This post is part of CitizenLab’s co-founders’ travel blog series, commenting on their learnings from American cities from the West to the East coasts.
Right before Thanksgiving 2021, my co-founder Wietse and I hit the road to Pennsylvania, excited to meet the local government teams we work with across the cities of Lancaster, Carlisle, and Norristown. Over the past few months, they have used their community engagement platforms to reach more than 10,000 community members on everything from creating human-centered public spaces to conversations on policing and planning budgets with ARPA funding. After 3 days we left the region hopeful about the impact that public participation can have on these communities.
Institutionalizing local government community engagement
Here is how our 3 Pennsylvanian partners are institutionalizing community engagement, each in their own way:
1. City of Lancaster: measurable community engagement goals
When defining the building blocks of a successful digital participation platform, the first question we always ask cities is: “What are your short-term and long-term goals regarding community engagement?” You would be surprised how many government officials don’t have a clear answer to this. But the City of Lancaster was clear on what they wanted to achieve. Mayor Sorace’s team is one of these rare groups of local government innovators that have the ability to define a clear, ambitious vision and act on it. For the coming 4 years, they have 4 defined priorities in their strategic plan:
- Strong neighborhoods
- Safe places
- Sustainable economy
- Sound government
The city involves the community on these strategic priorities in two ways on Engage Lancaster, their community engagement platform. First, they form the backbone of all the projects they are planning to roll out. Second, residents can add their ideas to an open forum during the course of the next year. To be able to transparently measure the progress on these 4 priorities, the City of Lancaster defined different Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which every resident can follow in a transparent city dashboard.
2. Borough of Carlisle: internal organization for effective community engagement
Establishing a core team to manage an engagement platform across the wider organization is another key success factor. In our experience, good internal organization is characterized by:
- Centralization: A core team identifies a longlist of the government projects that can be put on an engagement platform. They coordinate with the different internal stakeholders to launch these engagement projects.
- Continuity: Getting to agreement on processes and responsibilities related to community engagement is indispensable. This ensures that engagement continues, i.e. an ongoing dialogue with residents over time, instead of being too ad-hoc or only project-based.
- Transversality: The core team is responsible for showing all government departments and teams how digital community engagement can help them in their decision-making processes.
The Borough of Carlisle understood the importance of internal organization, as reflected in the makeup of the core team managing the Engage Carlisle platform:
- The Borough Manager (or City Manager) represents government leadership and gives input on the strategic direction of the platform.
- The Public Information Coordinator (or Communications, Community Engagement Manager) works horizontally across the organization, and masters the back-end of the digital engagement platform. This person advises other departments on how to translate their engagement questions to a digital environment.
- The Department Directors of Parks & Recreation, Public Works, etc. identify the topics to engage the community on, and eventually bring the public’s input into their reporting and decision-making.
I met with the four members of the core team and our discussion focussed on how we can improve the three characteristics of good internal organization:
- “How do we pick new projects?” (centralization)
- “How can we increase the feedback rate after projects are finished?” (continuity)
- “How do we get staff excited?” (transversality)
3. Municipality of Norristown: investing in community leadership
Most local governments across the US have a local leadership academy that is open to all residents. The Municipality of Norristown is no exception – their Citizens Leadership Academy is a series of classes offered to a select number of Norristown residents and business owners over the course of seven weeks. The Academy aims to develop community leadership skills and an understanding of how municipal government operates. Every year, the program produces graduates that may go on to leadership roles on municipal boards, commissions, and the Council.
This is a very important step towards institutionalizing community engagement. Government affairs can be complex and every community needs members that can navigate public decision-making processes. These community leaders identify upcoming important decisions that will impact the community and can play an important role in making sure people make their voices heard in the process. A digital engagement platform, like Norristown Buzz, can be the place to keep these leadership graduates engaged and, even better, to turn them into ambassadors who get more residents to join the (online) discussion.
As we continue to reflect on these learnings, we’re making our way South. Stay tuned for more updates from the road!