engaging citizens in cities

(Los Angeles) At CityLab 2014, I’m on a panel called “Beyond the Buzz: What Citizen Engagement Strategies are Really Working.”

I think mayors and the people who work for them tend to think of engaged citizens as potential suppliers of:

  1. votes
  2. taxes
  3. input/opinion
  4. voluntary work

The first two won’t be strictly relevant to our panel, because taxes are required by law and voting is a “political” concern, officially separate from public administration (except insofar as the voting process itself should be convenient and reliable).

Input and volunteering are valuable, but we need to push them to the next level. Both  tend to be individual and disconnected from other aspects of life. For example, a private citizen may contact the city to complain about an immediate problem, like a broken light, or to express an opinion about a community problem, like police bias. She may separately sign up to clean a park or tutor a child.

Individuals give their best input when they discuss their ideas with other people, checking their biases and values, holding themselves and others accountable, and learning from collective experience. They do their best volunteer work when they have decided with others what is needed and how to address those needs, and when they can reflect on the results of their efforts. That means that both input and volunteer labor are best when they are connected to citizens’ discussions.

What’s more, both talk and volunteer work are best when they are connected to paid work (presuming that the individual is employed). We learn a great deal on the job, and we have the potential to improve a city through our paid employment. If our civic engagement is limited to free contributions–input and/or volunteer service–it is not nearly as serious, informed, or potentially effective as it is if it also influences our paid work.

So instead of imagining an individual complaining about her children’s school or volunteering to chaperone students, picture her engaging in a discussion with diverse people about how to improve the school for all kids. That conversation should involve parents, other residents, students themselves, and also professional teachers and administrators. Some of the adults will have jobs that affect the welfare of children, from ministering to a religious congregation to operating a local grocery store. They should bring their experience from work into the discussions and hold themselves accountable to their fellow citizens as they go about their jobs. They may also volunteer and express individual opinions, but those acts will be informed by their discussion and their work.

(See also “the rise of urban citizenship” “youth Participatory Budgeting in Boston” and “civic responses to Newtown“)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.