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City Accelerator Cohort II: Fall 2015 Convening Recap

February 05, 2016

By: Becky Michelson

In Late October, the 5 cities of the City Accelerator’s 2nd cohort gathered to share updates, synthesize their learnings, and strategize for the second phase of their community engagement innovation projects. Despite different topic areas within the city projects, the cohort is utilizing similar approaches such as: upgrading existing engagement structures, assuring inclusivity, and refining storytelling methods to address improving engagement. Today’s commonplace engagement practices, such as traditional town hall meetings often face similar challenges of reaching a diversity of stakeholders, engaging different age groups, and maintaining short feedback loops of communication. The rapidly evolving technology of the private sector and it’s priorities of customer satisfaction, agile development that constantly produces new updates, and integrating services into already utilized ones creates new pressures and expectations for the public sector. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, trust in government is historically low. While newer programs like Code for America and the digital consultancies such as 18F and the U.S. Digital Services primarily work toward improving the technological back-end of government, there are institutions that have refined the best practices of engagement.

Accelerating the Culture of Engagement

Programs like the City Accelerator, create space to unpack the barriers to engagement and try new approaches. Some of the themes that have emerged from the cohort have explored how to tailor and appropriately use technology and strategies for trust-building with historically underrepresented communities. Most of the cities brush up against a central issue of engagement. What are the best ways of strengthening the back-end tools to effectively archive community conversations, record and analyze community input, and communicate the findings and further decision-making in a timely manner? As the cohort is almost halfway into their timeline, they will continue diving deeper into these questions. In the meantime, a summary of the convening in Baltimore is below.

The Baltimore Convening

The crisp Autumn day began with rapid-fire presentations from the cities about Phase I of their projects. The teams in Albuquerque and Seattle are working with similar themes of consolidating available resources and improving feedback loops. The Albuquerque team is working on integrating systems that help immigrant entrepreneurs navigate the business development ecosystem. Frank Mirabal, the project city lead from Albuquerque reminded us of the power of communicating existing resources with the sobering lesson that, “To see is to be seen”. Seattle faces similar concerns of consolidating useful information and strengthening the related communication loops. In lieu of improving how Seattle conducts community engagement, they are identifying overlapping outreach efforts and centralizing communication to avoid fatiguing communities for input. Kathy Nyland, Director of the Department of Neighborhoods, reminded us that “Just because an issue is new to us, doesn’t mean it’s new to a resident.” Thus the Seattle team is exploring ways to better archive previous community conversations prior to revisiting certain conversations such as housing developments in a specific neighborhood that may have already discussed this topic before.

Seattle’s Engagement Process imagined in Visio

Meanwhile, the teams from New Orleans and Atlanta shared the outcomes of their efforts to employ public design and co-design approaches. The team in New Orleans has worked on moving beyond generic focus groups by engaging group participants and relevant stakeholders in a culminating design workshop to source solutions to design for increasing primary health care use. The participatory framework is meant to encourage creativity, collaboration, and buy-in among people who are not seeking primary care. Similarly, Atlanta’s project is based on a public design framework which gathers feedback for a storytelling project and allows participants to define the ways they want to be communicated with. The public design approach uses design-thinking when co-creating the story collection and sharing campaign to establish relationships in neighborhoods. This process of mutual story-sharing aims to build trust between underrepresented voices that are soon to receive community benefit distributions and the influencers and decision-makers leading the projects.

Atlanta’s public design project relies on design-thinking

Accelerator! To Engagement, and Beyond!

Next, convening participants playtested a game called about balancing the needs for transparency, creativity, and inclusivity while planning community engagement initiatives. The game is meant to be played in the early stages of a project to help teams explore strategies, role play possible outcomes, and understand the implications of their actions. Participants hedged their bets for which elements of strategic planning to invest in and then role-played “voices from the community” who may have been pleased or upset about what the teams ended up investing in. The game was designed as a potential supplement to a guide on community engagement implementation strategies after finding a dearth of such resources available.* In the debrief, participants shared a range of reactions: from laughter to frustrations. Some insights gleaned included the opportunity to consider previously overlooked stakeholders that arose during the role-playing process.

Inside the Public Servant’s Studio

After a delicious lunch break and an introduction to phase II project planning, there were in-depth conversations and mini panels on three central themes that have emerged from the cohort thus far. The conversations delved into intersections between community engagement and design-thinking, internal municipal communications infrastructure, and trust-building. Gleaned insights included nuances such as the difference between outreach and information: where one is about conveying information while engagement is more of a conversation. Improving the back-end coordination is helping cities like Seattle set forth higher expectations about having constructive conversations between cities and citizens. Similarly, the New Orleans team is finding that a more interactive approach through co-design is helping facilitate conversations with people, rather a merely one-way communications.

Inside the Public Servant’s Studio: In-depth conversations of emerging themes within the City Accelerator Cohort

In discussing trust-building, the Atlanta team reiterated the importance of working with people who have well-established relationships in communities. Building trust is a long-term process, but it can help cities be more proactive rather than reactive in how they interact with their constituents. While building trust is a priority, Atlanta’s academic lead Chris LeDantec explained that a lack of trust can be productive at times since that tension can motivate progress. The participants had more of a chance to reflect on the themes of design-thinking, internal municipal communications infrastructure, and trust-building through plotting out in a creative matrix how they might address different stakeholders needs through these lenses.

Following a full day of unpacking city engagement practices and lessons, the cohort joined a panel on Community Engagement through the Lens of Criminal Justice Reform. The backgrounds of the powerful speakers ranged from nonprofits to governmental agencies. They spoke about new trauma-informed care approaches in their work and ways of activating community members to help with the reentry process. Many connections were explained through first-hand accounts such as the huge tie between incarceration and homelessness. One of the final panel questions asked, “What does it take to shift from punitive corrections practices to restorative ones?” and a consensus response expressed that, “Reentry shouldn’t start when you come out of, but when you enter jail”.

The next convening for the City Accelerator is in April 2016 where city teams will share how the implementation phases of their projects are going. In the meantime, cities are continuing to analyze their findings from Phase I, learn from each other in thematic monthly calls, and plan ahead for successful implementations.

Resources on Community Engagement Implementation*

Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent by the Center for Civic Design

Code for America Engagement Toolkit

IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation

National Standards for Community Engagement

UCL Public Engagement Toolkit

National Assembly of Wales Public Engagement Toolkit

Inclusive Outreach and Public Engagement Guide — City of Seattle

National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement

Engagement Technology for All: Best Practices for Using Technology in Engaging Underrepresented Communities in Planning

Digital Sustainability Conversations: How Local Governments can Engage Residents Online

Originally published at on December 10, 2015.

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