Tom Buckel, an unusually thoughtful member of the Onondaga County Legislature, posted a note on his Facebook page, that asked the following:
The subject of true, authentic citizen engagement is the animating reason I am in politics. I truly believe in the innate goodness of people and the possibility of positive change through citizen engagement. So, I ask for some input from you! I would appreciate hearing some of the ways in which you think LOCAL government and local politicians can foster genuine engagement; processes where we engage people as citizens and not just consumers?
So, I thought I’d take a whack at an answer.
I am a community organizer. I help folks without money, power and influence band together into a group that can collectively wield the kind of power that will enable them to improve the conditions of their neighborhoods. As such, I really do not care much about those with options, the kind of folks whose education and background enable them to successfully advocate for their own interests. So my concerns about community engagement may be a tad more limited than others.
The traditional community organizing model is a three-fold operation: agitate, educate and organize. You get people pissed off about a problem. educate them about why the problem exists and who has the power to change that and then help them formulate a strategy to create the change they want.
The successful organizing campaigns, the ones with the most authentic engagement by neighborhood residents, have a few similarities:
1) The issue is specific, not vague. (“We want to demolish the problem apartment building at 170 W. Brighton” rather than “We need to do something to improve housing on the Southside.”)
2) Issues must be pitched to the self-interest of the people involved. If your group is mainly senior citizens, asking them to organize to improve conditions at the local elementary school is a waste of time. People need to believe they will benefit if they are going to invest their limited time and effort in a campaign.
3) Issues should be winnable. Lost causes may be valiant and romantic, but they lose momentum and lead neighborhood residents into a pessimistic sense of fatalism or, even worse, a disrespect for the organization as a waste of time.
4) Residents need to be challenged to take an active role and then provided meaningful work to do. This means a lot of support and positive feedback. Oh, and if at all possible–it’s got to be enjoyable. Make it fun.
5) You must meet neighborhood residents where they are. Busy families aren’t going to be going to 7:30 AM meetings, or to meetings that run more than an hour, or to meetings that run late into the evening. Free time is limited for many families these days, don’t waste it.
If I was a government official looking to improve the public participation of residents, one thing I would add to the list above is: try to create a sense that residents’ ideas will matter–that they are at the table with the politicians. Too often, the public participation groups that the city and county pull together are just window dressing. The city’s Community Development Advisory Committee on housing issues for the city’s Community Development Block Grant budget recently stood up at the final public hearing and read a statement disavowing the city’s plan, claiming their input had been ignored.