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Part II, Knocking on the Door of City Hall: Nobody Home…

By Sue Wilke, suewilke@cinci.rr.com

sue wilke

Sue Wilke, retired non-profit executive and current community activist, resides in Northside where she is active with the community council.

CEAT’s proposal—Strength in Unity:  A Proposal to Create a Flourishing Citizen Engagement Culture in the City of Cincinnati—was formally presented to City Council’s Rules and Audit Committee in February 2014.  For the next six months, CEAT co-chairs Peter Hames, Sue Wilke and Jeanne Nightingale worked with city staff as part of a small team, led by Rocky Merz, Director of Communications, to develop a vision and mission for citizen engagement and recommended action steps.

Click here for a related editorial.

City Council adopted a formal motion in September 2014 establishing the following as the city’s vision and mission statements to guide its efforts to develop a more robust environment for engagement between the public and city government:

Vision of Civic Engagement (CE):

To be a thriving Cincinnati where all are engaged as empowered participants in shaping our shared future.

Mission of Civic Engagement:

To strengthen the culture of citizen engagement in Cincinnati by providing opportunities for all to participate in meaningful and proactive ways in the city’s decision-making process.

The motion directed city administration to use existing resources to accomplish the following action steps:

  1. Conduct a targeted survey of city staff to gather information about current practices and strategies regarding engagement with the public including perceived effectiveness and seek ideas for improvements, tools and resources needed to enhance engagement activities.
  1. Develop and adopt administrative regulations that will guide city departments in future engagement activities.
  1. Develop a curriculum for city staff members who participate in public engagement.
  1. Explore organizing a citizen advisory council to assist in development and implementation of an engagement program.
  1. Prepare a draft of Citizen Engagement Policies and Principles for City Council Consideration.

engage cincy challenge.jpg

Since the Strength in Unity proposal included a recommended list of Policies and Principles, the team focused next on securing their approval.  These were officially approved by City Council in February 2015.  A complete copy of the motion, including the principles and policy, can be found on the city manager’s new ‘Engage Cincy’ Community website at http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/manager/engage-cincy-community/. It is important to note that, during that six-month period, considerable discussion and debate focused on the use of the word “citizen” versus “civic” versus “community” when referring to engagement.   There was some concern that the word “citizen” might result in some residents feeling disenfranchised so the decision was made to call them “community engagement” principles and policy stating the words can be used interchangeably and with defining a “citizen” as any person who, by virtue of living or working in Cincinnati, is affected by and has a stake in decisions made by the City of Cincinnati.

[Editor’s note:  For many activists, use of the term “citizen” implies that people are not just consumers of government services (filling pot holes, picking up garbage), but essential co-creators of community (who are usually overlooked by government and big-business leaders in the community-building process.]

The administration-led team helped develop an employee survey to assess the current state of citizen engagement and seek out employee suggestions for improvement.  The survey was administered in the fall of 2014.  While results were gathered soon thereafter, analysis and review was not completed until a year later. Details about the survey and follow-up focus groups will be covered in Part 3.

The CE team worked on both an administrative regulation (AR) and a curriculum for training employees on citizen engagement.   The AR contains the previously mentioned vision and mission statements and sets out requirements for employee training on CE and creation of measurements and requires that all employees have a working knowledge of CE principles.  The employee training curriculum outlines the skills and practices necessary to achieve CE competency. To date, however, neither the AR nor the training curriculum have been promulgated or used.

The team also pursued the idea of a citizen advisory committee and went so far as to develop an application form, which would be broadly shared across the community, and job description.  It was hoped that the invitation to become part of this committee would be announced at the 2015 Neighborhood Summit.  However, after the work of the committee and its recommendation were presented to City Manager Black, the committee was advised that the he did not want to pursue it. Instead City Manager Black wanted to pursue his Engage Cincinnati financial grants instead.

Part 3 of this article will cover the results of the employee survey and focus groups, report card results on work to date, and recent testimony before City Council’s Rules and Audit Committee.

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