Community engagement is an essential component of local democracy. Without it, city policies are less effective and municipalities risk alienating their constituents. But as many cities leaders know firsthand, standard public meetings are no longer the most effective way to both reach constituents and build meaningful relationships.
With an ever-innovating tech landscape increasingly catering to cities, many city leaders are turning to apps, software, and social media to maximize community outreach and input. Others still continue to rely on traditional forms of engagement such as surveys and public meetings, to increase access to public participation for more equitable outcomes. Further, many cities engage in participatory budgeting practices in which constituents have a direct say in how portions of city budgets are allocated. We have provided a wide range of resources and examples on community engagement models that span from tech-driven to traditional.
The role of constituents throughout these models spans from advisory to direct decision makers. It is up to an individual city to determine which models are right for them; key, however, in any community engagement model is a proactive commitment to centering the voices of those historically marginalized and most vulnerable.
What Cities Can Do
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The city of Seattle’s Inclusive Outreach and Public Engagement Guide is regarded by many as the gold standard for community engagement planning.
West Sacramento has pioneered a number of tech-driven engagement tactics, including an app modeled after Tinder that allows constituents to “swipe left” or “swipe right” on infrastructure improvements.
Cities that are interested in improving their community engagement models but are unsure of where to start might look to cities like Miami Lakes, FL, which has made standard public meetings more accessible to a wider range of constituents through video conferencing.
While tech is an innovative, albeit inevitable, component of community engagement, cities needn’t make use of the latest app or software to produce a meaningful dialogue with constituents. As the mayors of Jackson, MS and Compton, CA have both proven, one-on-one outreach to key community stakeholders can be just as, if not more, effective than tech.
Further, a balanced approach that makes use of both social media and in-person engagement, as exemplified by Roanoke, VA, is also highly effective at building trust and fostering collaboration between municipalities and their constituents.