Local governments are working to find ways to create sustainable civic participation. Some have taken steps to create programs and initiatives that gain the sentiments of their respective citizenry. However, sustainable civic participation is more than gaining the sentiments of citizens, or the perspectives of activist. Obtaining sustainable civic participation comes from inclusive and interactive engagement.
An inclusive approach to civic participation seeks the input in the beginning with an open mind and clear ear for the needs and desires of the people. Further, interactive engagement works with citizens to find resources beyond offices of City Halls, and looks within the neighborhoods and communities of the city. Across the country there are examples of citizens using additional resources to develop solutions.
The citizens of Alexandria, VA., created ACTion Alexandria a web-based platform that brings together neighbors and local nonprofit organizations to exchange ideas, coordinate efforts, and solve problems in our community. Oakland Crimespotting is a resource, created by citizens, that uses an interactive map of crimes in Oakland and a tool for understanding crime in cities.
Historically, government has had a “shoot first, ask questions later”, approach to citizen participation. In other words, government identifies the problem, develops the solution, solidifies the funding, and then garners the support of the citizens. This approach only focuses on the needs, and doesn’t promote inclusion, or interaction from citizens. Also, it puts government in an increasing position of being the “doer” of all things. This may lead to a disengaged citizenry, or citizen creating platforms to bypass government. Either outcome doesn’t result in sustainable citizen engagement.
According to data collected of over 200 communities, by the National Research Center, 76% of those surveyed do not attend local public meetings and 81% have not contacted their local elected official to express their opinions.
Sustainability is as strong as the capacity to maintain. Therefore, sustainable civic participation is rooted in identifying and enhancing the capacity of citizens. The City of Raleigh offers two programs that focus on capacity building. The Neighborhood College allows citizens the opportunity to learn about each of the city’s departments, their functions and how they interact with citizens. The Citizens Leadership Academy is a training program that helps develop neighborhood and community based leadership skills. The combinations of the two programs have resulted in participants taking a variety of leadership roles in their communities, created new platforms to engage local government, and taking advantage of opportunities to participate in local government leadership roles through boards and commissions.
Civic participation will have a difficult time flourishing if it is an “us against them” approach by either local government, or citizens. We are all in this together, and must see ourselves in the solutions that enhance participations, encourage community development, and strengthens the connection between government and citizens.
Open communication between citizens and their local government is undoubtedly a necessary component for building sustainable civic participation. Oftentimes, citizen distrust and apathy toward local government creates an environment that may hinder any meaningful efforts to achieve community engagement on matters that affect them the most. It takes community service programs like Citizens Leadership Academy, Neighborhood College and Citizen Advisory Councils (CACs) which act as information incubators that develop concerned citizens into facilitators that are able to organize and promote effective dialogue between government officials and the broader community. It’s also critical that citizens are able to have a seat at the table when decisions are made that will determine the future of their own community, particularly on budgetary matters that influence their day to day lives.
I agree with points made by both Kevin and Shawn. Public officials can get cynical about the sustainability of citizen engagement but often fail to see what they are doing to get in the way of that sustainability. For example, in the work I’ve done with public dialogue processes I have seen officials agree to support the dialogue only if it can guarantee the particular policy outcome they desire. That’s what I call the “illusion of democracy” and most citizens know that when they see it. Cynicism breeds cynicism.
Neighborhood College and Citizen’s Leadership Academy sound like great opportunities to hone leadership and organizing skills, and to increase citizens’ access to knowledge about how city departments operate. Could the same model be used to allow community residents to educate public officials and city or nonprofit staff about their local communities, and about the struggles, successes and history of government and nonprofit interaction with their communities? Certainly government officials and staff of city departments or local nonprofits have communities of their own and may be familiar with some of the history and context, but I imagine there is more to learn. Has anyone heard of or participated in such an opportunity?