Insights from the March 2015 Project on Municipal Innovation session on new local government practice of community engagement.

From March 26-28, 2015, chiefs of staff and policy advisors from the largest U.S. cities gathered at Harvard Kennedy School for the 13th convening of the Project on Municipal Innovation Advisory Group. In conversations with national experts and academics, the group explored smart ideas for reinvigorating local democracy through community and civic engagement practices. This blog highlights on of the group’s conversations.

As the demographics of American cities rapidly change, it is increasingly important that local government leaders make an effort to engage with communities that have traditionally been underrepresented in decision-making. Hearing the voices of members from all communities in a city is crucial for ensuring more effective and inclusive city governance.

This was the prevailing sentiment among city leaders who participated in a discussion on new local government practice of community engagement at the most recent PMI-AG convening in March. The conversation included presentations from Minneapolis and Albuquerque city and nonprofit leaders, who shared key insights they had learned in working to develop and strengthen partnerships between city government and underrepresented communities. Here are a few of these insights:

Make community engagement a priority

Cities are far more likely to see success in their community engagement efforts if they dedicate time, personnel, and other resources to the cause. The City of Minneapolis, for instance, took a significant step towards improving its community engagement efforts by establishing a Neighborhood and Community Relations Department in 2010. The department seeks to get input about issues that the city may not otherwise be aware of, especially from underrepresented communities. It uses a co-creation engagement strategy to meet with community leaders to figure out how they want to engage with the city, what they want to work on, and then help them move those ideas forward.

Explain how the city can help

Effective communication between city hall and local communities is vital. When city leaders in Minneapolis realized that their old model of engaging with the city’s Latino community was underperforming, they went out to the Latino community and directly asked community members how they wanted to engage with the city. The Latino community ultimately selected about 30 leaders to represent them in talks with the city. The city then arranged a meeting between these leaders and most of the city department directors to talk about what the city actually does. Having established this working relationship, Latino community members were able to come back and express the issues that they wanted to work on with the city.

Improve representation on boards and commissions

Historically, policies passed by city boards and commissions have not always resulted in the best outcomes for communities underrepresented on these decision-making bodies. Increased diversity on boards and commissions can go a long way in amplifying community voices and ensuring equitable outcomes.

To this end, the city of Minneapolis has been working with the local nonprofit Nexus Community Partners, to help train people from underrepresented communities to get placed on city boards and commissions. The goal is to try to make sure that the boards and commissions reflect the community in which they are serving. Following the Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI) model first implemented in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nexus runs a seven-month program of intensive training for prospective leaders. Out of 26 fellows in the program so far, 15 have been placed on boards or commissions.

Avoid a blanket approach

One of the best ways for cities to build trust is by working together with communities on a solution rather than employing a top-down approach. Going out to different communities to engage in robust conversations offers important perspective in determining what’s needed to move a city forward.

In Albuquerque, city leaders have learned that there is no “one size fits all” approach to community engagement. In line with that philosophy, they make concerted efforts to target different populations to address issues of concern. For instance, the city has tailored its approach to the Latino immigrant communities by holding discussions in Spanish.

Use data to make better-informed decisions

Data collection and analysis can be valuable tools in ensuring that policy decisions align with the needs of all residents, not just those whose voices are traditionally accounted for.

When the city of Albuquerque wanted to learn how different communities across the city viewed prosperity, funding from the Kellogg Foundation empowered the city to partner with the University of New Mexico’s RWJF Center for Health Policy to examine how Albuquerque residents have framed prosperity through a review of past community conversations. This review provided the backdrop to a community-wide survey that was completed by almost 1,900 local residents, which, in turn, will give city leaders a citizen-informed road-map to prosperity.

This post originally appeared on the Data Smart City Solutions Blog on April 29, 2015.