Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Federal stimulus funds provide an opportunity for cities to authentically connect with their residents and regain their trust.
It’s not often that places as varied as Oklahoma City, Seattle and Warsaw, Poland, share the same threat assessment to their democracies. But that’s precisely what a recent survey by the German Marshall Fund of the United States found: That officials from 12 European and U.S. cities are in lockstep agreement on their biggest challenges of running a democracy in today’s world.
This disparate group collectively cited economic inequality, class or racial divisions, and political polarization as their top three problems in this area. The common message that emerged from this transatlantic cohort was that when the people do not work together, democracy dies. At the root of their concerns is eroding trust in our public institutions. In America, this is especially true for public safety, which Gallup polling shows has consistently dropped in the public’s confidence rating over the years. And in Europe, trust in national governments has plummeted, according to the latest Eurofound poll.
These findings and trends indicate that it’s not enough for governments simply to function well and be good service providers. High-performing, competent government is essential, but a strong democracy demands more. After all, there are many authoritarian leaders who have demonstrated competency in a crisis. What differentiates democratic governments is the engagement and collaboration they strive for with their constituents in shaping policy.
But in this area, we have not gone far enough. The COVID-19 pandemic and the racial-justice movement have highlighted the fact that not everyone gets a seat at the table, a fact that can lead to vastly different realities and life outcomes depending on race and economic status.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act and its focus on equity, engagement and outcomes provides an opportunity for governments to change the way they connect with their constituents. As we enter the recovery period and consider community-altering investments, it’s more important than ever for governments to authentically engage with their residents to regain their trust and create a stronger democracy going forward.
This is already beginning to happen: Many local governments are aggressively seeking community input regarding their ARPA spending plans through convenings and surveys. This is a good start, but we argue that in a strong democracy, connecting with citizens requires more than collecting information. By definition, the word “engagement” implies a meaningful connection.
To put this into practice, Living Cities’ Equipt to Innovate Field Guide, which outlines seven elements required for cities to be innovative in the 21st century, provides a framework. We believe that three of those attributes—resident-involved, race-informed and data-driven—are the most critical to a democracy. Local governments are in a prime position to apply these lenses to create more intimate constituent relationships and build trust.
So what does equitable, data-driven engagement look like on the ground? It can take many forms, but all require considering not just the relationship between government and individuals but also the relationships of residents with each other.
In Minneapolis, for example, the city health department, with the help of community leaders, held a series of conversations over culturally traditional meals with groups representing the city’s diverse community. Ethnic groups included Somali, Hmong, American Indian, African American, whites who qualify as low income, and others. The mere act of sharing a meal—called “commensality” in academia—is an important social exchange in any culture. Gillian Crowther, author of “Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food,” writes that “eating together confirms the sense of belonging, being part of a community.”
The conversations in Minneapolis started with this prompt: “Talk about a time when your family or community was healthy.” Officials’ goal was to identify themes and elements that create health, but the process yielded so much more. Not only was it incredibly powerful, city Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant tells us, but it led to adaptations in her team’s very definition of health and laid the foundation for changes in how the agency works in the community.
Another example highlights why equity and understanding data, including considering what’s missing, underpin effective community engagement. In their recent book “Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology,” Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank note that several years ago a team in New York City was using 311 data to map rat complaints to track infestations and target abatement efforts. But one team member’s neighborhood, which was lower income and majority-minority, didn’t show up on the list even though he saw rats all the time. It turns out that folks there didn't know about 311 and weren’t reporting the problem. The lesson here is that equity must be systematic; taking a race-informed approach to data ensures we get the whole picture.
Building trust through intimate engagement doesn’t happen within an election cycle. It’s difficult and time consuming, and no one should expect it to be otherwise. After all, there’s a reason that hard-to-reach groups are defined as such. And our younger generation and its impatience with the governing process is a barrier that will take time to scale. You are asking your residents to risk being vulnerable and to give their time.
Governments have to be realistic about these facts and dedicate the resources, staffing and money to work for more meaningful relationships. But they can start now. The American Rescue Plan provides for spending on engagement and data collection—for example, investing relief dollars to upgrade relevant data systems and perform program evaluations.
As local governments form their COVID recovery plans, we urge them and their citizenry to hold themselves to this higher standard of engagement and collaboration. Go beyond clocking in at meetings. Listen, feel and experience each other.
This kind of authentic engagement chips away at those top barriers of polarization, inequity and racial divisions and leads to a bolder sense of community. No longer will government services operate like a vending machine where constituents just select what their mayors and city councils decide to offer. Instead, creating and adapting government services becomes a barn-raising event: The community comes together to co-produce a final product in which everyone is invested.
Steven Bosacker is director of the German Marshall Fund’s cities program and former Minneapolis city coordinator. Mark Funkhouser is president of Funkhouser & Associates and former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. They created and promoted the Equipt to Innovate framework in 2017.