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Change in Local Government: Moving Beyond Good Intentions

Programs to help the poor mean nothing if they don't work.

Perhaps it's ingrained in humans’ DNA to resist change even when it's for the better. As the old saying goes, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink."

One of the most frustrating parts of a public service career is getting citizens to actually use the services and assistance available to them. To that end, much of the City Accelerator’s work is about increasing public acceptance and utilization of new opportunities and initiatives. Team members from each participating city cite honest, street level conversation as a precursor to meaningful collaboration that leads to sustainable change. You can see them talk about it in their own words in this week's video (above). 

One example is in Philadelphia, which has the highest poverty rate of any city in the nation. While Philadelphia offers benefits such as a property tax freeze and homestead exemptions to eligible low-income citizens, participation is historically low. Former Mayor Michael Nutter says many citizens face a psychological barrier to accepting help, but he also points to the “machinations and hassles and duplications of bureaucracy” as a problem. It’s not enough to make a benefit available, it must be user friendly. 
Similarly, New Orleans is trying to get citizens to participate in the services designed to help them, particularly when it comes to health care. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed Charity Hospital – a source of care for most uninsured individuals – the city developed a system of more than 50 neighborhood and community health clinics. Now the challenge is getting citizens to use them. Ariel White of local nonprofit 504 Healthnet says, “We're doing this ‘revolutionary’ thing of meeting people where they are and talking to them about what they need us to do. It's not just one-way communication anymore. This is all-ways communication. … So it’s not just me telling you to go to the doctor, it’s all encompassing.” 
And Baltimore is trying to increase acceptance of programs designed to smooth the transition for individuals returning to society from incarceration. The city is engaging former prisoners to participate. “We hope that by having returning citizens lead the discussion that the peer exchange will really produce the kind of honest and frank discussion about the services – where we are falling short and how we can improve them,” says Daniel Atzman.
Much of the work of the City Accelerator also focuses on increasing citizen engagement and collaboration to help solve local government challenges.
Atlanta has taken on the task of encouraging individual and corporate citizens of a diverse inner-city community to speak with one voice. Terica Black said the city has worked with over 350 organizations. "People want to see change and people want to do something, but aren’t necessarily collaborating. Part of seeing change is being able to decide and work together on what it is that you want to see and how you want to see it."
Dr. Frank Mirabal of Albuquerque said his city has more than 30 partners, all with the question of “What can we do to pitch in and help immigrant entrepreneurs?” Mirabal said these partners are coming to the table in the spirit of collaboration with no expectation of funding. “I think that’s something that’s really unique. … It’s like our Christmas party and I go to the party and don’t expect a gift.”
Seattle, too, is reaching out to citizens. The city is updating its comprehensive plan – a task some might call "typical" in terms of citizen involvement, but the city is taking a non-traditional approach by using technology to conveniently engage people who haven’t historically participated in civic issues. "As someone who started out in my neighborhood working on issues, I know the fatigue that we create," Kathy Nyland says. “So it's understanding that and recognizing that and wanting to do something differently."
It's not enough to have made the effort – simply making benefits available is not sufficient. Much of the work of City Accelerator communities is about facing the fact that the public sector must move beyond “good intentions” and do what is necessary to make things work. Once those things work, it’s equally important to make them stick. As Ariel White of New Orleans said about the city’s 10-year effort toward community health centers: "It's new, it's different and it's hopefully sustainable."
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.
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