A Conversation with Cities: Mayors on Catalyzing Collaboration & Engaging Citizens

How cities are tapping into their strongest natural resource -- their citizens.
February 20, 2017
By Ed Skyler  |  Contributor
Ed is executive VP of global public affairs at Citi and oversees the Citi Foundation, an underwriter for City Accelerator.

The following blog post is part of the City Accelerator initiative, a collaboration between the Citi Foundation and Living Cities that aims to speed the adoption of innovative local government projects within and across cities that will have a significant impact on the lives of their residents, especially those with low incomes.

When it comes to addressing the complex challenges that come with rapid urbanization, cities have an opportunity to tap into their strongest natural resource – their citizens. The City Accelerator continues to help city governments engage with their citizens so they can improve services and quality of life. For 18 months, cities in the initiative’s second round of participants focused on enhancing the ways in which cities engage with their residents on important local issues such as fostering entrepreneurship and connecting those in need to social services.

Baltimore conducted focus groups to identify the challenges citizens face returning from incarceration and created a mobile-friendly website to connect them to resources that ease the transition. Albuquerque removed barriers faced by local entrepreneurs through an app, created with direct input from business owners, which connects them to bilingual business resources. By connecting directly with community members through focus groups, workshops and direct outreach, New Orleans increased the use of healthcare services through a Medicaid waiver that has been underutilized.

In a wrap-up reflection of their cities’ participation in the City Accelerator, former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu share how cities can look to residents as collaborators.

How can community members serve as effective messengers?

Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: Meaningful engagement with community members is crucial to uncovering and co-designing solutions to the most important and difficult issues facing our city of Baltimore today. The Here 4 Reentry Project, made possible through a City Accelerator grant from the Citi Foundation, has done just that — by employing formerly incarcerated citizens to develop a better way for individuals coming home from prison or jail to learn about the social services that are available to them. The program launch reached over 400 residents affected by the criminal justice system.

In describing her experience with the Here 4 Reentry Project, returning citizen and team leader Donna Boyer shares that it “kept me focused and positive, and encouraged me to seek help for others since I didn’t have that help myself at one point in time when I was coming home — and that’s what got me back to what I was doing before. This program kept me focused and gave me a determination that I can do and be better.”

How do cities create effective feedback loops?

Mayor Richard J. Berry: It starts simply by prioritizing community engagement as a core function of policymaking. The old model of seeking affirmation instead of input has not proven to be effective. In my administration, we have created a small group, “deep dive” platform where we regularly seek the best ideas in entrepreneurship, public transportation, arts and culture, and public safety from those most impacted by our policies in Albuquerque. We engage our citizens early and often and make sure that we go back to these citizens to “show our work.” In other words, we want our city residents to see the results of their feedback in our policies, programs and partnerships.

Sometimes, it’s very simple tweaks that make all the difference. Last year, in a City Accelerator small business “deep dive” with Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs, it was brought to our attention that we didn’t have any Spanish-speaking, frontline staff to assist with our business licensing process. We quickly addressed this by bringing on a Spanish-speaking ombudsman to meet this unmet need. This is just one example, among many, where effective feedback loops create opportunities for city government to be more responsive to the needs of our citizens. 

How has a more collaborative, two-way communication with communities benefitted your city?

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: After Katrina, New Orleans’ state-run Charity Hospital closed. To improve access, local leaders transformed the city’s healthcare delivery system by establishing a network of community-based health clinics to provide primary and behavioral healthcare to low-income residents. In a city with some of the nation’s worst health outcomes, these innovations were essential to ensuring residents had access to personalized, preventative care in their own neighborhood, rather than just emergency care in a downtown hospital. However, statistical analysis showed that in the past two years, fifty percent of low-income residents were not utilizing the free primary healthcare available.

Instead of just telling people free healthcare is available, through the City Accelerator initiative, we embarked on a six-month conversation to hear directly from residents about the obstacles they face in obtaining healthcare. Novel solutions were developed Out of this two-way engagement, including a community-wide text message campaign to encourage people to see a doctor and the launch of our community-led “health ambassadors” program to promote the importance of primary healthcare. These innovations are getting more people through the doors of our local clinics, while also changing the dynamics of healthcare for our city.

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Effective collaboration does not just happen on its own. It takes purpose, planning and innovative approaches to help overcome routine constraints and to engage citizens in the process. As the mayors of Baltimore, Albuquerque and New Orleans have highlighted, civic engagement is not only about hearing from citizens – it is about translating this important input into clear actions and results. By supporting cities in their efforts to engage more actively with residents, the City Accelerator is helping to foster meaningful engagement that enhances communication with constituents, closes service gaps and leverages the input of the private sector and community–based organizations, ultimately leading to stronger cities.  

To learn more about the City Accelerator and the Citi Foundation’s commitment to building vibrant cities, visit citifoundation.com.

Ed Skyler | Contributor  |  @edskyler
Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.