Seven Ways to Increase Community Power in Local Decision-Making

By Caitlyn

CommunityMatters®, a partnership of seven national organizations including Orton, share the belief that people have the power to solve their community’s problems and direct future growth and change.

As leaders in the fields of civic engagement and community and economic development, the partners believe that by strengthening civic infrastructure, communities can become more prosperous, vibrant places to live.

Why is civic infrastructure key? Because, like the physical infrastructure that supports a community’s built environment, civic infrastructure supports the social sphere. It consists of the opportunities, activities and arenas, both online and face-to-face, that allow people to connect with each other, solve problems, make decisions and celebrate community.

Many towns have little civic infrastructure, and every town could use more of it. Strong civic infrastructure manifests itself in different ways. In one town, gathering places promote dialogue, while residents of a neighboring city might communicate through online forums. Other communities are great at participatory planning processes, or hosting inclusive public meetings.

By pooling tools and resources, CommunityMatters partner organizations offer diverse opportunities to promote citizens’ power to influence decision-making. Here are seven ways to build civic infrastructure in your town:

Invite people to the table (and keep them there)
Dialogue, deliberation and other innovative group processes help people come together across differences to talk, listen and strengthen relationships. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) Resource Guide on Public Engagement offers valuable resources, points of contact and case studies.

Lead with values
The Orton Family Foundation’s Heart & Soul Community Planning model helps community members identify deeply held shared values to ensure that what they care about most guides change and decision-making. The Heart & Soul Community Handbook provides online resources on project design, outreach and communications, building partnerships, engaging youth, and using storytelling and the arts to help identify community values.

Give people good opportunities to contribute
Create goals and options for democratic governance. If you have citizens at the table because they care about a particular issue, find ways to sustain their involvement with opportunities to share their skills and expertise. Planning for Stronger Local Democracy: A Field Guide for Local Officials is a toolkit designed to help city leaders strengthen civic infrastructure through shared responsibilities and mutual accountability.

Focus on people-powered possibilities
Grassroots Grantmakers helps people-powered organizations turn possibility into reality. Its distinguishing characteristics: focusing on what people can do better together rather than what agencies or institutions can do for them, helping people move from dreaming to doing, and investing in people as critical change-makers. Big Thinking On Small Grants, a series of blog posts by Grassroots Grantmakers’ Janis Foster Richardson, inspires support of and action by everyday citizens.

Engage online and offline
Offer multiple ways for people to interact with government, both online and offline. The New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project (CCIP) researches emerging practices that enable adoption of innovative policies, technology and programs that deepen community engagement. Check out the Foundation’s Hear Us Now? A Survey of Digital Technology’s Role in Civic Engagement and Local Government for great ideas and insight related to online engagement.

Quit being broke
Existing paths of development in cities and towns across the country are unstable, relying on fiscally unsound funding of long-term maintenance and infrastructure improvements. The Strong Towns Curbside Chat Program covers the causes and impacts of the current economic crisis, examines case studies on the finances of America’s development pattern, reviews “dead ideas” of the suburban era we need to shed and proposes strategies for adjusting to the new realities we face.

Focus on place
Placemaking is a catalyst for building healthy, sustainable and economically viable cities and towns. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) uses placemaking strategies and tools to capitalize on a community’s assets, inspiration and potential in order to design and build appealing public spaces. Find tools and guides to help create vibrant places in your community on the PPS website.

CommunityMatters partner organizations include: Deliberative Democracy Consortium, Grassroots Grantmakers, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, New America Foundation, Orton Family Foundation, Project for Public Spaces, and Strong Towns. CommunityMatters and the partnership were conceived by the Orton Family Foundation, with offices in Colorado and Vermont.