Building a Culture of Engagement

Back to Fall 2018: Volume 107, Number 3

Mary Bunting

Hampton, Virginia, a mid-size city (138,000 population) located on the Chesapeake Bay, is notable for its many “firsts.” It is the oldest continuous English-speaking settlement in the country, the first community to establish a public education system, and the home of Langley Air Force Base, where the first astronauts trained.

Hampton was also one of the very first U.S. cities to actively and broadly employ citizen engagement techniques. Such efforts date back to the mid-eighties and carry forward to this day. Hampton is a three-time All-America City award winner, demonstrating that it is never content to rest on its laurels and instead constantly seeks out continuous improvement.

This past year, Hampton was a finalist for the Harvard University Innovations in Government award for its citizen engagement process developing an annual budget. During that competitive process, judges remarked at how unique Hampton was and wondered aloud whether other cities could replicate the process. Noting that Hampton had a thirty plus year commitment to engagement, there was a suggestion that “the Hampton way” was just not replicable.

Yet, as I look back on the nearly thirty years I have served this special community, nothing we have done seems particularly difficult to implement. The culture of engagement we have built came from a series of experiments, all guided by the basic premise that government cannot, and indeed should not, solve all a community’s issues on its own. Those experiments were also guided by a belief that better results come when residents are invited to be part of the solution instead of being kept on the sidelines to complain.

Creating a local culture of engagement is a process of taking one step after the other, building on the success of the last. Just as a child learns first to crawl, then to walk and later to run, so too can any locality build a sustainable culture of engagement by taking little steps one after the other. This article tells the story of Hampton’s successive steps, but it is important to note that another community’s journey can—and perhaps should—take a completely different path. It almost doesn’t matter which issue or project becomes the first effort. Rather, the effort simply needs to begin.

Step One: A Consensus Building Pilot

Hampton’s first foray into a collaborative partnership with its residents began when then city manager Robert J. O’Neill, Jr. sat at a council meeting watching two factions of the community fight over whether a road should be expanded in the city. The city had proposed the expansion as part of the community planning effort. One side passionately supported the city’s proposal, believing that the roadway needed to be expanded so that the other major east-west arterial road in the city did not become overly congested. Investing “now” was deemed necessary so that the expanded road could be ready for the inevitable demand. The other faction was adamantly opposed, believing that the projected congestion would never come and that the roadway would unnecessarily cause environmental harm. As the two sides passionately fought to persuade the council of their points of view, O’Neill wondered whether there wasn’t some way to find common ground.

Though it seemed unlikely that the two groups would ever agree on anything, O’Neill knew that there were other choices between build now or never build. He convinced the council to postpone a decision on the matter and suggested that representatives of each side meet in what was then a very little used process of consensus building. The consensus building process brought the sides together and forced them to explore other possible solutions. The process was long and arduous, but a commitment by all to stay engaged until a consensus could be reached ultimately resulted in a solution—the road would be built by the city when the traffic on the main east-west arterial hit a specific congestion target. That identified threshold was about 75 percent of what would ultimately be deemed unacceptable congestion, thus allowing sufficient time for the city to build the expanded capacity before reaching that intolerable level.

Those who wanted the road were satisfied that the road could be built before things got too bad, and those who did not want the road were contented that the road would only be built if things got bad enough—a condition that they did not feel would ever occur but acknowledged might happen one day. The group returned to council with the unified recommendation, which was readily accepted. Those who participated in the process felt good about their efforts. Rather than producing a winner and a loser, the process had netted a win-win solution for the community. Council members were happy that they didn’t have to pick the winner and loser. Residents were pleased they had been heard and proud of the compromise they had helped to construct. Staff members were satisfied that a road believed to be critical was deemed as such with a very specific target as to when it would advance. As all reflected on the process, it was understood that this beneficial outcome would never have resulted from the traditional public process.

Step Two: The Pilot Becomes the “New Normal”

This first engagement process led to many more. The success with the road project convinced O’Neill that this pilot effort should be expanded. He invested in facilitator training for several staff so that the consensus process could be used on any difficult, contentious issue. Those staff trained others, and, in just a short period of time, this “pilot” became a new normal for resolving seemingly irreconcilable differences.

