Citizen Engagement

Citizen Engagement

Yesterday, the Raleigh City Council was presented with the Citizen Engagement Task Force’s recommendations for re-shaping the process by which Raleigh handles community-city dialog.

I’ve received a number of questions about my vote on the issue of creating a new Community Engagement Board (CEB), so I wanted to take a few moments to explain my rationale.

The short explanation is that my vote was contingent on the assurance that Council will select CEB candidates based on a process designed by nationally recognized consultants in authentic participation and social equity. This will ensure the CEB makeup is a legitimate and equitable reflection of Raleigh’s economic, social, and ethnic diversity and community values.  Here is why that is critically important:

Since their creation in the early 1970’s, Citizen Advisory Councils (CACs) have been an invaluable asset for engaging citizens in neighborhood affairs and for communicating with City Council and city departments. However, due to various legacy issues, when Council created a Citizen Engagement Task Force (CETF) to recommend ways to update and improve citizen engagement, the Task Force decided it would be better to work around the CACs, rather than to renovate them. The most important Task Force recommendation is to create a new Council-appointed Citizen Engagement Board, responsible for developing a hierarchy of community engagement entities which would parallel, extend, and overlap traditional CAC functions. Unlike the autonomous CACs, the new entities would be governed by CEB rules.

For CAC advocates who are concerned about reduced autonomy and more layers of bureaucracy between citizens and their elected leaders, 2007 changes in how our Parks Department engages the community offers an important case study for how best to proceed. At the time, the department suffered from a complete lack of community trust. With the help of nationally-recognized citizen engagement and conflict resolution consultants at NC State, the new director, Diane Sauer, has turned the entire culture of the Parks Department around, making it now the model for community engagement within the city.

In order to build community trust, it is critical that this new CEB be a legitimate reflection of Raleigh’s economic, social, and ethnic diversity and community values .   As was done in the Parks Department, to achieve this, we need to bring in the best consultants for citizen engagement and social equity – such as Mary Lou Addor and Mickey Fearn of NC State University.  My concern was that if yesterday’s vote was deadlocked, it would create a vacuum in which the five votes needed to hire these community engagement professionals would be unlikely. Before voting for the proposal yesterday, I was assured that the consultants’ first and most important job will be to identify a best-practice process for selecting CEB members that are a legitimate and equitable reflection of Raleigh’s economic, social, and ethnic diversity and community values. If the CEB selection process doesn’t proceed this way, I doubt there will be 5 votes to appoint CEB members and the entire process will stall.

Changing any organization’s ingrained attitudes and processes is not easy, but the transformation of Raleigh’s Parks Department is proof that with these three elements: (1) the best professional guidance, (2) staff who are committed to citizen engagement and (3) a strong public will, it can be done.  The first step, before any other action on the CEB, must be to hire the professional consultants in citizen engagement and social equity.