I am a fan of governments reaching out to citizens for ideas and participation for two reasons. It’s good for government officials to work side by side with citizens, and it’s good for citizens to work side by side with governments. But there are smart ways of doing this, and there are dumb, dumb, dumb ways.
I’ll talk about the smart and the dumb in a moment, but first a few words about why citizen involvement is important. Start with the basics: Citizens know some things better than government officials, and government officials know some things better than citizens. Citizens know things that begin with the word “what” – what the problems are (particularly in their own neighborhoods), what they want their city or neighborhood to be, and what they are personally willing to contribute in time and taxes to make these things happen. In other words, citizens are good at vision and judgment. Government officials are good at the “how” parts – how to deliver the things the citizens want, how they can be paid for, and how to be sure things work as planned when they’re in place.
When you put these competencies together, with the citizens taking the lead – but not having exclusive say – in the “what” parts, and government officials taking the lead – but not having exclusive say – in the “how” parts, you get a strong partnership . . . with a little creative tension. The tension comes from not totally ceding either part. On the contrary, it helps if the parties look over each other’s shoulder. Citizens sometimes have great ideas about getting things done. And public officials can often suggest things the citizens ought to be thinking about but, for some reason, aren’t. How do you let one side take the lead without ceding control? You act with respect for what the other party does best, the way you would toward any valued colleague or partner.
Here’s another principle of citizen engagement: The goal shouldn’t be a new set of ideas or goals but a long-term sharing of responsibilities. Alas, that’s not the political reflex. The reflex, upon hearing a complaint or an idea, is to take the problem away from the person who’s complaining. I understand why this happens – many elected officials believe the path to re-election is paved with credit for getting things done, and most appointed officials think it’s important to appear in control – but by taking problems away from people you diminish them and limit a government’s effectiveness. The best way to deal with community problems and opportunities is through partnerships, where everyone does his part: government, businesses, nonprofits, and citizens.
By taking the time to plan and act as partners, two wonderful things happen. First, resources multiply – not just financial resources but human labor and creativity. Second, solutions become virtuous cycles, where each partner’s contribution rewards the others’ efforts, increasing the rewards and making the effort easier with each turn of the cycle.
You see this most clearly in business improvement districts, where landowners tax themselves to make commercial areas safer and more attractive. The virtuous cycle for BIDs works in two ways. As they make improvements, property values rise and revenues to the BID increase, enabling it to do more, which makes property values rise even more . . . and on and on. But the real secret to BIDs isn’t the money they raise and spend on their own. It’s the partnerships they forge with governments. Over time, smart and focused BIDs learn how to ask intelligently for things, and governments like working with them. The money they raise, then, becomes not replacements for government services but enhancements, which helps everybody. The commercial district looks good, citizens are happy, businesses prosper, property owners see their investments rise in value, tax revenues grow for government and the BID, and the cycle goes round and round.
This, then, is the power of partnership, and it ought to be the aim of every government – not to coddle citizens or push them out of the way, but to plan and work with them as respected equals.
OK, then what’s a smart way of doing this? You start by asking citizens what they want, plan the “how” parts together – so citizens learn the cost of public goods and can decide if they truly want them – and then you ask those working alongside you to lend a hand in making them happen.
I have two examples of smart citizen engagement, both from older cities dealing with major crime problems. First is from Philadelphia where Mayor Michael Nutter has created a small agency called PhillyRising. It’s a handful of government workers who are good at talking with citizens and enlisting them as partners. Not long ago, a newspaper reporter sat in on a PhillyRising meeting in a Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood plagued by crime. The meeting began with a top city official saying something you don’t hear enough from government leaders. “The city doesn’t have all the answers,” he said. “We know you guys” – referring to neighborhood residents – “know the problems in the community better than anybody else.”
And that was pretty much the end of the speeches. For the rest of the meeting, the PhillyRising staff facilitated the 35 or so who came in talking about the neighborhood’s issues – not just the crime problems, but things like neighborhood schools and adult literacy problems – as others took notes on large flip charts. At the end, staffers invited the residents to come back in two weeks to work on plans for changing the things they had identified – with the city playing a supporting role. As the PhillyRising director told the reporter who was there, “The idea behind it is, instead of doing things for people, we’re trying to do things with them and teach them.” Precisely.
The second example is from Detroit, and it’s not about government doing smart things with citizens but citizens doing smart things with government. (Remember, it’s a partnership.) I don’t have to explain much about Detroit’s problems – they begin with a horrifying homicide rate and go from there. But not every part of Detroit suffers equally. There are a few neighborhoods that have kept crime at bay.
How did they do it? By organizing, watching things carefully, and working seamlessly with the police. These aren’t vigilantes. In one of the neighborhoods, North Rosedale, neighborhood volunteers don’t chase criminals; they photograph things that look suspicious and call the cops. They are so close to the police that, as neighborhood watch volunteers start their evening rounds, they check in with a nearby precinct to find out who’s on duty and what to keep an eye on.
