Exploring Citizen Engagement at our Global Gathering

When you’ve been to one city, you’ve been to one city. 

We’ve said this time and again at Cities of Service. Every city is different and so is the context in which it operates. City leaders have diverse approaches to citizen engagement and there is potential for even greater impact when they can share their transferable solutions with one another.  

In this spirit of bringing people together to share a variety of perspectives, we held our first international convening this summer in Bologna, Italy, in partnership with the City of Bologna, the Fondazione Innovazione Urbana, Nesta, and URBACT. More than 50 staff from city governments and partner organizations gathered in Bologna’s historic buildings to discuss how cities are engaging citizens at the local level to help them address a variety of public challenges.

Getting people from three continents and nearly 30 different organizations together isn’t easy. But we knew including the international networks of Nesta and URBACT could increase our impact and enable our coalition members to make connections with cities that they may not otherwise have the chance to work with.

“I’m going back home with lots of ideas and looking to make them a reality in our own way.”

Participants hailed from the United States, South America, and across Europe. Cities with strong mayors were represented, as well as council governments from the United Kingdom, county governments, and NGOs. They were all inspired by the camaraderie and the exchange of ideas. 

Some participants were relatively large cities like Helsinki, San Jose, and London. Others, like Monmouthshire County Council in Wales and Salerno, Italy, had small budgets and few staff members. Many are struggling with austerity measures. Cities of every size and budget run up against constraints, and participants exchanged insights  about prioritizing the development of partnerships with their residents using the resources they have. 

“Trust in the power of imagination,” said Oswaldo Mestre, director of citizen services and chief service officer for Buffalo, in one of the sessions. “And remember to always bet on people.” 

Many cities are doing just that. 

Bologna is one example: the city partnered with the University of Bologna to create the Fondazione Innovazione Urbana and has created the Office of Imagination, which works to boost citizen participation and functions as a bridge between citizens and the city. The staff spends much of its time in the neighborhood or districts listening to better understand the unique needs and challenges of each community.

The conference offered encouragement and inspiration, as well as a refresher of best practices. Everyone in attendance had something important to share that helped others and had something to learn that they could bring back to their city. While Oswaldo is right that imagination can help city staff be creative as they figure out how to engage residents, the conference participants all knew that thoughtful planning, follow through, and attention to detail are essential for long-term success. 

Attendees at the conference were able to go beyond surface level presentations, and explore big, exciting ideas. They also spent a lot of time delving into the details and logistics of working with residents in city government. There were conversations about a variety of best practices, including  helping citizens understand that their participation is important and effective; using SMS texting to reach refugees and other communities that are not connected with city hall; how to use existing infrastructure, like libraries, to convene residents; and even what kinds of surveys get the most helpful responses.

The conference took considerable coordination between partners and with cities across cultures and languages, but this allowed us to draw on our experience and that of our partners, to deepen and broaden our networks, and to bring in diverse perspectives. 

Everyone in attendance had something important to share that helped others and had something to learn that they could bring back to their city.

All the hard work paid off. “I’m going back home with lots of ideas,” said Juan Carlos Tenorio Jiménez, Leader of Community Initiatives, Office of Peace and Civic Culture for Santiago de Cali, “and looking to make them a reality in our own way.” He was one of many participants who left with new connections, ideas to adapt to their own cities’ context. 

This is just the beginning. We’re excited to continue to develop our partnership with NESTA and URBACT, so we can support our cities as they continue to grow and strengthen their engagement efforts across a wide variety of issues.