Civic engagement is challenging, but without it, American communities wouldn’t be what they are today. The country’s history and representative democracy depends on people to identify, address, and resolve community issues. Why should we be concerned about engaging a variety of people in civic problem-solving?
- Engagement is good for the community.
- Engagement aids organizational capacity.
- Engagement eases implementation.
- Engagement can be the best part of your day.
The best practices list below was derived from the experiences of planners, directors, and community organizers across Michigan who want to encourage all communities to do more and better engagement.
In our Civic Engagement Best Practices guidebook, each recommendation is paired with a specific, but brief, Michigan case study to serve as an example and networking opportunity. All case studies have a direct point of contact and these experts have agreed to enhance a community of practice around engagement. Readers and practitioners are encouraged to learn more, reach out, and share stories so others can implement similar strategies in their own communities.
Agree on institutional vision, values, and capacity for engagement.
Before an entity (local government, nonprofit, business – whoever is implementing a plan that needs to engage the public) can do effective civic engagement, staff must agree upon and have a clear vision for what “engagement” means. See an example from the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission on page 4 of the Civic Engagement Best Practices guidebook.
Do engagement throughout project ideation, formation, and implementation.
Implementing community projects is easiest when residents, businesses, and local institutions are seen as project partners; and to be true partners, they need to be involved in every step along the way. See an example from the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments on page 6 of the Civic Engagement Best Practices guidebook.
Build a diverse team of residents and community stakeholders to guide engagement.
Although building and maintaining a strong stakeholder group can be challenging and time-consuming, the benefits of collaboration certainly pay off. The committee should gather a diverse group of community leaders who are affected by the topic, bring an interesting or creative perspective, or anyone who may particularly object to changing the status. See an example from the City of Flint on page 8 of the Civic Engagement Best Practices guidebook.
Build capacity through relationships, trust, and leadership development.
Individual Scale: Personal one-on-one and small group conversations with people of all ages, backgrounds, cultures, and local regions, are important to open lines of communication and build trust. These relationships will also help the organizing entity find local leaders to partner with and potentially join in other efforts over time. Working with residents as partners, rather than clients, can make engagement implementation easier, more effective, and more rewarding. See an example from Washtenaw County on page 10 of the Civic Engagement Best Practices guidebook.
Institutional Scale: Formal partnerships with local institutions are also important to a project’s success. Explore potential partnerships with the local government, nonprofits, businesses, church groups, schools, and other institutions. Coordinate engagement activities with events partners are already hosting to ensure people will be in attendance – literally, meet people where they’re at instead of asking them to attend an extra meeting in a potentially unfamiliar place. These institutional partners will be able to assist in outreach, research, implementation, and can help with credibility and community buy-in. See an example from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments on page 12 of the Civic Engagement Best Practices guidebook.
Create a campaign, sense of urgency, and celebrate accomplishments to keep the momentum going.
Community planning is usually a long, multi-year process and participants sometimes experience planning fatigue. To build and maintain excitement, create a fun campaign around the project. See an example from the City of Grand Rapids on page 14 of the Civic Engagement Best Practices guidebook.
Document engagement successes and failure, evaluate, and make changes accordingly.
Communities should be creative in documenting engagement to illustrate hard work, transparency, community involvement, and results: take pictures, tell stories, write articles, do interviews, track interactions, record events, and keep records internally, but also promote findings through social and traditional media outlets. See an example from the City of Marquette on page 16 of the Civic Engagement Best Practices guidebook.
Developing effective tools and indicators to evaluate engagement is a challenge. Visit our Engagement Evaluation page for more resources and sample evaluation documents.
No one said this work was going to be easy but the only way to do great engagement is to stay open minded, positive, and energized! Although frustrating and challenging at times, effective engagement is a way to find solutions that will improve residents’ quality of life, increase opportunities, and positively impact the local economy.
Learn, Practice, and Discuss Engagement: Resources and Additional Readings
- IBM Center for the Business of Government: Beyond Citizen Engagement: Involving the Public in Co-Delivering Government Services
- International City/County Management Association: Tackling Wicked Problems Takes Resident Engagement
- National League of Cities: Planning for Stronger Democracy: A Field Guide for local Officials
- National League of Cities: Bright Spots in Community Engagement
- Peak Democracy: The Pitfalls & Corresponding Best Practices of Online Civic Engagement: A Case Study in Salt Lake City
- The Knight Foundation: Knight Soul of the Community 2010, Why People Love Where They Live and Why It Matters: A National Perspective
- UC-Irvine: Outcomes of Participatory Zoning in Grand Rapids
The following case studies highlight Michigan people who got involved in their communities and came together to creatively address a variety of needs.
NEW! Experimenting with Place in Berkley
The intersection of Robina and Twelve Mile in downtown Berkley has the potential to be a great public gathering space. A pop-up placemaking project full of fun, engaging elements got the community involved and the creative juices flowing.
A group of young professionals in Muskegon started an online branding and marketing campaign to promote their city.
Detroit Soup This grassroots initiative is a way to bring neighbors together to build relationships, share ideas and raise money for local projects happening in the community.
Recycle Here! started out as a traditional drop-off center in a community with few recycling options. Through the creativity of its staff, volunteers, and participating citizens, it has become a community gathering place and a showcase for artists and musicians.
Detroit City Futbol League
The Detroit City Futbol League is a recreational, adult, co-ed soccer league based around neighborhoods. The league brings communities together in a fun and unique way while marketing different areas of the city.
Artist Village Detroit
The Artist Village serves as a creative hub for artists, students, business owners, and neighbors living and working in the heart of Old Redford. A once abandoned commercial strip serves as the center of the village and houses the historic Redford Theatre, a small coffee shop, vintage clothing store, and an art education program.
Community Driven Nuisance Abatement
Neighbors in Southwest Detroit organized a grassroots approach to identifying and potentially taking legal action against the private owners of nuisance properties that are having a negative impact on the whole community.
Frankfort Historic Landmarks Arts Center
The Elizabeth Lane Oliver Center for the Arts is a re-purposed Coast Guard Station which serves as a popular community hub for residents and visitors. The regional arts facility has two galleries and three classroom spaces for art, music, literature, dance and exercise classes, as well as a professional test kitchen for the culinary arts.