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Inaction by City Manager Leaves Citizen Engagement Effort on “Life Support”

by Peter Hames, former president of the OTR Community Council and co-founder of Citizen Engagement Action Team (CEAT).

This series of three articles began February 17, 2016.  In part two we promised to tell you about the results of the employee survey, the results of a scorecard we published, and the March 2016 presentation to the city council’s rules and audit committee. The bottom line is that citizen/community/civic engagement results—measured against our Strength in Unity proposal—is on life support in the City of Cincinnati.hames

Two years ago, the city council adopted a mission statement for the citizen/community/civic engagement program: 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. Do you, reader, believe that is happening? If so, can you name three examples of a strengthened culture? Or opportunities made available to all to participate in the city’s decision-making process? No? About two examples? No? How about one?

Me neither. Last December we prepared a “community engagement scorecard.” In terms of implementing the city council-adopted vision and mission statement and policy and principles statement the results are hard to find. To be sure, some progress has been made. For example, a $25,000 citizen-engagement budget was adopted but the use of those funds has never been programmed. Five thousand was spent to hire a consultant to interpret the results of the employee survey but nothing more. So the remaining $20,00 sits there—and has since 2015—without being used to strengthen community engagement.

Of the 20 recommendations made in our “Strength in Unity” proposal, only one—adopt a citizen engagement policy and principles—has been adopted by the city council. The city manager’s five community engagement initiatives, however, have all been implemented (100%). That includes his $50,000 Engage Cincy grants program.  Arguably, none of them implements the council-adopted vision, mission, policy or community engagement principles, which are intended engage citizens in government decision-making. Obviously such a goal will not be met through neighborhood games, mobile produce, a pop-up theatre, dads’ weekend out, or a volunteer-opportunity-finding phone app.

While the manager never consulted about his five initiatives with the citizen-staff committee, two of his recommendations—update and upgrade the city’s smart phone app and redo the city’s website—are consistent with our report’s recommendations to use social media to implement and strengthen engagement and to make the city’s website more accessible and user-friendly.

When the city council adopted the mission and vision statements for citizen engagement in October 2014, they included five action steps, only one of which reflected our proposal, namely to adopt an engagement policy and principles. A survey was conducted but its results were hard to measure and interpret. They were replaced by two focus groups. An administrative regulation was, indeed, written and signed by the city manager. Like other components of a program of community engagement, there has been little time to publicize this new directive. And while work was completed a year ago to design a training curriculum to train all city employees in using the new policy, principles and administrative directive, the training has not been implemented.

Similarly, although we developed a mission statement, job description and application form for citizens wishing to serve on our recommended community engagement advisory council, the city manager unilaterally put the kibosh on it.  So, while the city council’s action steps have taken up much of our energy and work, there are no tangible results to point to.

Speaking of results, for over a year we have asked to meet with the city’s data and performance-management maven but to no avail.  For someone who wants to bring data and analytics to the city’s decision making, the city manager doesn’t seem to think measuring community engagement results is important.

What is so onerous about community engagement?  Nothing unless you don’t believe it’s important.  And what evidence is there that the city does value it?  Lots of lip service but no concrete accomplishments. Want more proof?  In the past six months, two of our monthly meetings have been cancelled without warning. And we have spent three of those meetings trying to establish a work program.  The result?  Yet another draft of the work program elements.

Finally, back to examples of community engagement.  Have some sympathy for Chris Bingham, budget director. He must carry the burden of appearing to engage citizens in the FY 17-18 budget process.  Four years ago and two years ago the city put some money and time into a priority-based approach to budgeting.  But, in the end, the elected officials new budget director didn’t really want to make any changes to the “two minutes at the mic” form of budget involvement.  Good luck, Chris.

I know this report looks suspiciously like a list of grievances. There has been lots of smoke generated without the heat.  What to do?  First, have mayoral and city council candidates sign a pledge to adopt a community engagement ordinance, since motions carry no weight with the mayor and manager.  Second, have council adopt a substantial community engagement budget for 2017 – 2018.  I’ll have more on this later but substantial means something along the budgets from 42 years ago…if the city can give $1 million to subsidize the Red bike program, shouldn’t it give at least that much to support the efforts of the community council structure?

 

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