Public Engagement, the Seattle Way

The cohort 2 city is sharpening tools and building trust.
December 14, 2016 AT 11:00 AM
Staff members at the International Drop-In Center in Seattle promote Engage Seattle. Mari-Len Tayao

Editor's note: Samantha Stork is a strategic advisor in Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. She was a key member of Seattle’s City Accelerator team.

When the email landed in my inbox almost two years ago, I could not imagine where we would be today. I recall reading about the City Accelerator offering an opportunity to participate in an 18-month cohort to “advance innovative efforts that improve the lives of low-income people and help cities run more effectively."

It sounded great, lofty and ambitious. I also imagined that it appealed to dozens of other cities so I didn’t get my hopes up. Hope being the operative word.

I reached out to a few colleagues and passed around the initial email inviting us to learn more. There was interest. We had some ideas as we filled out the application. We had some thoughts as we participated in phone conferences and informal interviews. We had some pitches and we convened and met with the other interested city participants.

And we were selected. Team Seattle was an official member of the City Accelerator’s second cohort.

We knew within the first few months that we were going to be doing things a bit differently. Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore and New Orleans chose worthwhile projects and focused on specific communities, neighborhoods or a demographic.Team Seattle was just as ambitious but chose a less conventional path, opting to look at how we, as a city, conducted outreach and engagement.

Internal mechanisms.

It might not have been the most compelling case study or the most interesting on paper, but we knew that if we were really going to make an impact and improve the lives of those we interacted with, we needed to have a comprehensive grasp of how we operated.

So how do we do outreach and engagement? We spent the first phase of this cohort delving deep into the details of this question. We quickly saw that we operate with the best intentions but you know what they say about good intentions. We noticed that there was not a shortage of material, or a dearth of data. And we realized that we loved to hold a meeting. In fact, we loved to hold lots of meetings. Sometimes on the same night. Sometimes in the same neighborhood, over and over again.

We observed that communities were tired. And we were a leading contributor to that exhaustion. 

If effective outreach and engagement is about building trust, we needed to examine our business practices. We needed to be more respectful and have our processes put people first, not just projects and programs, but people. If outreach and engagement is effective and genuine, our projects are done with the community and for the community and it doesn’t feel like we are doing something to the community. This might sound like semantics but these are the indicators of success. This is about relationships.
Successfully engaging the community in the process increases likelihood of public support and better outcomes.
We identified some short-term and long-term goals -- the short-term being our quick fixes. By creating a checklist, we were able to achieve clarity at the front end of a project’s outreach and engagement efforts. By doing an “intake,” we asked what the intent of the project was -- outreach or engagement? We often use those terms interchangeably but they are anything but.  And by defining these, and understanding the desired outcome, we could manage expectations, for our internal and external partners. And managed expectations helps build trust.

During the initial intake, we can also learn more about the perceived impacted areas and timeline. Identifying little details like these can result in big results, such as a reduction in overlapping meetings or bundling of projects. By plotting out the many projects on a map and on a master calendar, we can quickly gauge when bottlenecks are occurring or we can see when there are opportunities to leverage with others. This is about partnerships.


By examining our internal process and creating a new framework regarding our outreach and engagement practices, we are striving to bring cross-departmental city teams together and pivot from being project-oriented to being people-focused.

We have formidable obstacles to making this initiative a reality. We have also received signs of support that we are indeed on the right path, including Mayor Murray’s Executive Order, a directive asking us to lead a city-wide effort that results in the timely implementation by all city departments of equitable outreach and engagement practices that reaffirm the city’s commitment to inclusive participation.

Eighteen months ago, we set out to “advance innovative efforts that improve the lives of low-income people and help cities run more effectively." Yes, it is lofty and ambitious, and we are determined.

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