At first, those efforts were isolated, focused on isolated issues. Then, O’Neill posited a new notion. If bringing together residents and other stakeholders could solve isolated challenges better than a traditional government-driven process, why not apply the same concepts to everyday neighborhood-based issues.

 Step Three: Neighborhood Capacity Building

O’Neill created a Neighborhood Office and staffed it with skilled facilitators. The office began with only a handful of employees, so there was no major drain on the city budget. O’Neill’s charge to the facilitators was to help identify and train neighborhood leaders to do on a neighborhood level what had been done heretofore only on a citywide scale. The office’s main job became capacity building. Understanding that residents tend to want government to be responsible for any concern or issue without necessarily being willing to pay sufficient taxes to do so, O’Neill recognized a need to bring others to the table to implement the community’s strategic vision. The community’s strategic plan had already been developed with citizen and organizational input. The fundamental premise was that to make the city the most livable in Virginia, all the community’s institutions and residents needed to be aligned and contributing to the same goals. Securing institutional alignment from businesses, hospitals, non-profits and universities was easier than getting consistent neighborhood level engagement.

So, the Neighborhood Office developed a Neighborhood College that introduced residents to the same facilitation techniques O’Neill had sent his staff to learn. The college also gave them a deeper understanding about how the government functioned. The program emphasized that government was only one part of the community and encouraged neighborhood-based leadership to be a part of strengthening community. Neighborhood Office facilitators worked side-by-side with the existing as well as emerging leaders to help them learn how to convene groups of residents with a sense of purpose. Leaders, residents and staff worked together to develop neighborhood plans with priorities for implementation.

Step Four: Small Scale Neighborhood Grants

To ensure that these plans did not just become a wish list for more city funding, the Neighborhood Office taught neighborhood leaders how to solicit more volunteers, fundraisers and write grants. To better develop these skills, a small-scale neighborhood grant program was developed and funded by the city. These funds enabled residents to implement ideas they had agreed upon. The small-scale grant program was intended to help reward and further develop neighborhood leaders’ skills. To obtain grants, leaders had to submit an application documenting neighborhood consensus on the project and provide a match that could come in the form of volunteer hours from residents.

Such small-scale grants helped to fund neighborhood signage, historical markers and even neighborhood block parties. Although these projects did not fundamentally transform neighborhoods, they created a sense of achievement. Leaders developed competence and confidence that could be parlayed into greater efforts down the road. Neighborhood residents took pride and joy in being able to provide some benefit to their neighbors from their own initiative. Once that had been accomplished, neighborhood leaders not only knew how to do projects but also understood that they could indeed pull it off.

Step Five – Large Scale Neighborhood Projects Led by the Neighborhood

 While the first neighborhood projects were small scale, over time, the next natural step—bigger projects with more transformational impact—emerged. Block parties and signage were a nice first step, but the Old Northampton neighborhood aspired to do more. Specifically, Old Northampton wanted a community center for their youth to have a safe place to recreate. When the leaders met with O’Neill to pitch their idea, he noted that there was a city-funded community center just down the street, about 2-3 miles away. The residents explained why they felt that wasn’t good enough (they wanted their young people to have a facility to which they could easily walk) and asked for money to convert a closed school in their immediate area to a neighborhood center.

As O’Neill thought about the request, he realized this was a defining moment. The city would never be able to fund every neighborhood’s wish list; yet, if the city simply said no, it would undo all the good will that had been developed in the citizen engagement work to date. This led him to issue a challenge. O’Neill committed to renovate the old school into a neighborhood center if the neighborhood would commit to staff it with the volunteers. Not really expecting to get the neighborhood center approved, the residents knew they had to rise to the challenge. Thus began the next series of experiments in Hampton’s engagement model.

