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Knocking on the Door of City Hall

Editor’s Note:  Peter Hames is an experienced public service executive, having spent time from California to Minnesota to various jurisdictions in S.W. Ohio.  Since 2009 he has been active in community life, including a term as OTR Community Council President. Recently, he co-lead the Citizen Engagement Action Team, which successfully lobbied City  Council to adopt a citizen engagement policy.  This is a story of citizen-lead government reform at the most important level–how citizens are involved in public policy decisions–and the slow grind of government bureaucracy which seems to kill all but the most politically expedient citizen initiatives.  If you are interested in this work, contact Peter at phames@fioptics.com.

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Part 1:  The Struggle to Implement Effective Citizen Engagement in Cincinnati

The First Step:  Plan Cincinnati.

In Plan Cincinnati, adopted November 21, 2012, the Live section’s first goal is to “Build a robust public life.”  The purpose of that goal is to achieve future population growth and social vitality through “an active, engaged citizenry and an atmosphere that is welcoming to an array of backgrounds, including immigrant populations.”

One Plan strategy to accomplish that goal is to “Create a welcoming civic atmosphere,” building“…stronger communities by increasing civic engagement.”  Quoting the Plan, “When people feel like they are truly a part of their community, they are more likely to feel optimistic and actively participate in improving their neighborhood…When all of our residents are involved and creatively engaged at the neighborhood and city level, our city can be extraordinary.”  What an incentive to engage the citizens!

The Citizen Engagement Action Team.

In early 2013, a group of some thirty active citizen volunteers, representing twenty-nine neighborhood and civic organizations, came together to research, prepare and submit to city council a proposal to move the city forward toward stronger and comprehensive citizen engagement (CE).  We named ourselves the Citizen Engagement Action Team (CEAT).

CEAT had three short-term objectives:

  • Increase community awareness of the need for a change in Cincinnati’s approach to citizen engagement;
  • Build support for adoption of citizen engagement principles and policy in the community and among community organizations;
  • Secure passage of citizen engagement principles and policy in Cincinnati.

The Citizen Engagement Action Team Recommendations.

Based on our research of 17 similar cities across the nation, literature review, and materials review, we proposed that city government—including the mayor and city council—and Cincinnatians work together to implement the following recommendations:

  1. Adopt a Citizen Engagement Policy and Principles.

It is clear, and supported by our review of models and best practices, that standards of excellence for public participation must be in place for successful CE.

  1. Create a Citizen Engagement Infrastructure.

Across the United States, public participation practices have been steadily shifting local governments toward a more open and participatory process.  Typically, these processes engage community stakeholders in a timely fashion by engaging early, often and meaningfully until a final decision is made that is supported by majority consensus.  Accountability for implementing CE needs to be fixed with the city manger.  In turn, a citizens advisory committee should be appointed to work with the manger.

  1. Create a Citizen Engagement Academy for Training and Development.

Training is an important aspect of ensuring effective CE.  Training of community members, as well as public administrators, would ensure both are working effectively toward implementation of the city’s engagement plan.

  1. Implement a Strategy on How to Use Social Media to Implement Citizen Engagement.

Social media provides a powerful opportunity for citizens to be engaged 24×7.  The city should develop and implement a strategy on how it will use social media as a way to implement the CE policy and principles.

  1. Develop an Annual Report Card on Results and Accountability for Citizen Engagement.

In the spirit of “what gets measured gets done,” the city must define what success looks like and how to measure it. We recommend the city develop an annual report card to update the community on results and to promote ongoing improvement.  The CE advisory committee should be tasked to help determine appropriate measures of success and accountability.

CEAT’s proposal—Strength in Unity:  A Proposal to Create a Flourishing Citizen Engagement Culture in the City of Cincinnati—was formally presented to the city council’s rules and policy committee in February 2014.  In June 2014 the city manager replied to the CEAT proposal.  During the next six months, CEAT’s steering team worked with city staff to prepare vision, mission, principles and policy statements on engagement.  In October 2014 the council adopted vision and mission statements and gave direction for five actions.  Part 2 of our series will describe those council and administrative actions on citizen engagement.  Part 3 will describe what has happened during the past year to implement community engagement in city government.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Questions?  Steering team members maybe contacted at phames@fioptics.com; jnightingale@fuse.net; sue.wilke@cinci.rr.com.

The Strength in Unity proposal is available at https://www.dropbox.com/s/qq1gulmt414v9es/Final%20v%206.1%20-%2029%20Aug%2013.pdf?dl=0.

Plan Cincinnati is available at http://www.plancincinnati.org/

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