As an engagement strategist still recovering from chronic burnout as a result of my organizing efforts for the Boston Police Department and Neighbors for Neighbors (facilitating 250+ meetings a year for many years), I avoid spending entire Saturday afternoons at civic events like the plague.
To my surprise, something extraordinary happened yesterday. I ended up staying at a civic event for 7 hours and had a productive and fun experience.
The event I’m referring to is Mayor Gray’s One City Summit. The Summit, facilitated by AmericaSpeaks, explored the question “how can we become more of One City?
Here is my professional take on why this summit, unlike other civic experiences I’ve participated in, was so effective and why other cities should pay close attention:
1) Ground rules clearly stated:
2) A strong vision that resonated with participants presented:
One City is a place where every resident:
- Participates in a diverse, thriving economy with equality of opportunity
- Lives in a safe neighborhood free from crime
- Accesses quality public or public charter schools no matter what neighborhood he or she lives in
- Enjoys a high quality of life that includes access to quality healthcare, recreation, transportation, and retail choices in every ward of the city
- Finds affordable housing options throughout the city in ways that advance the racial and economic diversity we cherish
- Receives a solid return on investment and high-quality customer service from their government
- Lives in the most environmentally sound, sustainable city in the world
- Has a voice that counts – including a vote in Congress
3) Challenges supported by data clearly laid out:
- Unemployment: As of December 2011, Wards 2 and 3 have the lowest unemployment rates (5.0% and 2.6% respectively). Wards 7 and 8 have the highest (16.7% and 24.8% respectively). The overall unemployment in the District stands at 10.4%.
- High School Graduation Rates: For the latest data available (2009), the high school graduation rate in the District was approximately 51.6%.
- Illiteracy: Approximately 19% of District adults are functionally illiterate.
- HIV/AIDS: The District has an infection rate of 3.2% (for adults and adolescents), far higher than the national rate although comparable to U.S. cities of the same size.
- Disparities in Per Capita Income: DC has wide disparities of per capita income – more than $60,000 per year in Wards 2 and 3, and under $20,000 per year in Wards 7 and 8.
- Children Living in Poverty: In 2010, Wards 7 and 8 had the highest percentage (29.3% and 35.5%, respectively) of children under age five living in families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level; Wards 3 and 4 had the lowest percentages, at 2.1 percent and 11.9 percent respectively.
- Obesity Rates: As of 2007, Wards 2 and 3 had the lowest adult obesity rates (12.5% and 11.7% respectively) while Wards 7 and 8 had the highest (39.9% and 41.9% respectively)
- Budget Challenges: An uncertain economy and the specter of significant federal budget cuts have created a challenging and unpredictable budget climate. The District heads into FY13 facing potential budget cuts, and over the longer term, two of the biggest budget areas (Medicaid and health care) are growing far faster than the rate of inflation.
4) Pre-developed strategies presented(as opposed to asking the audience, whom may or may not be subject matter expertise, may or may not have access to supporting data nor analytical skills to make sense of it, to come up with strategies in one days time to solve pressing challenges):
- Diversifying and Growing our Economy;
- Early Success: Thriving in the First Years;
- Educating Our Youth for the Economy of Tomorrow; and,
- Aligning Residents’ Job Skills with Our Growing Economy.
5) Technology used to complement and facilitate in-person engagement
- Facilitated Table Discussions. You will be seated with a group of D.C. residents to discuss plans and policies the District has developed, and to provide comments and recommendations. A trained facilitator at your table will keep the conversation moving and, importantly, make sure every voice at the table is heard. A note-taker will record the conversation on a computer.
- Discussion Guide. This discussion guide has helpful background information on the issues that will be discussed today and lists the questions you will be asked. You will have time to read each issue section before the discussion takes place.
- Keypad Voting. Throughout the day, you will use the keypads on your table to answer questions and vote on your preferences. You will see the results of the voting on the large screens and will know right away how everyone in the room feels about these issues.
- Theming. Notes from your table conversations will be transmitted electronically to a team of people who will review them, pull out common themes, and summarize them. You will see this information on the large screens, and it will be used to help make final recommendations.
6) For those who could not participate in person, the summit was live-streamed and tweeted:
7) Results for each completed module were immediately published on the screens:
8) Dance party:
9) At the conclusion of the Summit, aggregated results of the findings were distributed in person and online:
- Trust was created by using technology (facilitated by a neutral party with facilitation expertise) to reflect back how participant voices through real-time polling and feedback
- 2,000 residents learned about what the city plans to do to address challenges, give their input, and weigh in on which priorities to tackle first
- Residents, city employees, and other stakeholders are energized, excited and ready to get to work
Interesting facts I learned about DC:
- It’s experiencing its first net population growth in decades
- DC grew faster than any other state last year
- Last year, for the first time in four years, the city added to its reserve fund
- 6 of the 8 wards have seen increases in mean income
- First the first time in a longer time, no single race dominates the percentage breakdown of the DC population
The next questions I recommend be asked are:
- How and where will the conversation continue?
- What actions can residents take beyond “voicing their opinions” that is meaningful to them and have short term and long term impact?
- How will progress be measured and communicated?
- What can reasonably be accomplished by next years summit?
These 9 engagement tactics resulted in a productive and fun experience. They can be utilized offline, online, and we saw at the One City Summit, as a combination. When thinking about producing civic engagement experiences, the rule of thumb is to ask your self and your team, “what would result meaningful and valuable experience that respect the intelligence, experience, and time of the participants and that has impact on what we are trying to accomplish”?
- If you were at the Summit, did you have a similar productive and fun experience – why or why not?
- Are there any tactics you would add, or one you disagree with?
- If you have ideas for answers on the next questions I recommend we ask, I’d love to hear them.