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Rewriting the Rules of Public Engagement

Public meetings can be like purgatory. Cities are showing us there’s a better way.

Civic engagement. There is a lot to draw to in that phrase. It encapsulates, as one writer put it, "the many ways in which citizens participate in the life of a community in order to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community's future." The quality of that participation and the measure of improvement are both the subject of much hard work and more than a little debate.

Perhaps I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I have a long and sometimes tortured history with the process of civic engagement. If you have read this far, chances are you know the feeling first hand. But you persevere -- because it matters.

In an earlier post, I recalled Chattanooga's former Mayor Gene Roberts once announcing, after an exhausting city commission meeting, that public officials who failed to live blameless lives would likely be condemned to a purgatory of eternal zoning hearings.

As a city planner and elected official, I have endured more than my share of that particular sort of hell on Earth. I know firsthand how depressing the process of civic engagement can be.

However, nothing is more important in sustaining democracy than an involved citizenry. Toward that end, cities participating in Cohort II of the City Accelerator are attempting to rewrite the rules of engagement and move their communities forward on important local initiatives. Hear about their plans in their own words in the video above.

Atlanta is working with five inner-city neighborhoods wrestling with the effects of a new billion-dollar football stadium. Terica Black notes the affected communities have “historically been somewhat over engaged” – but have not seen results from their participation. The city is working to identify and overcome the weaknesses in conventional civic engagement.

In Albuquerque, Dr. Frank Mirabal says city leaders are enlisting new civic engagement methods to overcome language and cultural barriers with immigrants. The goal is to help these individuals be more successful in their entrepreneurial ventures with the added benefit of boosting economic development for the city.

The city of New Orleans is using civic engagement to improve its citizens’ health. The city has built a network of more than 60 community health centers and is focusing on getting people to use them. Ariel White says leaders are “moving New Orleans to a healthier state of being as a city.”

Kathy Nyland says the city of Seattle is applying civic engagement to incorporate more voices as Seattle prepares its new comprehensive plan. While this might seem like a conventional part of any planning process, the focus here is on a “continuing dialogue” instead of "hitting the reset button” – which is unfortunately common in city planning. Patrice Carroll says the city's rapid growth makes it necessary to adjust civic engagement efforts to reflect the wishes of newcomers as well as long-time residents. She asks, “How do we be the city that welcomes all perspectives?”

Baltimore’s Daniel Atzmon says his city is uniquely reaching out to a special group of citizens who are returning to their communities after a period of incarceration. The intent is to provide them with a smooth transition back into society and reduce the chance they will revert to crime. The city is establishing a focus group process designed and led by formerly incarcerated citizens.

Anyone who has suffered through a conventional public hearing knows traditional attempts at civic engagement can miss the mark. When citizens feel they can’t express their views or they are not being heard, the credibility of the process falls into question, the viability of whatever is being considered (no matter how essential) is threatened and the whole community suffers. The City Accelerator is not about selling a particular concept or methodology. And it’s not about finding the ultimate answer – if there even is one. It is about acknowledging weaknesses in the way we develop and manage communities, finding better ways to operate, facilitating the necessary changes and then making things stick.

While change under any circumstances is difficult at best, that last point, “making things stick,” might be the hardest.

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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