Last year, the president of the City Council convened the Boston Civic Summit, with the builder of the Boston Convention Center, whose center has increased visitor traffic to Boston. It was an exciting event with 400 attendees, and could have been a kickoff for energetic action. It was wonderful to see people get excited, brainstorm and share their vision for the city – the kind of discussion that generates great energy that can be funneled into action teams. Unfortunately, there were several problems, with the design and with the follow-up, that could inform future efforts of civic engagement activities.
For example, the Summit wasn’t sponsored by the city, nor by the city council, nor by the mayor – so it didn’t really have legs: No money, no ongoing support, no connection to projects other organizations were already working on. While the event generated 4 action groups to work on 4 identified action items, those groups needed ongoing support and guidance, not to mention resources. They needed to identify their goals, prioritize them, figure out how they were going to work together, and so on. Without that support, 3 of the 4 groups did not continue to meet, and the fourth group lost participants as they continued to hold meetings.
Secondly, the vision that participants came up with needed to feed into city government. The city needed to hear their vision, and to check it with the vision that city officials had. There needed to be a way to keep ongoing communication between the participants and the city, so that they would feel heard, and that someone cared about their input. It’s a shame to generate excitement and to raise expectations and not follow through on them. That’s what makes people cynical about participating in these kind of events.
The beauty of civic engagement is that the government and the citizens work together to solve problems and to improve the quality of life in the city. Elected officials get to see that citizens care and are willing to volunteer their time to make things happen. Citizens get to feel heard, and can feel that their voice matters. It’s not that citizens expect government agencies to do everything for them – they’re willing to pitch in. We know that government by itself cannot solve the large issues that we face: homelessness, protecting and cleaning up the environmental, youth violence. Wouldn’t it be great if they convened multiple stakeholders to a city summit: citizens, business people, non-profits, educators, politicians, to think together and to generate plans for combined action?
My question is: “How can we get elected officials to understand the benefits of involving citizens in solving problems and improving the city?”