The Y.H. Thomas Center design work began with residents indicating what they would need to do to make their vision a reality. Neighborhood Office staff helped link residents with Parks & Recreation specialists, engineers and the finance team. A budget was created and approved. While the space was under renovation, the Neighborhood Office facilitated conversations with residents about how they would meet the volunteer obligations. Capacity building with residents meant exposing them to non-profit organization procedures as well as helping them develop presentations that could be shared with potential funders and volunteers. Residents came together to form a 501-c3 nonprofit organization with the city providing resources to assist. The neighborhood sought out residents as well as key business sector leaders to be part of the first board of directors. By-laws, operating procedures and staffing schedules were developed. All of this was much more ambitious than the residents had first anticipated; however, they didn’t give up. The city had done its part and they were determined to do theirs. Neighborhood pride would not allow them to quit. Just a couple of years after the bold proposition, the Y.H. Thomas Center opened to the smiling faces of neighborhood elders and youth coming together to celebrate a huge success.

The Y.H. Thomas Center is still in operation today. In fact, the attendance at that center surpasses every community center in the city. Although some limited city staffing was added over time, the center is still largely run through volunteer commitment. Indeed, it is this volunteer spirit that we believe has made the Y.H. Thomas Center the most actively used city facility. The neighborhood has a true sense of ownership, which means residents are fully invested in its success. Volunteers and young people jointly develop programming options, which ensures that the needs of residents are addressed. There is a much closer nexus between what is desired and offered than can be created in a citywide community center. Other such experiments have followed. Currently the city is working with two other neighborhoods, Fox Hill and Olde Hampton, to use the same model in their areas. Neighborhood centers will never completely replace traditional community centers that offer fitness and recreational options such as pools and rock climbing walls, but they do fulfill the need for a place where neighborhood-centric activity can take root.

After the success of the Y.H. Thomas experiment, O’Neill and others decided small neighborhood grants were insufficient to advance true systemic partnerships. Thus, the Neighborhood Improvement Fund was born. This new tool enabled larger scale projects to be funded and gave neighborhood leaders a place to go as they grew their internal capacities to both plan and implement. To qualify for larger amounts of funds, neighborhoods had to become “registered,” which was effectively a way to ensure that residents were following best practices of leadership, engagement and resource development for their efforts.

Step 6: New Governance Models: Neighborhood & Youth Commissions

Through annual allocation of funds for both the small and large-scale grants, the city effectively institutionalized a means for active and sustained neighborhood engagement. To help review the grants and ensure that all areas of the city were receiving proper attention through these efforts, a Neighborhood Commission was created. Unlike traditional boards and commissions that are populated by city council through a simple expression of interest, a Neighborhood Commission appointment required demonstrated grassroots experiences and connectedness with residents in the district to which the applicant was applying. The development of a Neighborhood Commission provided another means for residents to contribute to the city’s growing engagement efforts.

A parallel Youth Commission was also created to ensure an active youth voice in engagement efforts. Through the Youth Commission, young leaders were taught similar skills as their adult counterparts. The Youth Commission was given funds to administer a small-scale grant program for students to make a difference in their schools and neighborhoods. Student Youth Planners were hired to support the Commission in their activities. In these ways, Hampton cultivated its next generation of leaders, while also obtaining their input for strategic community visioning.

The Neighborhood and Youth Commissions have been developmental grounds for the city’s leadership – not just in its neighborhoods but also at the citywide level. Hampton City Councilman Will Moffett is one of the Old Northampton leaders who went to O’Neill seeking a neighborhood center. He served on the Neighborhood Commission and then decided to run for city council. Other current council members have served on neighborhood-based councils and/or boards. Three of the seven members took turns on the Y. H. Thomas non-profit. Several former Youth Commissioners now serve on other city boards and commissions, and one has run for city council and likely will once again try for the higher office. However, more than providing a training ground for future elected leaders, the neighborhood and youth commissions have ensured an active voice for residents of all ages in all aspects of city life.

Step 7: Transitioning from the Original Innovator to Other Managers

All these neighborhood efforts supported and reinforced one another. Success begot more success and positive feelings. Thus, when O’Neill left Hampton to pursue other professional opportunities, there was no question that his innovations would remain in place. These and other innovations continued without interruption as each successive manager took over. While each new permanent city manager has come from within the organization (an interim manager was hired during a search process), and this has arguably made transition smoother, I truly doubt that even an external manager could have or would have wanted to interrupt the successful engagement culture. Why change that which works and is truly valued?

