Hilvert, Huggins and Linkhart explain the process of engaging the full community through citizen-centric strategies.

By Cheryl Hilvert, ICMA-CM, Michael Huggins, ICMA-CM, and Doug Linkhart

There is a sense in many communities today that something is off-kilter in how residents and local governments approach community engagement and public problem solving.

Many government officials are skeptical about the knowledge, rationality, good faith, and capacity of ordinary citizens to think about and take responsible action on complex community issues.

Citizens, in turn, are often skeptical about local government’s public participation processes, question whether they will experience genuine opportunities to make a difference in how public problems are decided and are similarly skeptical about their own ability to work productively with others to overcome differences and take meaningful action.

In the meantime, important, persistent problems that require collective action are not 
getting better.

Complex Issues Require Comprehensive Approach

“Civic disconnect” is often present where local governments offer only limited opportunities for civic engagement. In these cases, community members may simply be “informed” using vehicles like newsletters and public hearings, while there is a deeper need to involve community members in describing the problem and exploring policy options.

While this simplified approach to engagement works in some cases, complicated issues and projects require a more comprehensive approach to ensure the community is part of a deliberative process to create workable and sustainable action strategies.

Collaboration with community members is even more important when a community is faced with a wicked problem—a messy, real-life situation lacking a clear and agreed-upon problem definition.

Interwoven with complex sub-issues, a wicked problem centers on the challenges of resolving the conflicting values and perspectives of multiple stakeholders. Think homelessness, criminal justice, and educational disparities.

Wicked problems are not solved in the conventional sense, only made better or worse by a decision or action. How to fix a broken water line is usually a straightforward proposition for most local government managers. Where and how to provide affordable housing that addresses the needs of homeless and marginalized populations is something else again.

Wicked problems are rarely addressed successfully through sole reliance on professional expertise or adversarial politics. Community efforts are more likely to succeed with relational problem-solving strategies centered on active citizen engagement, collaboration, and deliberative processes.

The challenge to local government leaders is how to do this in ways that not only make visible progress on the most persistent problems, but also strengthen citizens’ confidence in public processes and in their own ability to accomplish meaningful public work.

One approach to addressing complex community issues may lie in incorporating core democratic practices more systematically into community engagement and problem-solving processes.

Drawing on decades of research with local communities, the Kettering Foundation has identified six core democratic practices critical for rebuilding citizens’ ability to work with each other and with local government to generate effective and responsive decision making.

Core Democratic Practices

Founded in 1927, the Kettering Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan research foundation focused on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives and communities and make democracy work as it should.

Kettering’s research over many years and in many local communities has found that effective problem-solving and healthy democratic governance require:

  • Active citizens seeking and exercising sound public choices about their futures. (We should note here that the foundation uses the term citizen not to connote legal status but to refer to a person’s civic responsibility. The ideal is for all residents and stakeholders to act as citizens.)
  • Strong communities acting together to deliberate and take action on common problems.
  • Community institutions, especially local government and public schools, aligning decision-making processes in ways that strengthen local self-rule and the capacities of community members to work collaboratively on common problems across differences of view.

Kettering’s research, which has included multiple case-study discussions and learning exchanges over the past decade with local government managers, suggests that communities often struggle to move forward on critical issues because of the problem behind the problem that keeps public problem solving from working as it should:

  • Citizens are sidelined and not engaged in local politics and civic life.
  • Issues are discussed in ways that reinforce divisiveness and polarization and keep people from working together to build shared purpose and action.
  • People react hastily without reaching shared decisions through deliberative reasoning and reflective judgment.
  • Technical and professional expertise is substituted for deliberative public knowledge.
  • Citizens think they cannot make a difference because they lack the necessary resources and skills.
  • Citizen actions go in so many different directions that they are ineffective.
  • A mutual lack of confidence between citizens and public institutions results in citizens seeing institutions as unresponsive and ineffective, and institutions doubting ordinary citizens can be responsible and capable.

Drawing on the work of David Mathews in The Ecology of Democracy, the Kettering Foundation has identified six core democratic practices critical for citizens to address shared problems, which are briefly described below, along with an example from a U.S. community.

1. Identify or name the issues facing citizens in their own terms; that is, in terms of what is meaningful and valuable 
to them.
In an example of being open to community members naming an issue in their own words, Charlotte, North Carolina, undertook several approaches to listen to community voices following a report on economic inequity in the city and a fatal officer-involved shooting in 
late 2016.

These included Can We Talk? dialogues in which residents engaged in open conversation with police and Take10CLT, in which city employees surveyed people passing by, asking open questions about their views on the city.

2. Frame issues so that a range of actions are considered and the potential, required trade-offs are evident.

An example of framing is a process in which community stakeholders in El Paso, Texas, broadly defined resiliency to include economic prosperity, affordable housing, and other goals not traditionally included under this heading.

