Participatory Community Engagement at Risk

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By Nathan Boucher, DrPH

On February 3rd of this year, Raleigh City Council voted to disband the city’s 18 longstanding Citizen Advisory Councils (CAC), eroding public trust in government. This has now been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, placing community engagement at even greater risk with the cancellation of in-person meetings across almost all municipalities.

Participatory community engagement is the cornerstone of successful, inclusive, and healthy communities. The disbandment of CACs jeopardized the role of community voice in significant and material decisions made for Raleigh, North Carolinians’ capital city – a role model for all. At the time, the City Council indicated a search for a solution intended to “revolutionize our civic engagement process,” according to Raleigh City Council Member Saige Martin. While I can applaud a hope to reengineer the civic engagement process in our Capital, I feel the timeline is publicly ill-defined and hampered by the pandemic, and the losses to the community potentially great. While the City of Raleigh Community Engagement Process Development (CEPD) – with the goal of “studying best practices for conducting outreach in order to create a standard process for community outreach and engagement in City Planning projects,” according to their website – is apparently active, there is not presently a standard process for community engagement while the City faces major hurdles. It is plausible that the citizen advisory councils – established in 1974 – needed updating; every process needs to be revisited periodically and squared with current contexts. However, now two months after the dismantling of CACs, residents’ voices are further constrained by the prolonged cancellation of in-person meetings – normally rich opportunities for community input on issues deeply affecting them.

Community engagement processes are endorsed and frequently required by U.S. authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development as well as countless municipalities across the nation. This critical engagement is part of our democratic process honoring citizens’ experience and learned wisdom. It fosters transparency in government decisions. Transparency is crucial in this time when social and health services are in unusually high demand, working to ensure the protection of all residents. Civic participation approaches have largely been born from public health promotion and health services research efforts. It is not a stretch to frame decisions made by a municipality as having potential direct and indirect effects on residents’ health. Decisions regarding housing and development, roadways, green spaces, policing and now resource allocation all have influences on community members’ physical and mental health as well as safety. Raleigh’s CACs routinely worked with city staffers to ensure that resident’s concerns were voiced and represented. Decisions that affect thousands, especially during this health crisis, cannot be made solely by eight council members without wider community representation and input.

Personally, community stakeholder engagement is critical to the research work that I do – making sure that my work is aligned with community need and wisdom.

I support a fresh look at community engagement for our Capital City, but the circumstances under which this is taking place are worrisome. It is strongly advisable to soon have in place a robust plan of action that incorporates community voice in all its diverse forms. While the City of Raleigh has used surveys to understand how to further engage residents, imagining a future where constituent input is no longer formally organized and invited is distressing. Let us learn from our Capital City’s far-reaching error and make every attempt to shore up community engagement in all our communities.

Nathan Boucher is a federal research scientist with the Veterans Administration and a faculty member at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and School of Medicine.