5 Learnings from Community Engagement Practitioners in Government
Image courtesy of Sincerely Media
Author and Princeton School of Public and International Affairs graduate student Lynne Guey

by Lynne Guey, Cortico Graduate Research Intern

COVID-19 accelerated the threat of a declining public infrastructure and ripped open fissures across society, highlighting the need for a redefined relationship between government and communities. Among the many lessons learned, one of the most enduring may be the importance of a resilient public sphere.

As a graduate research intern for Cortico this spring, I had the opportunity to cultivate a deeper understanding of the various ways local governments can bridge the gap between public feedback and agency action. Building off MIT’s Center for Constructive Communication preliminary research, and with the help of MIT Media Lab PhD student Bridgit Mendler, I conducted interviews with staff at a range of municipal agencies and community-engaged firms including the New York City Mayor’s Office, Chicago Office of Equity and Racial Justice, the Los Angeles Office of Housing Security, and Hong Kong’s Neighborhood Innovation Lab. Our goal was to tap into their specific experiences with a community-informed municipal project, understand their process, and determine where Cortico and LVN’s technology might be able to support more effective public sector outcomes.

Community engagement is a messy process, and there is no one size fits all approach. But several themes surfaced over and over again as we spoke with community practitioners across cities, agencies, and project types. Here are five of the most resonant:

1. Community engagement usually involves gathering a lot of information, and spending time on analysis is burdensome. The labor of synthesis is where the learning happens, however. Don’t oversimplify it.

While the path from gathering information to policy/program creation is far from linear, nearly every community practitioner we spoke to commented on the amount of time, effort, and thoughtfulness that the post-conversation synthesis portion requires. This often overlooked, under-examined phase takes place after conversations have been collected and involves a rigorous process of listening back, note-taking and tagging.

Lulu Mickelson reflected on her experience leading the community-centered planning process for “Where We Live NYC”, a NYC housing initiative resulting in a 60-page public report that informed policy development and service design across City agencies.

She says that any technology employed in the process of synthesizing conversational data needs to strike a proper balance between efficiency and depth, and act as a tool to help organize information without stripping it of important context.

“The software that I’ve looked for in my work has really aided a facilitated learning experience for me and my team, rather than to do the work for us. I think that’s a tension in the space. Yes, we want it to be easier and faster, so that more people can do it and it’s less time-intensive. But I also think that moment and the intensity that it requires is actually where the learning happens. So there’s an importance to not oversimplify it.” Listen here.

2. Search for the nuance behind blanket statements.

Existing LVN partners brought up the utility of LVN’s conversational structure in surfacing insights that go beyond the positional, one-dimensional statement.

Chief Equity Officer Candace Moore shared how her team used LVN for the City of Chicago’s Together We Heal Virtual Summit, which consisted of a series of 120 digital conversations that reflected on the racial healing work happening throughout the city. The responses were also used to draft a vision statement for the new Office of Equity and Racial Justice (OERJ).

“We asked, “What’s one big thing the city could do?” And people were like, “Defund the police.” You can imagine someone trying to capture that might just take away the defund the police sentence and keep it moving. But what I have found is that often there is another set of sentences that are attached to ‘defund’ that are rich for us to understand, that push us to move past a positional statement. Defund is very much a position… and they’ll say it, but then there’s a set of values, a set of interests, a set of ideas that exist just under that statement which so often we lose because we don’t have a richer capturing of the sentiment.” Listen here.

3. Trusted community organizations can be helpful partners in designing a process that is participatory, empowering, and not extractive.

Ideally, conversations are convened and held by community members themselves in a process designed to foster connection and shared vision. However, when working with municipalities, working with a third-party entity such as a trusted community partner can build trust especially within marginalized communities that often aren’t included in government engagement.

LVN partner Erin Raab co-created the 100 Days of Conversations Project to catalyze conversations that help communities co-create new visions for what education can be, and then lead to community-informed change at the local, state, and national level. She and her team are using the LVN tool to analyze conversations. She says that a benefit of the conversations being convened within the communities themselves is that outside organizations who are making use of the data can’t influence what is said. So, what’s shared is raw and real.

“I think what’s important is that we (100 Days of Conversations) are not the conveners of these conversations. People are convening them in their own communities… that’s a big advantage that makes it less extractive. It’s not about us going and interviewing people and then taking that information and going and doing something with it, it’s really about building that connection and that information sharing and that vision at each of those levels. And then, it just benefits upwards.” Listen here.

4. Focus on translating conversations into action.

If meaningful participation is the goal, it’s crucial to differentiate between policies and programs that can sustain community input and those that can’t. NYC senior advisor for economic development Christine Curella noted that some participatory practices, hidden under the guise of “public discourse” and “listening”, are purely procedural. With limited ability to hold public officials accountable, community participation through these venues could risk fostering further frustration, division, and apathy.

When does participation actually translate into shared decision-making power between government and communities then? Christine Curella suggests social service delivery as one area that could be more conducive to constructive public dialogue, in part, because it has many external-facing units that directly interact with citizens.

“We (government) don’t necessarily have authority to give more, or to waive X, Y, Z criteria. But, how do we actually deliver these services, and what new requirements might be put into new contracts? That seems mundane, but I think it’s fundamental to me.” Listen here.

Communities are not typically aware of the wonky intricacies of decision-making — nor should they be expected to — so it’s important for municipalities to meet them in the middle and share information on what is actually possible along the path to policy and program creation.

5. How you say something is just as important as what you say.

Eric Ho, an architect and director of a neighborhood planning firm in Hong Kong, often conducts public engagement workshops on behalf of city urban development agencies. Marrying qualitative data points (e.g. individual stories) with quantitative data streams (e.g. surveys, public data sets) in a digestible way, he believes, is essential for making the case to external stakeholders like government clients, media, and community stakeholders that a community-led policy response is legitimate.

Ultimately, though, it’s the job of the community practitioner to hear someone’s story and parse out what the implications of their lived experience are for policies. As Lulu Mickelson, Director of Housing Security at the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, puts it,

“No community member is going to show up and say, “I need you to change these three regulations and not rezone in this way.” I think the pitfall of a lot of government engagement is that we want residents to be policy experts… that’s never going to be your neighbor’s expertise. What they give you is their lived experience. Your job is to translate it.” Listen here.

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In an age of expediency, investing the necessary time and energy for this work is not an easy sell, yet the payoff yields enormous long-term social impact. Despite the challenges, the timing is opportune to dive deeper, build better listening spaces, and help amplify the voices of underheard communities in pursuit of more equitable outcomes. It is only through continued exploration and innovation of tools that this greater mission of a thriving public sphere can be realized.

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