Seeking the Seeds of Civic Tech in Medium-sized and Smaller Towns in NC

In December, I started exploring if the community-local government partnerships known as civic tech can grow from a few of North Carolina’s larger cities to other parts of the state.  There are about 70 groups nationwide where volunteers use government open data to address community needs through creating free apps or other IT products.

The smallest town with a civic tech “brigade” is Muskogee, Oklahoma, home to about 38,000 people.  Can small towns in North Carolina do the same thing?

I am assessing what level of interest and capability medium- to smaller-sized towns may have for civic tech.

I am glad to report the perspectives from government official in three communities. They show the variations of government readiness, IT and civic resources, and internal and community innovation. Continue Reading

Public Budgets: Understanding Priorities and Money in Local Government

Money may not buy happiness, but it can reveal priorities. Nowhere is that more evident than in government work. People pay taxes and fees and they expect them to cover public services. A few months ago, a large pizza chain turned heads by offering to fill potholes, a task normally reserved for public dollars. The chain reached out to city managers and offered to complete the task as long as they could add their logo to the repair (temporary chalk) and take pictures for a social media campaign. Many people didn’t like the idea, saying the campaign showed a continued degradation of American infrastructure, while others cheered it, saying they were happy to welcome a private company for public work.

Regardless of which side we may take in the pizza-pothole debate, infrastructure and local services are important to our quality of life. Right now, in cities and towns throughout many states, managers are putting together their budget priorities for the coming year. Here’s a primer on how that works and how you can be heard in your community.

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Young Voters, Mid-Terms, and Civic Education

It isn’t news that voters between the ages of 18-29 tend to turn-out for elections in substantially smaller numbers than other age groups in the population, and this has been especially true in mid-term elections. For example, in 2014 just 21% of voters in this age group voted. Thus, it was big news when data became available that young voter turn-out in the 2018 midterms was at 31%. This was the highest turnout in the last seven midterm elections.

My particular interest in the engagement of young people in the political process leads me to ask how we explain this increase and whether there are lessons civic educators can learn from this significant increase that might be replicated in future elections. There is no better source, in my view, than CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement), for getting more detailed numbers and insight into youth voting.

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Chapel Hill Reaches Residents Born in Other Countries: Improving relationships and supporting participation in local government

Chapel Hill is preparing an action plan to help immigrants and refugees feel valued and to fully participate alongside their neighbors in the social, civic, and economic fabric of their adopted hometown.

The action plan is the second phase of a two-year collaborative planning process with UNC-Chapel Hill in developing strategies for being more inclusive and responsive to the needs and interests of immigrant and refugee community members.

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Bridging the Difference: Strengthening Charlotte Through Conversations

Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and is made up of diverse residents and perspectives. To maintain a healthy community through this growth, it is important to invest in all people, address difficult issues and work to remove barriers. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD), in partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations, developed an engagement initiative called Bridging the Difference which aims to bring the community together for conversations around issues impacting Charlotte. These conversations will cover topics such as diversity, equity and inclusion; police support and accountability; racial healing; immigration; public safety, including schools; access and opportunity; bias and privilege. Creating a space to have productive and transparent dialogue with the community is critical for local government as it seeks to engage at all levels.

Bridging the Difference has three primary goals:

  • Involve: Involve the community inclusive of all perspectives to engage and understand wants/actions.
  • Understand: Increase understanding and trust through a series of conversations about police and community relations and public safety.
  • Mitigate: Mitigate potential challenges/issues in advance of major events with effective community outreach and interaction.

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Housing: A Prescription for Healthy Communities

The impact of housing on health is a growing topic of discussion in health transformation in public health conferences around the country. Dr. Megan Sandel MD, MPH, the nation’s leading expert on how housing impacts child health, is coming to Greensboro for Housing Summit 2019.

In Greensboro, community partnerships are already addressing health through housing interventions.

Here are five of the ways:

1. As we age or experience mobility challenges, our housing may no longer fit our needs for accessibility and safety; we may risk injuries from falling and become isolated in our own homes.

Prescription: Aging Gracefully. Community Housing Solutions and Triad Healthcare Network are partnering to modify homes and medical protocols to the specific needs of each homeowner to improve health. As part of a national research study, this Greensboro partnership is proving the benefits of the integrated approach.

Read Ruby McBee’s story here.   Continue Reading

Promising Practices for Starting (and Maintaining) Community Engagement

People seeking to improve their communities through dialog and understanding are doing important work. Their missions and approaches vary widely; community groups, advisory panels, faith groups and others are tackling plenty of diverse issues that are specific to their circles.

These groups also have a lot in common, according to a couple of university researchers in Australia. Judyth Sachs and Lindie Clark of MacQuarie University studied community engagement efforts in higher education and distilled some common threads in their research, Learning through community engagement: vision and practice in higher education. Continue Reading

Sharing Dialogue and Deliberation Best Practices: NCDD 2018

Within the community engagement community, best practices are sometimes hard to identify.

The context of, say, a small-scale event dealing with restorative justice differs greatly from a packed city council meeting covering zoning permits. The message, audience, program design, and feedback mechanisms can be completely different, which makes standardizing a set of guidelines an oft-impossible task.

Still, there are a few gatherings that bring together enough diverse, experienced, and motivated engagement practitioners that something approaching best practices can be found across many of community engagements’ subfields, from productively navigating race relations to developing responsive digital platforms.

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) is probably the best example. Lucky for me, Denver (my home), hosted their most recent annual conference in November of last year.

With more than 70 workshops and sessions available to choose from across four days, the hardest part was figuring out where to spend my conference time.

Here are some highlights from three sessions I attended.

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Civic Tech in small towns – Engaging Community needs with local resources

Open NC Collaborative - six brigades represented - December 15, 2018; Charlotte NC

I was pleased to be part of the Saturday December 15th gathering of NC leaders in the civic tech field for prioritizing goals and strategies for 2019. Civic tech is about working on community needs, using volunteers with IT and web design expertise, to utilize government open data for the common good. I provide a longer description of civic tech here.

I will focus on just one idea, because it is close to my heart: for smaller towns and rural areas, what does civic tech look like, and how can it help tackle real community needs? Continue Reading