The resulting resilience strategy is aimed at deploying innovative initiatives that directly address the diverse needs of the El Paso community.

3. Make decisions deliberatively and weigh the trade-offs among choices, to minimize hasty reactions and move toward sound public judgment.

Done well, participatory budgeting can represent a deliberative process for decision making. One of the pioneers of this practice in the U.S. is Chicago’s 49th Ward, where Alderman Joe Moore uses a year-long community process to determine the priorities and projects that he submits to the city and its related agencies.

Since 2010, the residents of Ward 49 have worked to suggest projects, set priorities, and determine the allocation of $8.3 million in capital expenditures.

4. Identify community resources that are available – even intangible ones like enthusiasm and commitment.

Stockton, California, is focusing attention on trauma issues in an effort called Healing South, which includes an asset mapping strategy that outlines a variety of partners, programs, and physical resources providing trauma and social support.

The group coordinated with community-based organizations, schools, and faith-based groups to engage residents in focus groups about what they feel contributes to trauma in Stockton and what kind of support is needed beyond existing services. This information helps focus policy advocacy and systems change and increases access to appropriate services.

5. Organize community actions to address a public problem in a complementary and coordinated fashion.

As part of its implementation of a communitywide visioning process, San Antonio, Texas, has formed a Teen Pregnancy Prevention Collaborative. The collaborative includes an impressive list of cross-sector organizations, including public entities and community organizations, as well as faith-based and secular institutions.

Specific goals for reducing teen pregnancy have been established, with particular attention to Latino and African-American populations, and these goals were exceeded during the first seven years of collective work.

6. Encourage constant collective learning to maintain momentum.

A project in Southeastern San Diego, California, to reduce heart disease taught organizers about trust and how to motivate action.

The area has a high concentration of African Americans and the county’s highest incidence of heart attacks and strokes. In working with local congregations, the organizers found that previous efforts that overpromised and underdelivered had left many people mistrustful of such partnerships.

By engaging in candid dialogues about race, exploitation, and neglect and forming a data stewardship agreement that ensured transparency and local ownership, the project gained the participation of the congregations and other residents in the area, ultimately reducing the number of heart attacks by 22% since 2010.

Kettering’s core premise is that citizens’ consistent application of these practices in their public relationships with others, with community institutions, and with local government is essential for building joint public leadership, solving public problems, and developing the broad civic base necessary to govern effectively in a democracy.

Managers’ Survey Shows Acceptance of Practices

In 2018, the authors surveyed local managers to examine how important they believed each democratic practice was to their public engagement efforts and how comfortable they were in using each practice.

The managers had either participated in the Kettering Local Government Manager Learning Exchanges or were finalists for the All-America Cities Award program.

The survey found that managers, who were familiar with all six of the Kettering Practices and believed that they were important to undertake, rated these practices to be either “extremely important” or “very important” as follows:

  • Naming the issues (87.5 percent).
  • Framing issues (75 percent).
  • Deliberating with citizens (75 percent).
  • Identifying community resources (66.7 percent).
  • Organizing complementary community actions (79.2 percent).
  • Constant collective learning (62.5 percent).

Of managers surveyed, at least 54 percent felt either “extremely” or “very confident” in implementing the Kettering practices and were most likely to implement the following practices:

  • Naming the issues (54.2 percent).
  • Framing issues (70.8 percent).
  • Deliberating with citizens (66.7 percent).

Those practices least likely to be undertaken by managers were organizing complementary community actions (28.3 percent) and constant collective learning (38.1 percent).

Engaging the Full Community

Local government managers routinely name issues and frame options for their elected officials. They are accustomed to using deliberative processes to negotiate the tensions among stakeholders’ underlying values, assess policy option trade-offs, and find appropriate solutions to community issues and problems.

These process strategies inform local decision making and are leadership competencies with which managers are generally comfortable.

Familiarity and confidence with these practices may serve as a bridge to expanding the use of these approaches to broader application in engaging the full community in public problem-solving work. It may also be the reason that managers in our survey were more likely to feel comfortable in undertaking this work.

The use of deliberative processes for community engagement can be an effective way to address local challenges. Community members can be the source of innovative and context-specific solutions for addressing difficult and perplexing wicked issues.

Effective use of relational and citizen-centric strategies such as the Kettering Practices can do much to enhance local efforts to solve public problems and provide effective democratic governance.

We would encourage managers to incorporate these practices in both their organizational and community leadership work in finding creative and deliberative solutions to the issues, activities, and problems that confront them today.

Cheryl Hilvert, ICMA-CM, is ICMA Midwest Regional Director, Montgomery, Ohio (chilvert@icma.org).



Michael Huggins, ICMA-CM, is principal, Civic Praxis, Eau Claire, Wisconsin (hugginsmw@gmail.com).



Doug Linkhart is president, National Civic League, Denver, Colorado 

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