By Matt Leighninger
Over the last decade, we’ve learned a lot about what works — and what doesn’t — in public engagement. Now, with new pressures on cities, many local officials are thinking hard about how to combine those lessons with new innovations. They are trying to develop more productive, dynamic and long-term relationships between citizens and government. Some of the lessons learned from these efforts, along with the latest innovations, will be shared at an upcoming Leadership Training Institute on the “Latest Tools for Strengthening Local Democracy.”
The core goals for doing public participation haven’t changed much. When done well, proactive engagement can:
Local officials are also feeling new pressures that affect whether and how they engage the public. Some cities are sharing more government data with citizens, who are better able to use and assess the information. The explosion of social media has meant that citizens have new venues to connect around their concerns and articulate their views. These pressures present new challenges, but also new opportunities.
The public engagement projects of the last ten years have given us a good sense of how to do this work. These efforts have mobilized hundreds and sometimes thousands of citizens to take part in decision-making and problem solving. In order to engage large, diverse numbers of people, they have employed targeted, network-based recruitment; in order to ensure that the meetings are productive, they have employed group process techniques like impartial facilitation, ground rules set by the group, and discussion guides or agendas that lay out a range of options. In some cases, they have inspired and supported community members to give their own time and effort to neighborhood and community improvement, in addition to making recommendations to officials.
These initiatives—even the most successful ones—also have limitations. They have primarily been temporary, and limited to a particular issue, plan or policy question. Some have been citywide efforts that did not lead to improvements or stronger relationships at the neighborhood level. So while they have proliferated dramatically, and have often had many beneficial outcomes, in most cases they do not seem to have produced long-term changes in the way that citizens and city governments operate.
The legal challenge
Local officials who are experienced in public engagement are beginning to confront one aspect of this challenge: the legal framework for public participation in the United States is made up mostly of laws and ordinances that are over thirty years old.
This legal framework does not match the expectations and capacities of 21st Century citizens, it pre-dates widespread use of the Internet and it does not reflect the lessons learned in the last two decades about how to engage citizens productively in public life. Most of these laws mandate public hearings, open comment periods and other passive, formulaic participation processes; these processes are rated poorly by both citizens and public servants, and often seem to have a negative impact on policymaking and trust in government.
NLC has been working on this challenge, in partnership with the American Bar Association, International City/County Management Association, International Municipal Lawyers’ Association, National Civic League, Policy Consensus Initiative, Institute for Local Government, Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and other organizations. One result of this work is a model ordinance on public participation for city councils to consider. It includes a clear definition of public participation, a set of principles underlying quality participation, and measures for strengthening local government’s role in this work. The ordinance will be introduced at the Congress of Cities by Bruce Meyerson of the ABA, during the LTI seminar, “Latest Tools for Strengthening Local Democracy.”
Some officials are exploring ways to incorporate good engagement strategies more fully in the day-to-day life of their cities. This challenge goes beyond merely gathering public input: it means developing new recipes for citizen-government interaction and collaboration. Online tools can be particularly helpful, including:
Online games: Games can inform and enliven engagement work, and attract people who would never have participated otherwise. At this LTI seminar, Eric Gordon of the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College will share some examples of online engagement games.
Neighborhood-level online spaces: More and more people use social media, and online tools provide an effective way of maintaining regular give-and-take with citizens. Fostering neighborhood-level online spaces can help local officials create sustained, flexible, responsive networks of people.Online tracking and assessment of engagement: One thing the Internet is remarkably good for is giving people the ability to collectively gather and interpret information. This capacity can be applied to engagement work, allowing parents and other citizens the chance to report the basics of engagement (how many people participated, decisions made, etc.). Compiling a running record of the processes and outcomes of engagement can help answer some of the key questions asked by decision makers (for example, “How broad is the support for the recommendations I am hearing?”) and give everyone the chance to assess and improve the way engagement works.
There are still more potential ingredients for innovative long-term engagement including: youth leadership programs, mini-grant programs to seed partnerships between educators and community members, buildings that are designed to be centers for engagement (such as the Community Learning Centers in Akron, OH) and joint engagement trainings for citizens and city staff.
For local officials who are new to this work, or who have just started in a new position, there are some basic steps to consider. First, you need to know about the local context for engagement: has the city organized any significant, intensive public engagement efforts in the past? What are the other ways that local officials are interacting proactively with residents?
Second, you need background and training in public engagement. NLC’s Leadership Training Institute is a good place to start, and state leagues also are producing trainings and workshops on this topic.
Third, you need allies. Reach out to other city and neighborhood leaders; if other organizations (like school districts or community foundations) have experimented with large-scale, intensive public engagement efforts, compare notes with those ‘engagers’ on what they have learned. Every leader and organization has a significant stake in the community’s success—explore your shared interests and ways that you might work together to engage citizens.
Matt Leighninger is the Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), an alliance of the major organizations and leading scholars working in the field of deliberation and public engagement.