There have been three permanent city managers since O’Neill left. All have continued to build upon his legacy. In most instances, the expanded forms of engagement were reflexive, not seeming to be groundbreaking at the time the decisions were made. Whether large or small scale, the steps taken were natural ones, in some cases done without special thought. For example, when the city participated in a coastal resiliency effort known as “The Dutch Dialogues,” its team included a citizen, Carole Garrison, who had actively participated in city environmental focus groups. Hampton was the only city to bring a citizen member of their focus team. The hosts were surprised, and yet remarked that the citizen perspective and engagement was so powerful that they might change their workshop format to require it of all localities in the future. When asked why Hampton chose to send a citizen, the answer was simple: “That’s just what we do.”

Hampton “just does that” instinctively because it works. It is now in our DNA. Involving a citizen like Carole Garrison in a difficult issue to try to reach consensus about a good way forward harkens back to the very first pilot O’Neill initiated when there was disagreement about road planning. In this case, she represented a vocal group of the community that did not want to consider flood gates as an option for tidal flooding in the neighborhoods. Knowing she was influential in the community and had this mind set made her the perfect candidate to send on what necessarily had to be a small team. The city’s hope was that Carole Garrison, the Hampton planners and the Dutch technical experts could reach a consensus on the best way forward for Hampton, and then together share this information with the larger Hampton population. By the time Carole left the workshop, she was not only better informed as to why flood gates would help Hampton but also an avid proponent of them.

Step 8: True Budget Engagement

Perhaps the biggest leap since O’Neill’s initial innovations was the I-Value budget process implemented in 2010. Like the decision to invite Carol Garrison to the Dutch Dialogues, my decision to take a huge budget challenge to the community was instinctive. When I first became city manager in January 2010, our city was facing a projected $20 million hole in our budget for the next fiscal year. This figured represented nearly 10 percent of the city’s operating budget. Further, the city had consciously and aggressively lowered the tax rate for several years before to offset growing housing assessments, which had meant reductions in non-essential services, departmental consolidations and increased span of control had already been done. All I knew for sure was that the additional necessary cuts would be painful and, whatever cuts were proposed, unpopular.

For years before facing this dilemma, I had overseen the city budget development process. Because we were always trying to do more with less to avoid a tax increase or even lower the tax rate, staff had always analyzed proposed additions and cuts with the finest of metrics such as the number of people served, return on investment and community impact. Manager budget recommendations to council centered around these metrics. Inevitably, however, when those well-analyzed measures were discussed at public hearing, there were always residents—usually those directly impacted by the proposal—who would complain that different cuts needed to be made. Wanting to be responsive, the council members would direct staff to find different cuts which staff would do. The council would accept those cuts, making the initial complainers happy but leaving those who were impacted by the second round of cuts unhappy and unable to complain in time to change the decision.

With $20 million worth of cuts to be made, I knew we would have even more of this dynamic if we didn’t find a different way to build the budget. At the heart of the above conflict was the insufficient time to truly hear from the entire public about all the choices before us. At the end of the day, every service we offer has proponents, and most have detractors. Asking folks to weigh in on only one set of proposed cuts will always have supporters and complainers. The traditional public hearing sets up this dynamic. While the traditional public hearing is, and probably always should remain, the final step in the process, it isn’t the only or best one. Just as O’Neill had figured this out with the initial road construction conflict, I knew there had to be a better way. O’Neill had invited those who disagreed to the table to resolve their conflicts, and it had worked. Why not do the same now?

Getting all the residents around one common table is, of course, impossible. So, we decided to take the proverbial “decision making table” to residents at lots of different places. We had traditional forums where residents could come to us, but we also went to neighborhood meetings, PTAs, the YMCA and community centers, the local mall and other such places where people gathered. The I-Value campaign asked residents to weigh in on what services were most important to protect and which they were willing to cut. The conversations asked residents to think about the city budget much as they would a household budget, rating services according to which were “needs,” and which were “wants.” Everywhere we went, we took recorders who could transcribe the resident input and print it for review before leaving the meeting. Each meeting’s results were published on-line and shared with the council, so that a “body of evidence” was built outlining where the majority of Hampton residents thought we should make necessary cuts.

