City Managers and Civic Engagement

How do city managers engage a public that often seems sidelined and reluctant to get involved? What happens when interrelated networks of people engage around the shared challenge of addressing wicked problems? How can city managers facilitate the creation of civic spaces where citizens can learn and work in more democratic and complementary ways?

These were some of the questions raised during a two-day “learning exchange” at the Kettering Foundation’s conference center in Dayton, Ohio. More than a dozen local managers from all over the country met with academics, representatives of public sector and civic associations and Kettering Foundation staff to exchange ideas and relate their experiences.

National Civic League President Doug Linkhart, who participated in the exchange, noted the importance of local problem-solving efforts given the lack of action at the federal government level. “It is hopeful to hear how you are collaborating,” he told the managers.

Still, it wasn’t all success stories at the November 6-7 meeting. “Some engagement projects have worked, some have not,” said the manager of a mid-sized suburban community with a largely transient population. “People are not engaged about the master plan. One or two people show up, our best buddies. We need a whole different approach. How do we engage nonprofits? We are sitting down next month to have our first nonprofit roundtable. Asking them to tell us the issues you are hearing about from the people you are working with?”

The growing influence of technology and social media was a recurring topic of discussion. For instance, one city was looking for ways to work with the developers of social media apps to map out emergency response information during natural or man-made disasters. The effort, he suggested, was an opportunity to engage residents in new ways.Others worried that an over-reliance on social media could undercut the face-to-face interactions that are necessary for real civic engagement to thrive.

“We’re losing some of what has made the community special as more and more people opt for technology,” she said, asking, “Is our job to give people what they want, which is online platforms, or creating engagement?”

One manager spoke of using social media as a means of understanding what is going on in the community, rather than as an engagement tool per se. In his city local officials discovered a trend on social media sites—a concern over a local code enforcement issue. Seeing that the problem was out there, city staff members were able to sit down with members of the community and allay the concern.

The managers who attended the meeting described a variety of innovations designed to build trust and engage with members of the community. In one small city, the manager organized a “super hero-themed connection forum” to identify local leaders. More than 150 people attended, half of them appearing in the guise of one of their favorite super heroes.

The city managers exchange was the latest in a series of discussions that have been held at the Kettering Foundation as part of a joint learning agreement with the National Civic League. The exchanges have explored various facets of a central question that is of deep interest to both organizations: How do public managers align their ways of working with the residents of their towns, cities and counties?

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