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City Administration Fails to Engage Citizens in Designing Engagement Program

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Jeffrey L. Stec, J.D.

I am a professional citizen engagement facilitator who has worked with the City budget office since 2008 on various citizen engagement initiatives. And though others took the laboring oar to move the Citizen Engagement Action Team (CEAT) forward, I have been part of these discussions from the beginning, culminating in my formal endorsement of the CEAT principles on behalf of Citizens for Civic Renewal.

Since that time, I’ve had many conversations with CEAT leaders Sue Wilke, Peter Hames, and Jeanne Nightingale about the progress of this work. What strikes me is how over time the administration has marginalized their role in a project they initiated. Ironically, today’s recommendations for how the City should proceed with citizen engagement are not the product of good citizen engagement. So instead of citizen leaders actively championing this report, they are frustrated that the recommendations miss the whole point of citizen engagement: that the administration and citizens do a better job working together to make decisions and implement programs.

There is an axiom in citizen engagement work that says “Those for whom we are planning should be part of the planning process because people support what they co-create.” And while citizens will play vastly different roles depending on the situation, we should be able to agree that when it comes to designing a system for engaging citizens, citizens should be full partners in the planning process.  That hasn’t happened here.

engage cincy challenge

The city trotted out this low-engagement grant exercise instead of working with CEAT to build an real citizen engagement program–which would have required ongoing listening rather than handing out this post-modern hush money.

First, the city hasn’t co-created anything with Sue, Peter and Jeanne—the city asked for input, but then went and made unilateral decisions—like offering the $50,000 Engage Cincy grants rather than building a citizen engagement advisory board, which was the core request being made by CEAT. Think about that: the city unilaterally decided to take an engagement-design project in a different direction without asking their citizen partners. So on one level, these recommendations have failed simply because the initiating citizens weren’t part of the decision-making process.

Second, the report states that there is a draft training program ready to be approved and implemented. Engagement training is only valuable if it meets the needs of citizens. But how will this training be effective when: 1) diverse citizens have not been asked what they want from an engagement program; 2) citizens have not been part of developing the training; and 3) departments have not been engaged in designing a program that meets their needs (the principle “people support what they co-create” applies to all people, including the city employees who have to implement it).

One can further question the potential efficacy of any training if you look at the one engagement recommendation the city has already implemented—citizen surveys on issues the city deems important (like hiring the new chief). Essentially the city is saying to citizens, UDon’t call us, we’ll call you”. We can probably expect more such limited ideas of engagement if citizens continue to be excluded from this process.

Finally, the recommendations themselves will never create a culture of engagement. Engage Cincy, a website overhaul, mobile apps, constituent surveys and employee feedback—those are all fine in and of themselves, but they will not build a culture of engagement. Culture change will only begin when we have a true partnership between staff and citizens.

But the only recommendation even close to that standard is the community engagement working group, which is dominated by city executives and has already failed to satisfactorily engage its current citizen members (Sue Peter and Jeanne) in designing these recommendations. Moreover, a three-citizen advisory board can’t possibly carry the water of an entire city when it comes to how people want to be engaged in the myriad issues facing each department.

The bottom line is that people support what they co-create, and that has to start with designing the systems for engaging each other in the first place. That way, you have all those influential people like Sue and Peter and Jeanne fired up to get behind the plan you present today rather than express their frustrations.

But despite these challenges, progress has been made. We are here talking about engagement—which is a breakthrough in itself. Pius, the city has gathered a fair amount of data and made recommendations that can grow into something worthwhile with significant citizen input. The key is having a balanced relationship between city and citizens that drives this project forward.

In the end, we’ve got to slow down and work on relationships first. We missed that opportunity with Plan Cincinnati, moving forward when almost no African Americans were involved. Now we need to do this right by:

1. Using an independent facilitator,
2. Building trust and a working relationship among a core, balanced group of citizens and administrators,
3. Empower this diverse core group t0:
a. Engage other city employees and citizens in expressing their needs and concerns       about citizen engagement,
b. Design an engagement plan that works for everyone over time.

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