Meanwhile staff analyzed the traditional metrics to help ensure that we could answer council questions about community impact of the proposals being made. Members of the staff were worried that the citizen engagement would be divergent from this analytical approach. However, at the end of the months-long deliberation, there were, ironically enough, few dissimilarities. In one case, staff had been prepared to cut library hours, but the public overwhelmingly rated this as a need not to be cut, so staff backed away. In another case, the public recommended reducing 311 (the city’s customer service center) hours not realizing that all the city’s non-emergency customer representatives were housed here, so cuts would leave the phone unattended at certain hours. All other assessments were effectively the same between the public and staff.

This congruence made the final budget proposal one of the easiest ever to get passed at the council level, even with the huge magnitude of cuts. To be clear, there were still people unhappy with the cuts being made. The difference was they knew the cuts reflected the will of the majority who had chosen to engage in the budget development. In effect, the public’s voice had been heard and clearly documented upfront so that there was no need for last-minute positioning at the traditional public hearing.

This process worked so well that, although it was developed to solve a “crisis,” it has been used in varying ways in the years since. Each year the questions have been different, based on the needs of a given budget year. Most strikingly though, the process was successfully used to gauge the community’s sentiment to raise taxes to avoid further reductions when the recession dragged on for several years. In a similar format to the initial I-Value campaign, residents were asked whether they would support raising taxes and if so by how much and for what purposes. At the end of that year’s engagement, nearly 90 percent of the public had expressed support for a significant tax hike. Not believing the results to be representative of the larger public, a random scientific telephonic poll was conducted. That poll, which could not include all the background information that had been shared in face to face meetings, found close to 75 percent for the large tax increase. With this high level of documented public support, the council raised its rates with little opposition or consternation. All the council members who ran for reelection the next cycle comfortably won, establishing the true value of this process.

Upon hearing these results, many around the nation started calling the I-Value process innovative. While it certainly took Hampton’s citizen engagement efforts to a new and much deeper level, I must confess that I didn’t intentionally set out to create an “innovation.” I didn’t even think I was doing anything particularly innovative at the time. I was just doing what had always worked for our community when we faced particularly challenging tasks. However, I also do not think this process absolutely required all the steps that came before it. The reason I- Value works—or, frankly, any of Hampton’s engagement efforts have worked—is that people fundamentally want to be a part of the decisions that impact them. They can’t always be engaged so they choose to do so when it matters most and when we make it easiest for them to participate. Our I-Value participation levels fluctuate depending on the questions before the community. We have larger attendances when the issues are harder and potentially more contentious than when the budget decisions are easier to make; but, the fact that we offer the opportunity to give input and have an impact on the budget, gives residents a better feeling about the final decision whether they personally participated or not.

The same is true for all our engagement efforts. Engagement never guarantees that everyone will be happy with the result. That utopia doesn’t exist. However, engagement does produce better decision making and, more importantly, better feeling about the process used to make decisions. When residents know they have (and how) to make a choice to influence decision-making, they inevitably feel better about it.

Step 8: Keep on Perfecting

This is the way that Hampton’s culture of engagement began, evolved and continued, but, as I said at the outset, that doesn’t have to be the order or way it happens for other communities. The truth is there was no magic plan, just a series of thoughtful experiments each building on the prior all guided by the belief that better decisions could be made with engagement done on the front end.

For those reading this article, it almost doesn’t matter which issue or project becomes the first—or next if you have already started and just want to build upon your success—effort for your community. Rather, the effort simply needs to begin. Find an issue that can benefit from citizen deliberation. Hopefully, the Hampton experience, as well as those from other communities highlighted in this book, will help spark ideas for your community. Label the effort a pilot. (Pilots are always easier to get going and to stop if they do not work well.) Learn from that effort. Identify what worked well and what did not, then apply those lessons to the next application. Repeat this cycle over and over. If you do, one day, in the not too distant future, others will be questioning whether your success can be replicated too!

Mary Bunting is Hampton Virginia’s City Manager. She began her career in Hampton as an assistant to the city manager in 1990. She has a master’s degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners