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Citizen Engagement in the 21st Century: Why and How We Use Citizen Engagement in Our Downtown Development Process

November 6, 2014  |  Danny Bivins, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia
Danny Bivins of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government engages residents in Americus as part of the Georgia Downtown Renaissance master planning process.

What do Americus, Bainbridge, Cairo, Cedartown, Clarkesville, Dawsonville and Perry have in common? All have undergone or are currently undergoing the downtown development process through the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Partnership.

Each of these cities participated in the partnership’s three-phase, master planning process, which asks and answers the following questions:
  1. Who are we as a downtown?
  2. Where are we going?
  3. How are we going to get there?

In each stage, citizen engagement is central to the process.

Phase One: Listening
Downtowns in Georgia are the embodiment of “live, work and play” and are greater than the sum of the people and businesses located within their geographical boundaries. Downtowns affect the community as a whole and input about its future should come from throughout the community. City departments, the development authority, downtown merchants, downtown property owners and residents, downtown faith-based organizations, media outlets, the chamber of commerce, the county government, health systems, real estate firms, the redevelopment authority and schools should all be asked to help answer the question, “Who are we as a downtown? ”In our efforts to encourage and engage citizens, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government uses four techniques—surveys, focus groups, interviews and electronic town hall meetings—to solicit input, with an eye toward encouraging participation among people of all stages and ages of life.

First off, we widely distribute surveys (paper copy and electronic) asking for residents’ opinions and ideas. A few key distribution partners are essential to the process: schools, water departments and lending agencies. Schools are a microcosm for the wider community, and we partner with them to send home surveys in student folders. We also reach residents via inserts in their water bills. We also use lending agencies and their inherent contact with a variety of stakeholders as a way to distribute our surveys.

Second, we solicit information from citizens using focus groups. We ask our partners for a list of key groups of peo-ple that may want to discuss their ideas about downtown in a small group setting. The benefit of focus groups is that we are able to ask follow-up questions and “drill down” deeper into community issues.

Third, we conduct one-on-one interviews with key local figures. This more personalized approach helps us ensure the collection of comprehensive feedback by getting input from individuals with multiple roles and challenging schedules.

Our fourth technique for seeking citizen input is through electronic town hall meetings. The Institute of Government relies on the traditional function of a town hall meeting, but applies technology to create a more innovative and efficient approach for collecting comprehensive feedback. Citizens attending the meeting are arranged in small groups with one Institute representative using a laptop to type responses to questions posed by the facilitator. This wireless input session allows us to easily note trends and commonalities on an overhead screen. This meeting format helps ensure all citizens have the opportunity to be heard.

Regardless of the format we use to solicit citizen input, our guiding principle is “talk to a bunch of people, but don’t ask people to go to a bunch of meetings.” Effectively engaging people requires us to offer alternatives that best meet each individual’s needs rather than our needs.

Phase Two: Visioning
Next, we look for responses to the question “Where are we going as a downtown?” using the information we collected. Our team reviews the written and spoken feedback collected from the listening process and finds the common denominators—the issues and points of pride from downtown and community-wide stakeholders.

As in Phase One, citizen engagement is vital in Phase Two. We meet with the steering committee, made up of a diverse group of leaders from the community, and discuss our findings to ensure that they are accurate and valid. The nuggets of information uncovered during the listening phase are often great entry points that help flesh out a strategic plan to address the identified issues. Visioning serves as the goal-setting stage of our process.

Phase Three: Doing
While the essence of each unique downtown is distilled in the first two phases (both as it is in its present state and how it is envisioned in the future), the final phase asks the citizens: “How are we going to get there?”

Our process immediately puts “boots on the streets” because all issues and solutions originate with the people. We divide strategies and solutions into short term (three to 18 months) and long term (up to 10 years).

During Phase Three, we return to the citizens we previously engaged and ask them to champion a strategy and help implement the plan. We find that people are eager to see their ideas put into play and willingly get to work.

Summing It Up 
Citizens play a starring role in the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Partnership’s master planning process. Fully integrating the community into the process helps ensure community-driven implementation that results in significant change the whole community can feel good about.

Danny Bivins is a public service associate with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. He has extensive experience in downtown development, planning and design, historic preservation, quality growth and regionalism. By utilizing an asset-based community development approach, Bivins helps communities build a vision for working toward a better present and future and better quality of life for residents.