Model City Charter—9th Edition: Article VII: The Role of Public Engagement in Local Governance


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:

  1. Council committees that include residents and other stakeholders
  2. Departments or administrative positions
  3. Public engagement commissions
  4. Community advisory boards, including boards designated to address the concerns of specific populations.
  5. Youth commissions
  6. Participatory budgeting processes and commissions


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:

  1. Government-sanctioned bodies such as CABs may become “gatekeeping” entities that reflect the ideas of self-designated community leaders if they aren’t inclusive, open, and accessible to all members of the public. City officials, therefore, should conduct continual public outreach to bring in new voices.
  2. When engaging community members, city officials should identify and proactively reach out to the community in its full diversity. To ensure that public engagement activities are not attended only by people already active in local government and politics, city officials should regularly recruit residents through face-to-face or personal written invitations, social media requests, and randomized selection methods. Materials should be written in plain, comprehensible English, and should also be translated into the other predominant languages that residents speak and read.
  3. Traditionally excluded and marginalized individuals and communities should be included in ways they themselves identify as authentic and meaningful. City officials should co-design engagement processes with community members to meet the needs of the communities served. Processes should respect a range of values, interests, perspectives, experiences, cultures, and knowledge of those involved.
  4. The city should expect local the organizations and networks it works with to engage their members in equitable and deliberative ways, so that the input received is representative of their constituents.
  5. The city should use an equity lens to evaluate data on impacts of engagement, including costs, benefits, and responsibilities.

(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:

  • Making Public Participation Legal (National Civic League, 2013), which includes a model ordinance to support more effective engagement.
  • Strengthening and Sustaining Public Engagement: A Planning Guide for Communities (Public Agenda, 2018).
  • Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (Nabatchi and Leighninger, 2015).
  • “Repurposing Citizen Advisory Bodies,” (Stout, National Civic Review, 2014).
  • Participedia, the world’s largest online database of engagement examples, processes, tools, and organizations.
  • The Civic Tech Field Guide, a crowdsourced, global collection of technology for tools and projects.

General Commentary.

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:

  1. Local governments face complex challenges. For some of these issues, governments must negotiate tensions and tradeoffs among competing, underlying public values. This work is best done in collaboration with community members, through deliberative problem-solving, planning, and decision-making, rather than solely through technical expertise or adversarial politics.
  2. Public engagement can bridge divides. While most conventional engagement processes seem to encourage tensions and divisions among community members, and between community members and government, more participatory and equitable practices have achieved success in building mutual understanding and establishing common ground and consensus across different groups of people.
  3. Community members have tremendous problem-solving capacities. In fact, many public problems simply cannot be addressed without the support of large numbers of people, through changes in their behavior, increased volunteerism, and/or collaboration between community members and government officials.
  4. Equity and engagement require one another. It is difficult to address issues of race and equity (past and present) without engaging large, diverse numbers of people, and it is difficult to engage large, diverse numbers of people without addressing issues of race and equity. Making public engagement more inclusive and participatory will help produce more equitable outcomes for a wider range of people, as will engaging people in evaluating whether policy outcomes are in fact equitable.
  5. Civic health Strong, ongoing connections among community members, robust relationships between community members and public institutions, and positive attachments between people and the places they live are highly correlated with a range of positive outcomes, from better physical health to higher employment rates to better resilience in the face of natural disasters.

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.

1 The term “public engagement” is understood to include “public involvement,” “public participation,” “citizen engagement,” “community engagement,” and “stakeholder engagement,” and includes robust forms of in-person, technology-aided, or online communication that provide opportunities for public input, dialogue, or deliberation among participants, so people’s concerns, needs, interests, and values are incorporated into decisions and actions on public matters and issues.
2 Anchor institutions are major organizations that can shape the development of the city including universities, hospitals, museums, sports franchises, military installations, and large corporations.
3 This term is used instead of citizen.  The word “citizen” has a rich history in democracy, but it can also be a confusing term. Sometimes it is defined in a narrow, legal way, meaning only those people who hold U.S. passports or are eligible to vote. In this Charter, reference is made to “community members,” “residents,” or “persons.”

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