Citizen Engagement for the Long Haul

By tapping their residents' knowledge and creativity in sustained ways, cities can achieve more with less.
March 5, 2018
Mural in NYC
By Myung J. Lee  |  Contributor
Executive director of Cities of Service

With cities strapped for resources in a time of tight budgets, mayors are looking more than ever before to their residents to help them solve public problems. Often, cities work with nonprofit and community organizations to give residents a way to volunteer for activities like cleaning up trash or painting over graffiti. The benefits of these projects are tangible: public spaces are beautified.

When cities are strategic about how they engage residents and think beyond one day or one project, the benefits can be further-reaching and longer-lasting. Short-term projects, if done well, can turn into long-term engagement. And long-term engagement means stronger communities and more effective government.

Developing ways to more meaningfully connect with residents through deliberation, collaboration, and connection is not only crucial for building relationships, it helps government achieve more with less. When it comes to solving problems, the long-term connections people forge with each other and with those in power dramatically increase their ability to make change.

Organizations like Purpose Built Communities, which focuses on ending intergenerational poverty, understand the importance of working with the people they are hoping to serve in order to strengthen outcomes. Their model includes a "community quarterback," typically a newly created nonprofit that works closely with neighborhood residents to understand their needs and concerns and tap into their expertise and experience.

One of the key tenets of Living Cities' City Accelerator, a program that focuses on innovations that improve lives (and whose learnings are reported by Governing), is something the organization aptly calls "meaningful engagement." Living Cities' experience is that when local governments listen to their citizens, they get a much fuller view of the challenges residents face and build the trust that is necessary to bring about the kind of change that is vital for a community to thrive.

At Cities of Service, our citizen engagement model also is built on the belief that mayors and city leaders who give their residents a seat at the table and tap into their creativity, knowledge, and expertise are more effective in solving problems. Our Love Your Block program, a national neighborhood revitalization strategy, demonstrates that this model works.

Cities implement Love Your Block as a starting point to more meaningfully engage their residents to help improve their communities in a variety of ways. The city works with community residents to identify priority projects in their neighborhoods and develop solutions that the community can implement with support from the city.

A recent Urban Institute study of Love Your Block found that the connections the program forges between city leaders and citizens at the neighborhood level can be one of the most important catalysts for collective action. Neighborhood participants feel empowered to reach out to city officials for needs unrelated to the projects, while city officials report that the projects give them a way to build relationships with vulnerable neighborhoods that might be difficult to connect with otherwise. These relationships extend beyond maintenance of neighborhood projects to future interactions and additional engagement.

Cities that empower residents to help define problems and figure out solutions are seeing much broader and longer lasting impacts, especially in communities where residents have not been previously engaged. From the most basic benefits of knowing whom to call in city hall if they have a problem to forming relationships in the community with neighbors of different races and social classes, Love Your Block and programs like it lead to better city government.