Predicting the Future: Why Citizen Engagement No Longer Is Optional

Predicting the Future: Why Citizen Engagement No Longer Is Optional

by John Nalbandian

For years, we who are involved in local government have treated citizen engagement as an option to enhance policymaking and community building in local government. I would argue that now engagement no longer is an option; it is imperative. It is made mandatory by the challenging and often confusing context of contemporary local governance, increasingly characterized by the ad hoc presence of foundations, nongovernmental organizations, private firms, and other nongovernmental actors in processes and decisions that significantly affect community development and well-being.

If we are to anticipate effectively and plan for coherence in community building as an overarching goal of professionalism in local government, we must find a way to channel toward the collective good the diversity of actors, their energy, and their collaborative minds. One way to do this is through a significant commitment and more systematic approach to planned citizen engagement.

To understand the role of engagement, first we must distinguish two types. The initial form is spontaneous. This is the expression of citizenship that local government professionals have grown to expect and often dismiss as emotion driven, self-interested, and influence yielding.

Planned engagement, an alternative form, has taken time to reach a place of legitimacy in the administrative arsenal in part, I would maintain, because we lump all engagement under the same rubric—the one we would prefer to avoid! But we must realize that planned engagement is different. It leads to an expression of the rational community mind as it deals with issues of community importance, as a balance to the emotion that comes from the heart in spontaneous engagement. Continue reading


We can’t afford not to fund participation.

Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has undergone a series of public planning processes aimed allowing ordinary people to be more involved in setting our city’s priorities for short and long term recovery and planning. Millions of dollars have been spent (sometimes in overlapping fashion), during the last 4 years largely to pay expert planning and architecture firms to guide us through a process of public discussion on everything from the appropriate location of school facilities to potentially removing the I-10 overpass that runs through downtown New Orleans into the CBD.

Through all this activity the people of New Orleans are becoming more aware and savy about what their role in public decisions is and should be. People have expressed a desire to be more formally included in the public decisions that they care most about. City residents want to ensure that civic engagement is sustained and supported by their city government. Increasing civic engagement has obvious benefits to our communities but also to the efficient and just operation of our city government. Supporting formal and organized civic engagement is no longer an option but a requirement in order for governments to operate effectively in an increasingly complex environment.

Still the question continues to arise as to how much should our city be willing to spend in order to sustain and increase current levels of civic engagement in public decisions?

The following poll is an attempt to get  your ideas on how much the city should spend on funding a viable citizen participation system. The figures are based on CPP budgets from high and low end cities. The highest being Los Angeles with close to $9million being spend annually on its Council of Neighborhoods System and one of the lowest being Washington D.C. with just under $1.2million spent annually on its Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

Please take some time to answer our poll below so that we can get some indication of how much the residents of New Orleans want our city to prioritize sustained citizen participation now and into the future.