Deliberate Civic Engagement: Are You Doing Enough?

My fellowship year has allowed me to participate in dozens of interesting meetings and programs.  Recently a door opened that allowed me to observe an ongoing transatlantic dialog between Germany and the USA.  Through connections at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Bundesinstitut fur Bau-Stadt und Raumforschung, I received an invitation to the Dialog for Change event in Ludwigsburg, Germany.  This is an ongoing two year project between Germany and the U.S.A. looking at ways to create and sustain meaningful public participation before, during and after a project.  Most of the participants were city planners or involved with city government in some manner.  The German Marshall Fund is behind the important study and supported it with funds, staff and logistics.

I choose to write about the experience because I believe the strategies developed are something important for social housing and public housing authorities to learn from.  Public engagement in our work is extremely important.  We hold a very special place role in our communities.  Housing those who have the least means we play a crucial role in millions of families lives around the world.  They turn to us to provide their most basic human needs.  Without safe, decent and affordable housing, it is almost impossible to succeed long term.  It is hard to find a job, focus on health or raise a family without stable housing.

But what role does public participation play in our work?  We are constantly making changes in the way we work.   Whether it is building new housing, remodeling old housing, creating job programs or changing rent regulations, we constantly have an effect on the lives of those who live in our housing.   We are also major players in the communities we work in.  That means dozens of stakeholders rely on us or need to partner with us to provide some type of service or public good.  Our public participation process must be strong, inclusive and honest.

Honest?  What does that mean?  When we look at our public process and the way we engage both residents and community partners, can we say it comes from a place of true civic engagement?  We all have mandates to complete a public process several times a year.  Maybe it is a new building or an annual plan that is being turned into HUD.  When it is time to do this, do you just fire up the old public ad in the newspaper hold the meeting and go through the process?

The two year focus during the Dialog for Change allowed colleagues from across the Atlantic to focus on this theme and look at opportunities to be more deliberate in the public engagement process.  I am an outsider to the group but that also afforded me the chance to look at their work from a different lense.  What I saw is an intentional group of professionals who used this opportunity to not only come up with recommendations for professionals in Germany and the US, but used the tools themselves.  The report will be forth coming and I will be sure to send out a link once it does.  However; below are some of the initial recommendations from a report on the German Marshall Fund’s website.

D4C Network Core Civic Engagement Principles:

  1. Set clear and realistic goals for the process to define the purpose of the engagement and how the input will be used in the final project or plan.
  2. Get to know your stakeholders to understand their perspectives, needs, and opportunities to engage them in ways that leverage their power and influence.
  3. Tailor communication to the project or situation
  4. Be flexible and adapt the engagement process to respond to changing circumstances on the ground and stakeholder needs
  5. Use data strategically and transparently

Other concepts that participants felt were crucial, but must be adapted for each unique circumstance:

  • Shared learning: opening up opportunities to learn from stakeholders about new methods to engage them more effectively; creating a learning culture in the project team to try new things.
  • Evaluation: defining and measuring success for the engagement effort and communicating transparently about progress towards those goals.
  • Recognizing capacity: being frank about the ability to carry out successful engagement (both in terms of city and stakeholder efforts) and seeking out partnerships to help overcome constraints.
  • Institutionalizing processes: balancing standard or required approaches with the need to be innovative and responsive to local needs. [1]

More information will come out of this joint learning program, but the ideas are important for us in public and social housing.  A strong commitment to civic engagement is something that should always be at the forefront of our minds.  Learning from each other and colleagues in other industries and countries can help ensure we are utilizing the best methods from around the world.  Day to day business can make it very hard to take the time to think about this important process in a meaningful way.  Whether through strategic planning or agency  retreat, this is a subject worth spending time on.

  • [1] ( Please see German Marshall fund website for complete report -http://gmfus.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D4C-Final-Report-English.pdf)

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