchmarks on DIA, data security, and RTD.
In 2021, the auditor focused on another strength: communication and community engagement.
Municipal government communication with residents
In a press release, the auditor’s office stressed the importance of focusing on communication when it comes to public trust. Simply put, the health of a city depends on the public’s trust in government. Quality communication with residents remains a fundamental element in establishing and maintaining trust. According to the 2021 Denver Auditor’s Report, Denver misses the mark. The role of the Denver auditor is unique; voters elected O’Brien, while most cities appoint their own auditor. Since Timothy M. O’Brien is an independently elected auditor, he remains more likely to take on this role with more objectivity and a willingness to focus on the city’s weak spots.
“Involving community members in government decision-making builds public trust and leads to more effective solutions to community problems. By providing more structure and guidance around public notices and public engagement, the city could ultimately provide better quality services to residents and business owners,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien conducted an audit of each municipal department and chose to use three programs within three different municipal departments as case studies. This included the Department of Community Planning and Development, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, and the Human Rights and Community Partnerships Agency. Each department was chosen because of the high frequency of public communications they are required to engage in.
Community Engagement Audit Results
The audit revealed a lack of commitment to communicate with the public in a timely manner. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure has failed even to meet its own communication standards.
“Communicating with the public is important but difficult to do effectively – and not all city agencies take it seriously enough. When you’re building a bike path or doing roadwork, for example, those are things residents want to know about in advance, not know when they’re already on their way home,” O’Brien said.
Community engagement is also essential to a strong relationship between the City of Denver and its residents. Failure to meet these standards leaves many Denver residents confused and frustrated with the city government. When it comes to community engagement, O’Brien admits that it’s harder to define community engagement in exact terms. Still, it looks like a meaningful and cohesive effort to involve residents in the processes and projects affecting their community. This includes working groups, special meetings, public calls for comment, and a willingness to listen to community ideas and concerns.
In many cases, the auditor found that city departments made little effort to involve communities, such as poorly publicized town hall meetings, meetings at inconvenient times, or basic communication about new community programs. Many residents fail to learn about new programs in their community across the spectrum. In all three case studies, the Department of Transportation failed to meet its own standards for public notice, while Human Rights and Community Partnerships lacked an accessible structure for public meetings.
Overall, O’Brien recommends that the Denver government establish standard, citywide requirements for communications and community engagement. For example, ministries could be required to give at least one month’s notice for projects that disrupt daily life, such as construction. Having standards and following them, he suggests, helps restore public trust by improving city communication.
The Office of the Auditor also highlighted the need to make information about the city easily accessible to residents. As in customer service, a smooth user experience leads to higher engagement for Denver residents. It is crucial to present the information where residents are looking for it, including on social networks.
Municipal departments are not required to adopt the auditor’s recommendations, although they do take them into account. City council and the mayor’s office could also consider establishing standards for communication across the city, as well as people-centered engagement.
You can read the full 2021 City of Denver Audit Report here.