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Including Citizens in the Municipal Problem-Solving Process

Cities of Service’s second annual Engaged Cities Award seeks local government leaders actively working to include their citizens in finding solutions to community problems.

Cities of Service has launched its second-annual Engaged Cities Award, an international effort to find and ultimately share work being done by local governments to include citizens in problem-solving processes.

As was the case last year, this award is open to city governments with more than 30,000 residents. Participating cities can be located in either of the Americas or Europe. Winning cities will ultimately receive a minimum of $50,000, as well as the opportunity to have the nature of their work publicized by the host organization. Last year’s inaugural group of applicants exceeded expectations, topping 100. Three cities — Tulsa, Okla.; Santiago de Cali, Colombia; and Bologna, Italy — were ultimately selected as winners.

Interested mayors or other local leadership for this second time around have until Jan. 18 to apply, and they can do so via the Cities of Service website.

Myung J. Lee, Cities of Service executive director, said the biggest change to this year’s award program is that after learning so much from last year, organizers have created more specific guidelines about what they want. Specifically, there are three guiding criteria that successful cities should follow, Lee explained.

The first is the city must be engaged in work that actively includes citizens as problem solvers. Most jurisdictions in the country are engaged in some sort of effort to collect opinions and information from residents. This award, however, seeks to identify cities that more thoroughly utilize citizen talents and expertise throughout prolonged campaigns to overcome community obstacles.

The second criteria is that the cities show evidence of the impact those inclusionary efforts are having. Lee noted that the group received promising applications from cities last year that had great ideas, but some hadn’t yet yielded concrete results. Lee encouraged cities fitting that description to apply again.

The third criteria is that the cities are able to develop strategies that can be transferred to other jurisdictions. Lee emphasized that this doesn’t mean work must be replicable, just that it be built upon a foundation of approaches that can be deployed elsewhere, regardless of the actual problem that is being solved.

“We really want these things to be stolen shamelessly by other cities,” Lee said.

For interested local leaders, the question may then become, what does this sort of project look like? For the sole United States winner last year — Tulsa — the work heavily involved data-driven governance. In fact, Tulsa’s winning project is called the Urban Data Pioneers program, and it’s a pretty acute summation of all three criteria Lee cited.

James Wagner, Tulsa’s chief of performance strategy and innovation, said, “Our project’s goal really is to take problems we have in the city and combine city employees with the public to help analyze those problems and find solutions.”

Tulsa is now on its fourth cohort for the Urban Data Pioneers program, which begins with a kickoff meeting and then evolves into what could perhaps best be described as a long-term hackathon focused on one specific problem, teams consist of public servants as well as members of the general public. Teams form, each with its own project manager, and data is given to them by the city. Each team gets 12 weeks, and at the end of the 12 weeks they present their projects to the city.

For Tulsa, the program has had the dual benefit of making its data analytics work more robust while involving private citizens more with local governance.

After winning last year’s award, Tulsa received $70,000 that has been used to contract specialized data science learning programs for Urban Data Pioneer participants, to bolster the program in small ways like adding refreshments to meetings, and to pay for upcoming trips to spread the program to other jurisdictions, such as Fort Collins, Colo.

Another benefit for Tulsa has been the media reaction to its winning the award.

“The attention we’ve gotten for this from a media perspective have helped us recruit more people,” Wagner said. “Especially in this fourth cohort, a lot of people learned about it from us winning the award.”

For cities looking to be successful in this year’s contest, Wagner said the key is making sure the focus is primarily on the point of the contest: citizen engagement.

“The most important part of Engaged Cities is making sure residents are involved in the solutions to the problems cities are trying to solve,” Wagner said. “Everything we did was kind of born out of the fact that we didn’t have the resources to do what we really wanted to do. We just realized our residents have a stake in the future of the city.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.