Insights from the March 2015 PMI-AG Session on Empowered Governance and Democracy in U.S. Cities

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 one of the the group’s conversations.

Engaging and empowering citizens in impactful and novel ways is a critical challenge facing local government. In a session last month led by Archon Fung, the Academic Dean and Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at Harvard Kennedy School, city leaders explored empowered participation and democracy, and swapped stories about various efforts to engage citizens.

Fung explored several key principles for meaningful and worthwhile public participation:

  • First, be clear about what you are trying to accomplish with public participation. What is the goal? Do you really want participation or are your trying to check a box?

  • Second, design public participation carefully. Public hearings are usually not the most effective or engaging means of public participation.

  • Third, get beyond the usual suspects. If you have carefully thought about the goal of participation, raised the stakes, and designed an engagement strategy, you will penetrate deeper into communities, learn things you never thought you would, and increase the legitimacy of your efforts.

  • Finally, don’t be afraid to get help. If participation strategy is assigned to an intern, it’s unlikely to go well. Participation needs to be a part of your plan from the beginning. Focus on it must permeate your organization. It is not one department’s responsibility, it is everyone’s. And there are many professionals around to help.

These principles, illustrated by Fung through examples ranging from Brazil to Idaho, prompted a lively discussion among the mayoral chiefs of staff and policy directors in the room. In particular, discussion participants said they wanted to find ways to move their engagement efforts beyond just the usual residents that show up to a public hearing.

Meet people not just where they are, but where they are not expecting you…

Some cities are already on their way to a solution, trying new engagement and raising the stakes of those efforts to generate results. Discussion participants heard stories about Reddit AMAs (“Ask Me Anything” interviews) with city officials in Pittsburgh that attracted 20- to 30-year-olds for the first time. In Charlotte, city leaders are exploring soliciting opinions in farmers markets and bars, an effort that seeks to meet people not just where they are, but where they are not expecting you, relaxed and ready to share.

In St. Paul, city leaders have used an art truck to engage families in the parks on public art installations and park redesign. These changes are not costly, but instead require creativity and a desire to move beyond the public hearing.

Raise the stakes of participation in order to increase participation…

In addition to “reaching citizens where they are,” another clear theme from the session was the importance of a clear desire and need to raise the stakes of participation in order to increase participation. When asked when to solicit citizen feedback, Fung relayed a clarifying note: John Dewey used to say that you need a cobbler to design a shoe, but that only the wearer can say where it pinches. In designing government services, a park, or a community center, only the recipients can tell government where it pinches. Communicate the participatory goal clearly, set up a feedback loop to show people they are being listened to, and citizens will show up to define and co-produce their government.

This post originally appeared on the Data Smart City Solutions blog on April 30, 2015. Illustration by artist, Kelly Byrd.