We do not define “Community”

NOTE: The following represents the opinion of the author and do not reflect those of his employer or any other affiliations.

By Kenneth Hunter, Guest Blogger

Frustration is an emotion expressed often by public administrators. Whenever a group of bureaucrats get together, formally or informally, discussion can often turn to the difficulties we face with policy, regulations, elected officials and citizen complaints.

Sometimes, when expressing their frustration with citizens, a comment like this will eventually boil to the surface.

“Do they have any concept of ‘community’?”

Criticisms directed at those we are supposed to serve naturally bother me on their surface.  This one in particular, however, led me to seriously think about the concept of “community” and its interpretation by government professionals.  While this is a commonly-used term by just about everyone, across all faiths and political ideologies, I find myself questioning its applicability within the language of our field.

“Community” can be defined to include many different things, but it generally means a group “sharing common characteristics or interests.” Communities can transcend neighborhoods, jurisdictional boundaries and even nations and continents (especially in our modern, online culture).

Government, especially at the local level and through the services provided residents and our interaction with them, can and does influence individual perceptions of what they’re “community” is. However, the key there is remembering that as far we can tell, “community” is a matter of perception, and as such, is defined on an individual basis.

For those of us who seek to keep things as simple and literal as possible, words and their proper application do matter. Just as we need to do our best to avoid ambiguity in our lexicon, often used to avoid confrontation with the citizens we serve when discussing a topic or initiative they oppose, we should also do our best to not define those concepts whose frame of understanding belongs to them on an individual level.

Governments can and should strive to position themselves in a matter where individual citizens choose (on their own valition) to include us in their personal definition of community. However, we need to be wary of our efforts to “grow” or “build” community as a matter of public policy.

One way is to end the common use of the term to describe quality of life-oriented programs. Whether we are building “community” centers, of assisting with economic and housing initiatives through “community development” offices, our excessive embrace of the word may do more to hurt than help our ability to establish and grow positive relationships with citizens.

As for me, the next time I hear a fellow practitioner or academic ask if a citizen they are not in agreement with has an understanding of “community,” I need to have the courage to reply, “They do, and it for them to decide, and us to respect.”

ASPA Member Kenneth Hunter is an MPA graduate of The University of Georgia with more than a decade of experience in local government finance. Kenneth is the Budget & Evaluation Manager for the City of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association for Budgeting & Financial Management and is a Board Member and Webmaster for the North Carolina Local Government Budget Association. You can follow Ken online via Facebook & Tumblr.

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