As the Detroit Free Press reported, police and other city officials love these smart, organized, involved volunteers. “The cooperative effort that you have shown with the police department has just been super,” a police commander told one of the neighborhood groups at its regular monthly planning meeting with police and city officials last year. “The arrests that are being made are all with interaction with the community. A lot of other communities don’t offer that. It is a big tribute to you, and it’s very much appreciated.” The appreciation is mutual. One of the volunteers told the newspaper: “We believe it is important to work very closely with the police department.”
Let’s pause for a moment and review what’s right about these efforts. They create partnerships, not dependence. In each case, government knows its limitations. It appreciates what the citizens can do and stands ready to help but not direct. In one case, the government is reaching out to the citizens, in the other the citizens are reaching out to the government. The results of both will be smarter government (specifically, more effective policing) and smarter, more involved citizens.
So if these are examples of smart citizen engagement, what does dumb engagement look like? I have two examples of this, as well. The first involves the Pittsburgh police department, but instead of being partners of the citizens, the police have cast themselves as adversaries. The problem in Pittsburgh is a familiar one for urban police departments. Ethnically the police force doesn’t look much like the city today; it’s overwhelmingly white in a diverse city. The suspicion among African-American leaders is that the hiring process is rigged against black candidates, so they lobbied the mayor to open up the hiring process by allowing some community members to sit in on interviews.
Reluctantly, the police agreed. An organization called the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network offered the names of some volunteer interviewers to the police department, which forwarded them to other city departments for screening and training. In time, the interview panels including civilians were assembled . . . until someone noticed that one woman who was asking questions was wearing an electronic monitoring device on her ankle. Turns out, one of the police interviewers was a convicted felon who had pleaded guilty a year before to felony firearms charges.
The panels were abruptly cancelled. The police chief blamed city bureaucrats for fouling things up by not running background checks. Everyone was embarrassed and angry. But take away the embarrassing revelation – the woman with the ankle monitor – and you see this for what it was: a shallow and ineffective substitute for citizen engagement. It was shallow because it substituted a handful of people on city hall interview panels for genuine partnerships with citizens in their neighborhoods. And it was ineffective because it asked this handful of citizens to do something they weren’t equipped to do – judge what makes a good police officer. Actually, the citizen member who might know something about effective policing was the woman with the ankle monitor. At least she could claim experience with the criminal justice system.
What would have been better? It would have been much, much better if the department had taken the time to engage citizens in discussions about what they wanted from officers in their neighborhoods. If they had listened carefully and worked collaboratively to find better ways of recruiting, training, and retaining officers who fit the new profile. Afterwards, if some involved in the planning process wanted to serve on the interview teams, they should have been welcomed and would have come to the panels in a completely different way – with knowledge of what police officers do and an understanding of how the hiring process was changing. In short, they would have been seen as partners in making a better police department – and not as intruders or nuisances.
But it isn’t only local governments that make a mess of citizen engagement. Sometimes citizens do, too. This brings me to the worst citizen engagement process I’ve ever heard of, designed by a group in Pinellas County, Florida called FAST, which stands for Faith and Action for Standing Together. As the name suggests, it’s an interfaith group, and its heart seems to be in the right place. Founded in 2004, FAST wants to improve low-income parts of the county, which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and has taken on important issues from crime and drugs to transportation and education.
But if its intentions are good, its methods are atrocious. After FAST members (who number in the low thousands) settle on an issue and decide – on their own, with no government officials involved – what the correct solutions are, they haul public officials before them, force them stand on a stage and say only “yes” or “no” to FAST’s agenda. As a final indignity, elected officials are not allowed to touch the microphone, for fear they might . . . you know, try to explain something. A FAST member stands with the microphone in hand, ready to snatch it away.
By this point, most responsible elected or appointed officials will not participate what amounts to one of FAST’s public shaming sessions. Not long ago, though, several Pinellas County school board members came to one of the meetings, where they were told that the best way to instruct children was by using something called “direct instruction.” Would the school board members, on the spot, commit to changing the school system’s entire instructional approach? Yes or no? The answer, thankfully, was no. “I will not yield to pressure,” one board member told the group . . . presumably just before the microphone was snatched away.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be hectoring or patronizing. It doesn’t even have to be adversarial. In my experience, most government officials are perfectly willing to work alongside citizens; they just don’t know how to get started. And most citizens are far more interested in practical solutions than in venting their spleens and would welcome the opportunity to learn more about how government works.
There’s a marriage to be made here between governments and citizens, but like all good marriages it must come with some values. The two most important: respect for each other’s contributions and a belief in the power of partnerships.
Photo by Bytemarks licensed under Creative Commons.