In order for local government to do its job well, it needs to listen and be responsive to citizen needs. This has always been the case, but it has not always been common practice. Local government is notorious for being impervious, out-of-touch, and indifferent to social circumstance. “You can’t fight city hall” is a common refrain symbolizing the disconnect between people and government. But recent developments in social media and digital technologies have enabled bottom-up surveillance and renewed government accountability. Innovations in data usage and participatory processes, across public and private sectors, have increased expectations of participation and feedback and created a kind of “smart consumer” of government services. All of this has amplified the need for public engagement in everyday governance and created some pressure on government offices to figure out how to do it effectively.

There is no universal formula, as each city has unique demographics, geography, and socio-cultural circumstances, but there are best practices and common values to which practitioners can adhere. This guide is meant to foster learning and support for municipal governments as they adopt transformative practices of public engagement and embed them into their day-to-day work. It will also provide insights into the organizational structure that can best support this work. It emerges out of an eighteen-month experimental process called the City Accelerator (CA), funded by the Citi Foundation and supported by Living Cities and the Engagement Lab at Emerson College. CA is comprised of a cohort of five US cities, each tasked with inventing and implementing an innovative approach to public engagement (see Appendix 3). Each came to the cohort with a specific policy or social problem to address.

  • In Albuquerque, a minority majority city, there is a need to hear and be responsive to the voices of immigrant entrepreneurs.

  • In Baltimore, there is a need to build systems that are directly responsive to people returning to their communities from prison.

  • In Atlanta, residents of the city’s underserved Westside neighborhoods need to assure that their voices are heard as a new stadium and rapid gentrification takes place.

  • In Seattle, the City needs to rethink its internal procedures for interacting with communities.

  • In New Orleans, the City aims to encourage more low-income residents to take advantage of primary health care benefits.

Over the course of eighteen months, the experiments each city took to address these problems, including foibles and successes, were captured and are being shared here to benefit public institutions seeking to become more responsive to public needs.

"This guide is meant to foster learning and support for municipal governments as they adopt transformative practices of public engagement and embed them into their day-to-day work."

This is a conceptual and practical guide. The first part is conceptual, the second part is practical. As a whole, it takes a very tactical approach to spur organizational change by providing guidance for small or large teams within government to plan and execute responsible, effective public engagement strategies that take into consideration the real-world restraints of time and limited resources. Effective public engagement needs to be mapped in a new cultural, political and technological terrain. The guide’s first section is its conceptual backbone. Called CALIBRATING THE INSTRUMENTS, the section lays out all the major concepts that have bearing on public engagement. From strategies of co-design to communication systems and partnerships, this section provides a conceptual calibration for public engagement. The second section is more practical and applied. Called CHARTING THE COURSE, it is where the actual mapmaking takes place. Once instruments are calibrated, cities need to figure out all the components that can be mapped and how to use them constructively to navigate difficult terrain. This section is meant to help individuals, teams, or entire offices form and execute strategies for understanding the impact and value of public engagement. And finally, the concluding section, entitled GOING PLACES, is a reflection on where we’ve been and a prompt for where we can go.

Public engagement is not easy. This guide does nothing to dispel that suspicion, and in fact, it verifies it. The goal of this guide , and indeed, the goal of you reading it, is to provide low barrier points of entry for people to appreciate and integrate effective public engagement strategies into the everyday work of government.