The active, informed, inclusive, and equitable engagement of community members, both individually and collectively, is an essential element of healthy civic life and a thriving local democracy. This article describes the role of public engagement in local governance and establishes the principles for successful engagement.1
Effective public engagement activities, whether or not they are designed and convened by government officials, can inform public decisions and further community goals. Consistent with the principles of engagement enumerated in this article, anchor institutions,2 community-based organizations, civic associations, community foundations, faith groups, and grassroots activist groups may convene effective public engagement and problem-solving efforts that can inform elected and appointed officials in the pursuit of their duties. Individual residents can be better informed and invited to take part in public affairs.
Local governments can encourage and support these efforts by modeling good engagement practices, by evaluating engagement, by sharing engagement learning among department staff and with appointed and elected officials, and by offering resources on outreach, facilitation, and other skills to members of the community.3 Local governments also have unique institutional structures, such as council committees, community advisory bodies (CABs), task forces, neighborhood advisory committees, and annual planning and budgeting processes, that can be established and leveraged toward this purpose. In other words, cities can create the foundations for a healthy civic infrastructure throughout the community.
Section 7.01. Public engagement as an essential part of civic infrastructure.
The city shall treat public engagement as an integral part of effective and trusted governance, not just as an occasional process or activity.
The city shall treat engagement as a “multi-channel” endeavor that includes face-to-face meetings, virtual interactions, and other online communications.
The departments of city government shall encourage collaboration in public engagement efforts with other government jurisdictions and authorities, anchor institutions, community-based organizations, civic groups, and individual residents.
Cities fail to realize the full benefits of engagement when they conduct participation activities on a piecemeal, occasional, or differing department-by-department basis. Public engagement will be more effective, equitable, and efficient if the city treats it as part of the normal governance process and civic infrastructure of the community as a whole.
Public engagement is particularly important in long range planning and annual budgeting processes. For example, participatory budgeting (PB) is a type of engagement in which community members develop projects to improve the community, often in concert with city officials, and then vote on how to allocate public funds among those projects and ideas. Cities throughout the world have instituted annual PB processes.
To ensure that public engagement is accessible and convenient, cities should “meet people where they are,” both geographically (holding meetings in many different locations) and digitally (using different information technology tools and platforms, including neighborhood and community networks).
Furthermore, if cities don’t collaborate with leaders and organizations outside government, leaders may misunderstand community preferences and perspectives. City officials should develop relationships with a wide range of community members and community organizations in order to participate in, respond to, and support engage resident-led initiatives. Government officials should leverage the connections and networks that already exist in the community, rather than treating each engagement initiative as a separate, stand-alone effort.
At the same time, the success of any local government’s engagement efforts is dependent on the recognition by residents of their responsibilities as community members. These responsibilities include voting, volunteering, deliberating respectively with other members of the community, seeking and sharing information honestly, and engaging with local institutions to co-produce public goods and services and address community challenges.
Section 7.02. Institutional structures to support and coordinate engagement.
The city shall establish new institutional structures or adapt existing structures to oversee, support, coordinate, track, and measure engagement on an ongoing basis. These structures can include:
By establishing structures to support public engagement, the city can help ensure that engagement is sustained and improved over time through organizational arrangements. These types of institutional structures provide platforms to hear testimony from experts and support productive deliberation while meeting the requirements of open meeting laws.
Because effective public engagement requires specific types of expertise such as outreach and facilitation, designated departments, and administrative roles, such as an engagement coordinator, can ensure that engagement is well executed. The city manager should be in regular contact with these operational units to ensure that they are investing in robust public engagement consistent with the spirit and principles of this Article. Additionally, descriptions of city manager and department administrator positions may usefully contain language that calls for attention to public engagement-related learning, exemplary practices, and capacity building by, as appropriate, the municipality or department.
A public engagement commission or office can collaborate with city staff to: develop multi-year plans to guide public engagement activities, programs, and policies; develop engagement guidelines and recommendations for city agencies; provide advice and recommendations regarding the implementation of engagement guidelines and practices to staff and stakeholders alike. A public engagement commission could also review process evaluation results to provide advice and recommendations regarding continuous improvement of engagement policies and practices and provide an annual report regarding the status of public engagement in the city and community at large.
