Article Special Series Terry Amsler

Engaging the Entire Community in Civic Participation

Terry Amsler is program director of the Institute for Local Government’s Collaborative Governance Initiative (CGI) and can be reached at For more information about CGI, visit

Throughout California, cities are seeking new and better ways to engage their residents and add community voices to important public discussions and the decision-making processes of local elected representatives. However, the residents who do get involved often do not represent the broader community.

Young adults, renters, lower-income residents and people from ethnic communities and newcomer populations are frequently underrepresented in public meetings and community conversations, whether the matter under discussion is a General Plan update, affordable housing, the next city budget or an environmentally related controversy.

In a recent survey conducted by Princeton University Professor Karthic Ramakrishnan, Ph.D., for the Institute for Local Government (ILG), one of the most significant community engagement challenges identified by local officials was the perception, “It’s always the same people who participate.” Fully 54 percent of the officials who responded were very concerned about this issue, surpassing concerns about having enough time for civic engagement (18 percent) or even with having sufficient resources to support public involvement activities (31 percent).

ILG’s Collaborative Governance Initiative (CGI) is working to make public engagement at the local level more inclusive. CGI offers practical resources that cities can use to help ensure greater diversity in community participation. As part of this effort to support effective and inclusive public participation in California’s cities and counties, CGI is:

  • Making meeting translation equipment and website translation services available to cities and counties in selected regions;
  • Developing a Local Official’s Guide to Immigrant Civic Engagement (available in late 2008);
  • Organizing sessions on civic participation at League conferences; and
  • Offering ideas and advice to cities seeking broader community representation in their civic engagement activities.

In Lodi, city officials used CGI resources to translate redevelopment information into Spanish and Urdu and to translate at public meetings on planned redevelopment activities. This demonstrates the city’s good faith in reaching out to communities in new ways and generates new relationships between city officials and community members. The Lodi city manager’s visit to the home of a local Pakistani community leader resulted in another meeting in the leader’s home with nearly 100 Pakistani men (see page 23 for more information).

Every city is different, and it’s hazardous to generalize about the outreach strategies that will attract participation by any one group, whether it’s youth, Hmong newcomers or second-generation Hispanic community members. However, local officials can build a solid public engagement strategy by becoming familiar with their own various communities’ demographics and population trends, understanding the needs and interests of each, developing relationships with respective organizations and trusted leaders, and learning about the most effective media and communication vehicles for reaching each community.

Achieving broader community engagement is work for the long haul. As relationships develop and more residents are drawn into the process, everyone involved can build on past experience and help adapt the approach for the next time to improve the chances of ongoing success.

In the June 2007 issue of Public Management magazine, in an article titled “Serving Diverse Communities: Best Practices,” authors Hernandez, Brown and Tien stressed the importance of dedicated city staff who can focus on a program of coordinated communication, translation, ombuds man services and outreach to support city responsiveness and civic participation efforts. They also noted the effectiveness of greater language and cultural competence by city departments in reaching out to often underserved communities — and the benefits of using electronic media in those cases where illiteracy is more prevalent.

The following guiding principles encourage civic participation beyond “the same people who always show up” and apply to a wide variety of circumstances.

Build long-term capacity. Help develop the knowledge and capacity of less involved communities to better understand local government agencies and the numerous opportunities for involvement. One useful approach is to create citizen academies, targeted to specific communities.

Get help. Identify and seek the help and advice of community-based and intermediary organizations, including grassroots leadership groups, religious organizations and community-specific media. Such organizations can assist with general education about community involvement and provide two-way conduits for communication between government and community residents on specific issues.

Develop relationships. Perceptions of the trust and commitment of government by often marginalized and less involved communities can be critical. Elected officials and staff who develop personal relationships with community and advocacy organizations will reap many rewards.

Communicate effectively and respectfully. Know your community’s changing demographics, and invest in culturally and linguistically appropriate communications materials and strategies. Learn which media different populations listen to, watch and read. Recognize the importance of communicating with residents in their native language to ensure they understand the issues. Plan ahead for translation, interpretation and access to public meetings.

Be flexible. Holding public meetings in community settings known and accessible to the people you wish to reach, perhaps co-sponsored by respected intermediary organizations, can help achieve broader and more representative participation.

Stay in touch. Keep up-to-date lists of organizations and groups concerned about certain issues and keep them informed of opportunities for involvement.

Have specific goals. Develop specific plans to reach out to and engage selected communities or populations. Help staff develop an awareness of newcomer and other communities that may not be as fully represented and visible in local government.

Explain the results and say thank you. Clarify how participants’ input was considered and how it impacted local decision-making. If the ultimate decision went a different way, explain why. Express appreciation for those who become involved.

Follow up. After specific engagement efforts, follow up to determine what worked, what could be improved and where representation shows weaker and stronger trends.

Build it in. Don’t think of public involvement as a one-time stand-alone effort. Explore the integration and engagement of community voice as part of your local government’s overall strategy, and consider performance measures that support such democratic accountability.

There is no “one size fits all” strategy to advance greater and broader participation, especially in the short term. But using a variety of ongoing strategies in partnership with the communities you wish to more fully involve will help you build a city where residents participate fully in the dialogue about local issues and decisions.

This article appears in the August 2008 issue of Western City
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