Here’s what I learned about civic engagement at a seminar called “Focus on Community Engagement” that was presented by FOCUS (a partnership of four regional agencies in the Bay Area) with Common Sense California and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group
Carl Guardino of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group pointed out the value of community participation by asking, “Do you feel more ownership if you build it or you buy it?”
Ed Everett, former city manager of Redwood City, now works as a consultant in civic engagement. He worked with Pete Peterson, executive director of Common Sense California on the Threshold 2008 project that studied a public participation process regarding land use and housing issues.
Common Sense California gave out $150,000 last year in small grants, primarily to small cities working on projects that invited community participation, such as hold to make budget cuts.
Working With Government
In order to make a difference, civic engagement needs to be connected to government. Otherwise, it probably won’t change the status quo.
- A faulty line of thinking among nonprofits is, “If we build it, they will come.”
- A bad example of civic engagement was a $4.5 million project, California Speakers, that was designed to get everyday Californians talking about health care reform. Although 3,500 individuals participated, it had no effect on state health policy because it happened outside of government. The organizers heard from only one staff member in a state legislator’s office who had read the report from the project. It did not seem to impact our state health policy in anyway.
- Another bad example: the Cargill Salt Works property in Redwood City. A group that was not engaged in the process put a proposition on the ballot that defeated the project.
Public engagement enhances government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions
- There is a lower change of “blowback”
- Decisions are more creative, with better ideas incorporated
- Residents are more informed
However, government does not have to run every initiative
- Government should participate, but the issue, not the city or anyone else, should be at the center of a discussion with stakeholders.
How Much Participation?
The question is how much public engagement to have. There are some people who want to participate in everything; local government leaders want to hear from more than the “usual suspects.”
Government leaders and city staff members typically worry that citizens don’t have enough information to make informed decisions
- Incorporating public feedback takes longer
- If they open up the process, they are fearful of the results
- They have often spent a lot of time crafting a solution and can’t imagine anyone else could come up with a better one
Different Levels of Civic Engagement
There are three kinds of civic engagement:
- We’re going to sell the idea
- We’re going to stink up the place
- We want your input and we will use it.
It’s not about selling; if a decision has been predetermined, you are wasting people’s time
It’s not about getting people together and complaining or blaming others
If a city does civic engagement well, City Council meetings will be fairly deserted.
- People will know ahead of time what has been decided because they will have been involved.
- Three-minute speeches by the public at council meetings are NOT civic engagement
Designing a Civic Engagement Process
To be successful, residents need to be engaged as partners, rather than customers
- We are no longer the “vending machine” model of government in which taxpayers put in their money and get services in return
- Customers give away their power to others.
- Customers consume; they don’t create
- They escape accountability and responsibility
The City Council and staff can outline some parameters that limit consideration to viable alternatives.
- Give boundaries such as time and budget
- Tell citizens you are looking for solutions but, if they can’t agree on one that you will implement a fallback plan.
- It is important for the group to reach consensus.
- Report the results accurately and publicly.
- The group needs to agree that it will not allow a minority report.
- If the groups comes up with a viable alternative, government pledges to adopt it.
The starting point is talking about the issue, such as traffic safety on our streets
- Let people share common ground; their dreams and hopes
- Promote listening: what can the city do, what can you do?
- Build relationships
- Go forward; don’t blame
- Break people into small groups (four to eight people) so people feel more comfortable sharing opinions and loudmouths don’t dominate the entire group.
- Make everyone accountable (Do you hire youths?)
A true partnership between a city and residents provides a better outcome
- Often solutions are better quality and lower cost
- They have buy-in
- They promote more community building
Burlingame is a special community. I hope you’ll join me in exploring all that it offers and helping to make it even better.
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