Other CABs that address specific policy arenas should actively engage residents in a variety of ways; this responsibility should be reflected in the charter of the CAB and its members. These advisory bodies can be particularly valuable as platforms for broad, early public engagement on important issues and decisions. CABs should be encouraged to adopt public engagement processes in advance of formal deliberation and decision-making efforts. Public engagement staff can provide training and how-to resources to support the engagement work of CABs.
Youth commissions can elevate the voices of young people in city decisions. Like other CABs, youth commissions are most successful if the members engage their peers in dialogue and deliberation, rather than only representing their individual interests. These types of structures can hear testimony from experts and support productive deliberation while meeting the requirements of open meeting laws.
Section 7.03. Principles of public engagement.
To ensure public engagement centers on the needs and goals of community members, the city shall uphold the following principles, using them as the basis of public engagement protocols and in the remits of public engagement structures (as listed in Section 7.02):
(a) Equity in engagement. Principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion should guide the design and execution of public engagement activities, in several ways:
(b) Accountability in engagement. There should be meaningful opportunities for community members to bring issues, concerns, and priorities to city officials to influence city policy, ordinances, and actions. Public engagement activities should be designed to appropriately fit the legal authority, scope, character, and potential impact of a policy, program, or project. There should be clarity about process sponsorship, purpose, design, and how the results will be used. The purpose and potential influence of each public engagement process should be known by all participants in advance but should be flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions during implementation.
(c) Transparency in engagement. Communications about public issues and public engagement opportunities should ensure community members can engage effectively. Communications should be made in the predominant languages that residents understand. Participants should have the opportunity to bring and share their own experiences as well as information they have gathered about the issues at hand. Full and complete results should be shared and explanations of how the results will be used or how they will influence decisions should be provided to process participants and the broader public.
(d) Accessibility in engagement. Public engagement activities should be broadly accessible in terms of schedule, location, facilities, and information and communication technologies. Schedules should accommodate a variety of participants. Locations should be nearby and reachable via affordable transit, and some engagement activities should be conducted in places where community members already gather regularly. Facilities should be welcoming public spaces and not present physical or cultural barriers to participation. Online engagement opportunities should use technologies that are freely available to residents and attend to barriers people may face, such as: no access to broadband, limited proficiency with technology, and challenges related to deaf-blind accessibility.
(e) Collaboration in engagement. Public engagement efforts should build on and help develop long-term, collaborative working relationships and mutual learning opportunities with residents of all ages, civic groups, organizational partners, and other governments. This may include project-specific or ongoing community engagement initiatives.
(f) Evaluation of engagement activities. Each public engagement activity and the state of engagement overall should be evaluated through participant feedback, analysis, and learning that is shared publicly and broadly. The ideas, preferences, and/or recommendations contributed by participants should be fully documented and be made available to participants and the broader public. Lessons learned should be applied to future public engagement activities and contribute to the city’s overall engagement plan.
Elected representatives and city administrators have important roles to play in public engagement. Elected leaders should inspire, encourage, oversee, and (when appropriate) participate in engagement efforts. Perhaps most importantly, they should respond to the input and ideas that emerge from engagement efforts, reacting to policy recommendations and supporting other ways for community members to help solve public problems.
City administrators have many of the same responsibilities as elected officials, plus the duty to help staff, support, and coordinate public engagement efforts. Administrators should ensure that relevant city employees have the right skills, training, and job incentives to work effectively in engagement activities.
To actualize the principles laid out in this article, the city council may need to amend local ordinances to allow for effective public participation processes and structures that differ from the conventional public testimony model. In addition to public participation related to decisions made by city council, in the mayor’s office, or in the city administrator’s office, each city department or bureau should adopt its own public participation practices that are consistent with the principles established in Article VII.
There are a number of resources that can be helpful to local government officials and staff:
Upgrading the engagement capacity of local government is one of the most significant changes to be found in the Ninth Edition of the Model City Charter. Previous editions emphasized the importance of administrative professionalism, efficiency, and ethics in local government. The Ninth Edition continues that tradition but also elevates the importance of just, inclusive, and equitable public engagement; the values of democratic professionalism and ethics; and community-centered governance and problem solving.
There are many reasons for this new emphasis on public engagement, including:
For all these reasons, public engagement should be pursued in the interest of the health, prosperity, justice, safety, and the general well-being of the community.