From Civic Engagement to Meaningful Engagement

City Accelerator’s Cohort 2 cities embark on their journeys to improve their citizens' quality of life.
May 19, 2015 AT 3:00 AM
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.

A street in Baltimore shows the promise of an engaged and unified citizenry. (David Kidd)

In recent weeks we have witnessed the most severe and widespread period of civil unrest since the 1960s. That is uncomfortable, unsettling, and - in some quarters - a matter of debate. But I have been a careful observer of civic life for most of the last six decades. That discomfort, discontent and debate was evident then as it is now.

It’s tempting to write it all off as an unfortunate confluence of isolated tragic events and console ourselves that chances are good that the worst is over and it won't happen again. But the intensity of the reactions are hard to ignore, and it is more likely that these situations are symptomatic of something much more complex and systemic.

In a recent column on lessons from the Baltimore experience, Governing Publisher Mark Funkhouser said, "Few things are less predictable or more dangerous than young men and women without hope, and there are thousands of these in so many of our cities." Of course, Baltimore was just the most recent in a bewildering parade of cities with a dismally repetitious list of similar problems.

As outsiders looking in, we wished these unsettling events could have been foreseen, could have been prevented or, ideally, would have had no reason to happen in the first place. But with the recent past still vivid in our consciousness and damaged areas of some of our great cities still smoldering, perhaps there is no better time than now to take up the issue of improved and truly meaningful civic engagement.

With the announcement of Cohort 2 of City Accelerator, we have an opportunity to examine how cities work in terms of social interaction in a very unique and powerful way. Dotted across the continental map from Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic side to the Pacific Northwest, the cities of Atlanta, Albuquerque, Baltimore, New Orleans and Seattle are very different in so many ways; it would be difficult to assemble a more geographically scattered and culturally diverse group of cities. Yet although they are very different, they all share a common need: civic engagement.

And we aren’t just talking about the traditional "public hearing" or "town hall meeting" sort of civic engagement, but something new and something more effective: meaningful engagement.

My city, Chattanooga, has made a name for itself as a "turnaround city." Once declared to be the most polluted city in America by Walter Cronkite in October 1969, it has raised itself from the ashes and now often makes those popular top 10 lists of most livable communities. If you ask today how it was done, you will often hear how the citizens themselves accomplished the impossible by taking on the daunting task of redeeming a tired, old industrial city sometimes referred to as "a rustbelt city in the South." In the process, we professional planners and politicians learned a valuable lesson: People will support that which they helped to create. We also learned that there is real value in just listening to what they have to say.

In one recap of the process, a citizen (who claimed that no one had listened to her in the past) summed it up: "The thing that meant the most to me was for the first time ever when I said something, someone wrote it down."

It's a wonderful story and one that we enjoy telling and retelling, but the hard fact is that the methods used to engage the public back in the 1970s and 80s don't work as well today. The world is different, and the media environment is certainly different. Public information and public relations tactics that worked well when there were just three channels on a television set and people actually read the local newspaper are no longer effective. Meaningful engagement must be accomplished using new methods and new tools.

The Cohort 1 communities of the City Accelerator - Philadelphia, Nashville and Louisville - started their work a year ago and will continue through next spring.  If you ask the elected officials, innovation teams, and others involved in the work of the Accelerator in those cities about the greatest value realized during the process, they often speak of the importance of engagement -- the benefits of interaction with other cities and other people from different environments all seeking more effective ways to give their citizens more efficient government and a better quality of life. In the Nashville Office of Innovation, Kristine LaLonde called them "Thought Partners." Yiaway Yeh, of the same office, spoke of working directly with the community "to bring to life those narratives, those hidden narratives." They both were talking about meaningful engagement.

Eric Gordon will be leading Cohort 2 for Living Cities. He is an associate professor at Emerson College and founding director of the Engagement Lab. As such, he is a recognized authority on the art and science of modern civic engagement. In a recent interview about how he plans to employ new tools to bring people into the process, his use of terms like "play" and "games" might lead some to question whether the methods he describes are serious enough for present day circumstances and the difficult task at hand. Understanding the volatile and challenging new climate in urban America, Gordon recently underscored his belief that civic engagement is critical: "I expect that cities participation in City Accelerator are going to be focusing on civic engagement with a tighter focus than they have in the past," he said. "While everyone is doing it (civic engagement) it hasn't been at the front of the design of processes." He goes on to add, "I'm of a mind that civic engagement should be an end in itself ... but it does have to be connected to other outcomes as well."

So what does all of this mean as we embark on Cohort 2 of City Accelerator? Will all of this really make a difference in the lives of the urban poor, the frustrated and disaffected, the alienated youth, the discouraged, the homeless and the hungry? If you could roll the tape (as we used to say) and see once again with your own eyes what was written on the shirts and placards of those marching and demonstrating -- even those throwing rocks and bottles and otherwise engaging in the drastic and dramatic events of recent history -- it can all be summed up in three words: "Listen to Us!" As hard as it might be to get beyond the heat and anger and prejudice that brought us to this point, meaningful engagement is really the most important and effective thing that we can do to try to turn things around for the better.

(Corrected May 21, 2015 to clarify the timelines of Cohort 1.)

You can hear more from Eric in his own words on advancing the art of meaningful civic engagement in a special City Accelerator edition of the podcast, For The Record (5:56).

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.