For many of Seattle’s low-income residents, local government has often seemed like a bad listener. Frequently, public meetings were led by different city departments that did not communicate with one another, and residents felt spoken “to” rather than “with.” Residents felt their feedback was often collected multiple times, but rarely acted upon or mentioned again. Looking to build trust and improve coordination among departments to increase fairness and transparency, Seattle’s City Accelerator team sought to build more infrastructure around its existing, disjointed community engagement efforts, closing feedback loops and improving the perception that government is listening to the residents it engages. Through the City Accelerator, Seattle has:
Collected nearly 1,000 surveys from city residents and is using the feedback received to train all 38 city agencies on more inclusive and equitable resident engagement and outreach strategies.
Created an Executive Order, signed by Mayor Ed Murray, charging the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods to:
Initiate and lead an effort that directs all city departments to develop community involvement plans that make information and opportunities for participation more accessible to the public.
Work with the Seattle Office for Civil Rights and City Budget Office to develop a proposed City Council resolution with mayoral concurrence that memorializes the community outreach and engagement principles.
Prepare an ordinance articulating a new citywide framework and strategic plan for community engagement, including the creation of a Seattle Community Involvement Commission.
Work with Seattle Information Technology to explore, identify and develop an array of tools that broaden public access points for digital engagement.
Developed a checklist every city agency will fill out before and after every engagement experience. The checklist provides a basic means of reporting back to communities about what they’ve heard, how they are responding and what relevant issues remain to be discussed.
Ideas to accelerate
Consider centralizing the pipeline of communication. When multiple city offices and departments have their own engagement efforts, approaches and evaluation practices, internal coordination can be a challenge. The Executive Order Mayor Murray signed in July will encourage agencies in Seattle to coordinate their outreach efforts more broadly. The city hired a public involvement plan specialist to serve as a “traffic cop” to further support coordination and collaboration across departments, conducting intakes, looking for bottlenecks and connecting dots. Seattle also created a shared internal calendar of outreach events so agencies can coordinate efforts. In addition, the city maintains a repository of current “hot topics” and recent interactions and investments organized by neighborhood.
Increase feedback and interactivity at public meetings. During the first phase of City Accelerator, the Seattle team identified that the vast number of public meetings held do not correspond with significant follow-through, even though feedback is solicited. Seattle developed a checklist to fill out before and after every community engagement activity, which includes a basic means of reporting back to communities about what the city heard and how it is responding. Additionally, the city worked to develop interactive, informal exercises to collect public feedback, such as an outdoor “City Scoop” day which asked citizens to provide input on city services in exchange for free ice cream. The city also expanded translation services available at meetings and in printed materials to engage even more residents in these efforts.
Look for ways to bundle meetings. As part of its discovery process, Seattle realized it held a huge number of these public meetings, each led by an agency around a specific topic, with potentially overlapping messages. The city worked to streamline its approach to public meetings, bundling several agencies and issues to present more comprehensive, less siloed information to residents.
Why this work matters
Some cities are experiencing rapid growth or have a desire to attract new residents, which will increase the need to communicate with more people effectively and efficiently. Seattle’s population has grown by more than 20 percent since 2000, and the city is now faced with a delicate balancing act between engaging newcomers and honoring the wishes and preferences of longtime residents — especially low-income citizens, people of color and recent immigrants. By meaningfully engaging citizens, local governments are perceived to be (and in fact become) more responsive to citizen needs, more prepared to address complex problems and better able to deliver services that improve citizens’ lives.
By focusing on internal mechanisms through examination and assessments, Seattle concluded that the modifications it needed to make to public outreach and engagement strategies could be quite impactful -- while still remaining simple. By going to where people are through non-traditional, public-facing outreach events, and by shifting from a “project/program” focus to a “people” centered approach to engagement, Seattle is continuing to use new and innovative ideas to communicate with members of the public.