Community Engagement: Lessons from Boston

Around the country, folks are making the road by walking when it comes to civic innovation and they’re forming new relationships in the process. At Code for America, we get excited when people participate in the democratic process in meaningful and interesting ways. Two projects in Boston show the importance of collaboration between residents and civic institutions: the city’s Participatory Budgeting initiative and an engagement game called Participatory Chinatown. These creative approaches to public participation have lessons about civic engagement to inform our work at Code for America.

Participatory Chinatown participants

Participants in the Participatory Chinatown game. Image from the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC).

Both projects involved groups that are active in their communities, but don’t regularly interact with government. The projects also emphasize and confirm the importance of youth as community actors, and encourage residents to participate in the the planning process in a meaningful way. Yet they differ in their delivery mechanisms: Boston’s Participatory Budgeting project wraps participatory planning in the standard city procurement process, and Participatory Chinatown got people to play a virtual game as characters to learn about and affect the neighborhood’s master plan. These projects can teach us a lot about inclusive engagement, the role of fun in civic projects, and how it can have a transformative effective on government and community.

Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting introduces participatory democracy at the beginning of the budgeting process. In Boston, the Participatory Budgeting project is a joint effort between the non-profit Participatory Budgeting Project, the Mayor’s Youth Council and Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) to engage youth in Boston in budgeting decisions. It has allocated $1 million to a fund that youth-focused groups in the city will determine how to spend on a capital project. After the stakeholders’ input informs a recommendation, the recommendation becomes a Request for Proposal (RFP) put out by the City in its standard procurement process. Along with the resulting capital project, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood at the City of Boston view civic engagement process as the key outcome of the project.

The project’s steering committee decided to work primarily with youth-organized nonprofits in parts of the city that were disconnected from government to expand the base of people whose voices were typically heard, according to Osgood. The Mayor’s office wants to build a deeper partnership between government and residents. Through participatory budgeting, people can gain trust in the public process and the officials that carry it out, while local officials benefit from a wider set of opinions from residents in deciding how their taxes are spent. “We want to transition city employees from techno-bureaucrats to techno-democrats,” Jacob explained.

Participatory Chinatown

Community groups were key to the Participatory Chinatown project as well. In 2011, a multi-faceted team of community and civic planning organizations, academic researchers, and game designers developed an “augmented deliberation” game oriented around the public planning process for Boston’s Chinatown district. Eric Gordon, assistant professor at Emerson College and a Berkman Center Fellow, wanted to transform what is often a cursory intersection of government and community into something meaningful. The team used roleplaying to help engage people in the master planning process.

Again, while the input generated from the game was factored into the master plan, meaningful participation by residents was the most important outcome. Says Gordon, “I’m not interested in making a potentially broken process more efficient — in some ways I make it less efficient, with opportunities for play and learning.” Gordon’s current research is on the tension between the “frivolity” of play and the “serious work” of civic action. Gordon is studying the freedom that people have to explore in a game, and the authenticity they hope to have in the civic process, to find the intersections between “work” and “play.” He’s calling it “playful civic learning” and hopes to better understand how these tools can get a truly diverse selection of people to participate. In his work in Boston and other similar initiatives in Detroit, 80% of the participants had never been civically active before, and 50% were youths under the age of 18.

Gordon explained that community groups and NGOs play an important role in mediating the distribution of technology and practices in communities, and this is especially relevant to civic technology. By not engaging existing community groups, we risk reinforcing existing participation divides with new civic tech. Trust in organizations — a church, the YMCA, a block club — lays the foundation for facilitated, inclusive, and meaningful participation. In Detroit especially, Gordon said, “successful participation had everything to do with a network of trusted organizations that enabled the distribution of a tool. Building a consortium of organizations around a tool, then building capacity around the tool, are not separate jobs.”

What Code for America Can Learn

Both of those projects in Boston share lessons for the Communities program at Code for America. Brigades don’t exist just to redeploy apps — they are invaluable as a place to facilitate interaction between different members of the community, including people in government. As we build up the basic processes of engagement for the Brigade, we’re thinking hard about how to best make sure Brigades look like the communities they work in. That means collaborating with existing community organizations and networks beyond the usual “civic tech” suspects. That’s why we now require Captain-led Brigades (currently our most formal level of organization) to collaborate and receive the endorsement of a non-tech community-based group.

Playful civic learning and deeper youth engagement are two things we hope to bring into Brigade organizing. Playful learning involving youth will have deep and long-term impact on a community, and help spread a new norm of civic participation. According to Stephen Duncombe’s and Andrew Boyd’s organizing theory of ethical spectacle, people are more likely to join something that is fun or spectacular, and this can help broaden our community to include new perspectives and skills and further share our values with new minds and hands.

The Brigade needs skills and interest that are not just tech-related. We need people to bring all their spice to the civic sauce.

Questions? Comments? Hit up @codeforamerica.

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