What It Means to Get Engaged: A Roadmap for Cities

Ben Hecht | February 24, 2017

Americans have more ways than ever before to express their views on issues that matter to them, whether it’s a tweet, a YouTube video or a comment at a town hall meeting. The public has a unique perspective on the toughest challenges cities face, but too often that expertise gets left on the table when decisions are made. At the local level, public opinion is particularly critical.

That’s why, with the support of Citi Foundation, we’re excited to announce the release of the  Public Engagement Roadmap, a creative suite of resources for practitioners who aim to develop and kick-start a robust public engagement strategy. The roadmap was informed by insights from five cities who participated in the City Accelerator program, so it’s pressure-tested by practitioners on the ground.

More and more, city halls are realizing they need to support collective action approaches that put residents and their needs front and center. The coiner of the term “Web 2.0,” Tim O’Reilly, proposed that Gov 2.0 be about “... true engagement with citizens in the business of government, and actual collaboration with citizens in the design of government.”

Just over 18 months ago, a group of cities took on the challenge of making this vision a reality. How can cities work to build trust and meaningfully engage residents in shaping programs and policies that impact lives, particularly those of low-income people? This City Accelerator cohort on “Revitalizing Community Engagement” supported city staff in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans and Seattle to tackle this important question. Read more about their projects here.

Eric Gordon, director of the Engagement Lab and associate professor at Emerson College, led this cohort of cities. He writes in the introduction to one resource, “Public engagement is not easy. This guide does nothing to dispel that suspicion, and in fact it verifies it. The goal of the guide … is to provide low barrier points for entry to appreciate and integrate effective public engagement strategies into the everyday work of government.”

This roadmap is intended for cities around the country who recognize that the solutions for today’s toughest problems aren’t found in some hidden corner of city hall, but rather are co-developed through partnerships with residents, community colleges and universities, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and the business community. The roadmap includes a few distinct resources:

  • The Toolkit is an interactive survey that generates ideas for structuring your engagement process and provides hands-on activities you can try yourself.
  • The Guide, “Accelerating Public Engagement,” walks you through best practices for how to manage the ever-changing landscape of public engagement.
  • The Case Studies focus on the cities who made up the City Accelerator cohort, and provide compelling examples of how to put theory into action.
  • The Game, “Chart the Course,” is an interactive learning exercise in the form of a board game for teams leading an engagement process. Yes, a board game.

The Revitalizing Community Engagement cohort proved that government works best when it creates meaningful opportunities for residents to shape unfinished solutions or imperfect services. I invite you to try out the Toolkit, download the Report, read the Case Studies and play the Chart the Course game. Whether you are in local government, are a current or potential partner, or a resident, remember that no one can do this work alone.

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