The Last Mile: Building Better Access in North Carolina to Enhance Civic Participation

In December, my colleague here at CELE, Brian Bowman, wrote an excellent piece about how technology can help make government more transparent and accessible. With data from the Pew Research Center, he then explored how often citizens are able to access government information on the Internet – and the many underserved groups who don’t yet receive the full benefits of technology (including older people, non-English speakers, and colorblind individuals).

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The Power of Empowerment

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), an international federation of public participation practitioners including a USA affiliate, has developed a spectrum of community engagement techniques. The spectrum ranges from “informing” to “empowering” the public.

These are wonky practitioner words; however, they actually mean a world of difference. Informing is focused on one-way communication, whereas empowering is literally giving the power of decision-making to the public.

I’ll describe a project on community empowerment, and some key lessons. First, I’ll address why empowerment is scary, often promised but not fulfilled in particular cases, and basic guiding principles for overcoming the challenges of community empowerment projects. Continue Reading

Housing First Models vs. Transitional Housing Progressions

In the traditional system, homeless individuals are moved through levels of housing that will eventually lead to independent housing. For instance, from the streets to the shelters, and from the shelters to a housing program, and from a housing program to an independent apartment. In the housing program, treatment is given to battle some factors surrounding homelessness like, substance abuse, mental health, job training, and domestic violence.

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Beautiful Budgets: Opportunities and Gaps in Online Local Budget Engagement

Over the last few years, there has been a mini-explosion of websites that use visualization and interactivity to make government budgets easier to understand and navigate. In North Carolina, 2015 saw sites go live for Asheville, Raleigh, Cary and Buncombe County. Across the country, efforts have ranged from volunteer-led open source projects like Open Budget: Oakland to government-led efforts built on commercial platforms, like Chattanooga’s Open Budget App or Ohio’s Open Checkbook. Cloud services for open budgets have been launched by commercial ventures like OpenGov and Balancing Act, and by my own non-profit organization, DemocracyApps, which developed the CommunityBudgets.org platform that hosts the Asheville, Cary and Buncombe County sites. There has also been significant legislative activity, including the Data Act at the federal level and a new North Carolina requirement (section 7.17) that local governments publish budget and spending data to a central state transparency website.

All these initiatives are very much to be celebrated. They are the leading edge of a powerful and growing trend toward greater openness in local government and promise better citizen access to the critical financial information and decision-making that underlie nearly everything city and county governments do. However, it’s important to ask just where we’re going and how we’ll know that we’ve arrived. How do we ensure that open budget efforts actually improve community engagement and outcomes over other means for learning citizens’ priorities?

Let’s begin by examining just what a public budget is and what makes it good or bad.

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The Power of Small

The highway overpass that funnels vacationers like me toward the high-end shops and million-dollar mansions of downtown Charleston, South Carolina, soars a hundred feet above a very different kind of neighborhood, a part of the city known as the Upper Peninsula. The homes here are small, interspersed among warehouses and union halls, and lived in primarily by low-income, African-American Charlestonians. With three thousand residents spread across 800 acres, the streets have a worn, slightly abandoned feel.

This is a part of Charleston that’s expected to change dramatically in the next five or ten years. As people and businesses are crowded or priced out of other parts of Charleston, the Upper Peninsula will, it’s hoped, get the spillover. Already new restaurants are being built and businesses are moving in. It’s the city’s wild frontier, and as Rachel Parris, director of development and community relations for the placemaking nonprofit Enough Pie (because they believe “there’s enough pie to go around” for everyone in Charleston), explains, “Right now we’re looking to mold that growth and shape it in a way that’s really inclusive. That’s where creative placemaking and community engagement come in.”

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Children’s Civic Engagement via the Scratch Online Platform

Our blog addressed Engaging Youth with Deliberative Problem-Solving  where students from Colorado State University reached high school students to build their interest and skills in deliberation and democracy. In April 2015, these high school students participated in the nationwide mental health conversation which took place through a virtual interface only.

Now, I’m glad to see an examination of children’s civic engagement (ages 8-16) on the Scratch online platform.

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Scratch is a creative community where children from around the world learn programming by designing and sharing interactive media projects. The researchers examined how young people related to issues of global importance, as well as with local topics and questions of community governance.  They offer a typology of the strategies the young people use to express themselves, engage with their peers, and call for action.

Courtesy of the public involvement firm Bang the Table  (based in Australia), some key points are: Continue Reading

Blog Highlights 2015 – a Sampler from the Community Engagement Blogging Team

We have gained many followers since the blog began in December 2014. In the spirit of looking back at this time of year, here is a “holiday sampler” of blog posts – many of which were authored early in the blog’s existence.

Happy holidays, and enjoy the “nibbles” of ideas, viewpoints, and challenges from the CELE blogging team.

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Dan Bagley     Turn to the Creative Conquerors

Michelle Bir  Homeless Challenges: Magnanimity and Responsibility increases Effective Engagement

Brian Bowman     Assessing Free Online Civic Engagement Tools – Three Examples

 

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Internet Access Enhances Government Transparency, but Underserved Populations Remain

In the past 12 months, roughly one in three Americans has used the Internet or a smartphone app to access government information. The Pew Research Center says this access extends to all levels of government: federal, state, and local. As residents have secured improved broadband connections, and as government websites and apps have added features and improved usability, the numbers of people communicating with government online have risen accordingly.

A Pew Research survey says people are usually trying to accomplish one of six tasks:

  • Learn about government recreational activities
  • Renew their driver’s license or auto registration
  • Research government benefits
  • Pay a fine
  • Apply for or renew a government-issued hunting or fishing license
  • Report a problem that needs repair, such as potholes

As these popular tasks show, government websites and apps are much more than one-way sources of information; they provide the opportunity (usually free of charge) to complete tasks that used to require a trip. But as websites improve in functionality, public communicators should remember that there are some populations who may need additional consideration. Continue Reading

Greensboro Budget Exercise: Broad-based Involvement and Neighborhood Choice

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Greensboro is the first city in the southeastern U.S. to try a model of outreach on city budget decisions called participatory budgeting (PB) http://www.participatorybudgeting.org/.

First used in many Brazilian communities, and more recently used in St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, New York and Vallejo (CA), PB in Greensboro is occurring through May 2016, with a recommendation to the City Council in time for their action in June on the Fiscal Year 2016-17 budget (FY16-17).

An overview, with short videos, is available at www.greensboro-nc.gov/pb.

The main steps are:

  • Residents brainstorm ideas,
  • Volunteer budget delegates have community conventions to develop specific proposals,
  • Residents attend expos and vote, and
  • The top projects win funding.
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Each of the five council districts in Greensboro has reserved $100,000 in FY 16-17. Participants in those districts will gather and decide how to spend money from a list of projects in their district.

Right now, groups are learning about the PB process and beginning to generate ideas for how to spend the money in their respective districts. Community members can also submit their ideas on ideasgreensboro.org.

Two of the leaders of Greensboro PB are Ranata Reeder and Wayne Abraham. They offer answers to three questions:

IMG_5184-Renata-RWayne Abraham

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