4 Important Lessons From 40 Years of Civic Engagement

It doesn't have to be a hellish public process.
July 7, 2015
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Years ago when I was a young city planner, I remember Chattanooga’s mayor looking up, bleary eyed from the center of the dais as the city council room slowly cleared. It had been a particularly long and mind-numbing session.

"It is my understanding," he said in a voice loud enough so that all still near the front could hear, "that public officials who fail to live a pure and blameless life will, when they die, be immediately cast into Hades where they will be forced to sit through zoning hearings for all eternity." Mayor Roberts passed away a few months ago and I can only pray that he was found sufficiently worthy and thus escaped the hell of that particular type of civic engagement as we knew it back then. He was a good man and deserved better – even if he had been an FBI agent and newspaper reporter in previous lives.

But that was the sad state of "civic engagement" 40 years ago. As a career public servant who has painfully endured hundreds of government-inspired – and often legally required – public hearings over the past four decades, I can attest that sometimes the ultimate result of all that standing and testifying was that someone in a government office checked a box on a page of a bureaucratic government document.

Chattanooga has been working to break out of the hellish model of conventional public engagement for years. Moving beyond the rote hearings usually required prior to decisions on zoning, budget and transportation issues, Chattanooga leaders realized in the 1980s that redesigned engagement tools might be more productively employed to begin an actual face-to-face conversation with public opinion leaders and even with the citizenry at large.

The outgrowth of that was a nonprofit entity, “Chattanooga Venture," which sponsored Vision 2000 – a 26-week process of more than 50 high-energy and high-profile meetings. Using challenging questions delivered in a spirited style, followed by small group facilitation and scrupulously maintained responses (along with gallons of coffee), the process produced a small document known as the "Commitment Opportunity Workbook." The results were delivered in concise bullet points and a mandate was adopted to “Turn Talk into Action.” More importantly, by involving about 3,000 participants who, by their own admission, felt they had been listened to (some for the first time – again by their own admission), the process is credited with changing the hopeless culture and defeatist attitude of what was a tired, old industrial city – sometimes described as “a rust belt city in the South.”

Vision 2000 was followed by Vision 2020 and a virtual parade of added extensions of the Chattanooga Venture brand – using the same sort of open meeting and facilitated responses. Slowly, the economic cloud over Chattanooga began to lift and the attitude of despair was replaced with a greater spirit of optimism. However, the process was expensive, labor intensive and consumed reams of paper.

As years went by and Chattanooga – along with most of the developed world – moved from an analog age to a digital culture, it became apparent that a technical shift in the civic engagement process was in order. In 2008, a new nonprofit agency, “Create Here,” decided to tap into the energy of Chattanooga Venture and Vision 2000 by utilizing the new tools of online civic participation on a grand scale. A goal was set to engage the public on a regional basis and to try and eclipse a record held by Calgary, Alberta. At that time, the Canadian city of 1.5 million had successfully recorded more than 19,000 participants in an online survey in 2005. To expect that Chattanooga – a city of 176,000 – might do better was considered by many to be a quest of Quixotic intentions. Still, the young challengers sallied forth, adopting the name “Chattanooga Stand” and the slogan, “Many Voices: One Vision: A Greater Community.” Before the end of that summer, 26,263 surveys had been completed. Calgary had been decisively dethroned.

At this point, the story becomes less rosy.

The extensive and exhaustive data file was turned over to a research organization associated with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for analysis. After much effort, Chattanooga Stand announced that analysis of the more than 25,000 completed survey instruments revealed that the people of Chattanooga believed our greatest challenges were education, crime and jobs – in that order. On the plus side, the survey results indicated what citizens liked most about Chattanooga: its natural beauty, sense of community and the vitality of downtown.

After so much pomp and ceremony, to say the rather obvious and boring outcome was a bit deflating is an extreme understatement. Almost any survey of almost any size and scope in almost any community anywhere would produce similar results. But on the positive side, the survey demonstrated how digital engagement is a quick and effective way to reach thousands of individuals who otherwise might not be involved in conventional public meeting-based methods. The downside of digital is the analysis and follow-through.

That brings us to a hybrid solution – something that incorporates the best of the old and the new.

On July 15, 2008, Volkswagen announced that Chattanooga had been selected for its new $1 billion manufacturing facility. One result of such an exciting announcement is a renewed interest in regional planning and growth management. Accordingly, "Thrive 2055" was launched with the goal of involving over 1 million citizens across a broad 16-county, tri-state area.

A series of public meetings took place at convenient locations, but a serious wrinkle soon emerged. The political environment of the times involved a rising tide of Tea Party-inspired groups that quickly latched onto “Agenda 21” – the now (in)famous United Nations resolution from the Rio Earth Summit of June 1992. Fueled by the inflammatory rhetoric of Glenn Beck and other such prophets of doom, the local conspiracy theorists showed up at almost every meeting with the specific intent of disrupting and co-opting the civic engagement process. Their methods were loud and obnoxious, making it difficult to maintain order in the gatherings.

“They tried to take away the freedom to speak,” said project manager Bridgett Massengill. "So, among other things, we changed to allow participants to write their own comments on charts around the room and we have kept a database of all that we have gathered. People are able to go there and see what everyone has contributed – including those from the Tea Party.” Other modifications were made in the process to blend digital input and conventional meetings.

"Social media has helped in some respects and hurts in some respects," said Ruth Thompson, who handles media for Thrive 2055. "It allows people to distance themselves from the process, and to some people meeting face to face means meaningful conversation."

Sizing up the results thus far, Bridgett Massengill offered, "Our goal is for people to be actively involved but then for all participants to be at peace with any decision they might not totally agree with. That's how we know that we have it right."

Just last week, in reporting on the monthly tally of more than $1 billion in new investment in the region, the Chattanooga Times Free Press quotes Massengill: "When Thrive 2055 was first launched in 2012, the Chattanooga region had experienced $4 billion in new business investments over a four-year period between 2008 and 2012. …That remarkable achievement also brought awareness to the growth our region was experiencing, particularly in light of the economic downturn the rest of the country was going through. Now we've seen over $1 billion in one month alone." She went on to underscore the continuing need for public involvement and regional cooperation.

Overcoming obstacles to effective civic engagement by merging digital with conventional methods – making it possible for all voices to be heard – is the story of Thrive 2055 so far. Thrive 2055 is also employing something called "Meeting in a Box" that is both simple and fun – two qualities that seem to add to the success of any civic engagement process.

So, what has been learned over the last 40 years?

  • Civic engagement means more than checking off a box after a public venting session.
  • Truly effective civic engagement has a systemic effect that can actually change the culture and mood of a community.
  • To work well in today's environment, civic engagement should incorporate digital with the older conventional methods.
  • It helps if it is fun.
I'm still haunted by Mayor Roberts' warning about long, boring zoning hearings. And, in spite of the circumstances, I'm somewhat grudgingly grateful to the Tea Party and the Agenda 21 fear mongers for making it interesting and forcing us to find a better way.
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