Advancing Civic Life in Florida

How can greater civic engagement improve life for Florida residents? In mid-December nearly 100 people gathered for the 2019 Florida Civic Advance Summit. National Civic League Board Chair, Valerie Lemmie, was one of the keynote speakers for the Summit.

Florida Civic Advance (FCA) is the brainchild of Dr. Robert Jones, a professor at Florida State University. The organization has held a statewide summit every two years since 2015 to bring together civic leaders and academics and discuss strategies for using civic engagement to tackle challenges facing Florida communities. This year’s summit took place at St. Petersburg College in Seminole, Florida.

The goal of FCA is to “improve civic life and increase citizen involvement in making their communities work and prosper.” The group seeks to do this through multi-sector collaboration and by working together at the local, regional and state levels to create “systemic and long-term civic improvement in all of Florida’s communities.”

As part of its third summit, FCA introduced its Civic Excellence Awards, given by the group to communities that are doing a particularly good job of using civic engagement in their problem-solving activities. One of the awards, for “Citizen Engagement with Local Government,” was given to two “co-winners:”

City of Smyrna Beach

The city held a 10-month civic input process to gather ideas regarding resiliency and sustainability. One outcome was the creation of a $15 million bond issue to purchase land that was slated for development along a critical watershed, Turnbull Creek. The group did significant public outreach. The bonds were approved with over 75% of votes cast.

City of Ormond Beach

The city typically had not used much civic engagement in strategic planning. In 2018 a new development that stripped a natural area raised concerns. “OB Life” was created to engage residents in a strategic planning process, creating a plan with measures that the community could help track. The city combined public sessions with online engagement. Over 650 people participated in the public meetings and 700 questions and suggestions were posted online. The project resulted in creation of an ongoing online OpenGov platform, hiring a PIO and compilation of a strategic plan with measures tracked through a transparent public platform.

As one of the keynote speakers at this year’s summit, Valerie Lemmie spoke about the importance of engaging residents in deliberative processes to address public issues. Lemmie, the  Director of Exploratory Research at the Kettering Foundation, talked about the disconnect between residents and government and the need for public officials to engage in authentic dialogue to help manage “wicked” problems.

Summit participants engaged in “World Café” dialogue throughout the two-day summit. As the small groups reported their conversations they listed the importance of:

  • Listening
  • Collaboration
  • Intergenerational relations
  • Helping people be comfortable with difficult conversations
  • “Rethinking institutional structures that create barriers to engagement” (like the difficulty of running for office and meetings during work hours)
  • Empathy and compassion
  • Co-creating a vision for change
  • Creating community where it’s not physically clear
  • Community voice
  • Using community colleges to foster communication for surrounding areas
  • Passion with a purpose that promotes action
  • Social entrepreneurship
  • “Crowd-thinking” to come together to incubate and support ideas
  • Work to address small things that can be improved and start there (“don’t try to boil the ocean”)
  • Helping people feel safe and respected.

Here are a few other quotes from summit participants:

“We need to engage singers who are not already in the choir.”

“There is a problem of the ‘bishops,’ those anointed ones who think they have all the answers, and the rest of us.”

“There’s a tipping point at which people get so upset that they want to see a change.”

“We need ‘activist philanthropy,’ people working alongside a funder to promote action.”

Visit the Florida Civic Advance website for additional information.

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