Category Archives: Blog

Leading the Way: Pittsburgh, PA

As we explore exciting cases of citizen engagement initiatives across the country, our first installment of this series brings us to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It is no coincidence that people tend to trust local government at much higher levels than federal government. One likely contributor to this prevailing attitude is the proximity of local public officials to their constituents—one can often more easily contact their City Councilmember, Mayor, or City Administrator than their Congressperson—supports relationships built on accountability and responsiveness. On the state and federal levels, legislators hammer out policy details far removed from their constituents and largely rely on their phone calls and emails to provide any feedback on proposed legislation. In contrast, many cities currently use citizen engagement practices to gather feedback for policy development, and in-person events tend to be more frequent. Given these difference in engagement dynamics, it’s both possible and practical to utilize deliberation in local policy development.

One city stands out in its efforts to increase public deliberation and citizen participation: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Through its partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s Program for Deliberative Democracy, the City of Pittsburgh has developed a tool for city government to use as a guide for developing deliberative, citizen-driven engagement programming. Part of Mayor William Peduto’s campaign platform was an increase of citizen engagement and, as mayor, Peduto supported the recommendation to make Pittsburgh a center for deliberative democracy. As a result of this commitment, the city has used Deliberative Forums for the selection of a new Chief of Police and to set goals for its capital budget. Using the lessons learned from the experience of holding Deliberative Forums, the city partnered with the Art of Democracy to craft “A Handbook for Deliberative Community Forums,” intended to provide other cities with best practices and recommendations for their own future citizen engagement processes.

City leaders who have chosen to utilize this exciting engagement tool include Pittsburgh’s Black Elected Officials Coalition, which organized a series of six women’s roundtables to hear from residents of distressed communities about their concerns regarding affordable housing, employment, development of Black businesses, and other quality of life issues. They used the series of events to identify problems and surface possible solutions, distribute surveys to attendees, and organize key findings and recommendations. The findings were then used to create the draft outline of the “Peace and Justice Initiative” policy document. This document, generated entirely by citizens, business owners, and community leaders, will be used as a guide in working with the city to address quality of life issues.

In 2016 the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County collaborated on “My Brother’s Keeper,” a push to improve the livelihood of young people, particularly boys and young men of color. Local leaders and strategic partners gathered for the “My Brother’s Keeper” (MBK) Summit. Following the Summit, a committee of participants gathered to create the MBK Playbook, which held strategies and action steps to support young men and boys of color. Once a draft of the MBK Playbook was created, the City of Pittsburgh held three Deliberative Forums to solicit community feedback for incorporation into the Playbook’s final iteration.

The City of Pittsburgh is a participant in the “100 Resilient Cities” program, a global initiative which works with cities to support the development and implementation of resilience-focused policy. At the core of the city’s recently-released Resilience Strategy is a focus on collaborative action between government, business, and individuals. In developing the Resilience Strategy, the need for citizen involvement in decision-making arose repeatedly. Continued utilization of Deliberative Forums and an expansion of the city’s Civic Leadership Academy are embedded in the goal to “educat[e], engag[e], and empower residents to take part in civic decision-making.” Through the 100 Resilient Cities program, Pittsburgh has established a partnership with Semarang, Indonesia. Local government in Semarang is working to improve their public participation processes, and Pittsburgh aims to incorporate their identified best practices into future engagement efforts.

The success of citizen-driven engagement frequently hinges on, or at least is accelerated by, support from public officials. While citizen deliberation is not used systematically in official decision making, many public officials in Pittsburgh have adopted deliberative principles and practices as part of their commitment to good governance. These pioneering officials think differently about who holds knowledge in our society and who should hold power in our democracy, and we look forward to seeing a continued embrace of quality deliberation in Pittsburgh

Toward A “Greater” Minnesota Climate Policy

Our work on the Rural Climate Dialogues began nearly four years ago, and continues to this day. Over the course of the program, we have heard repeatedly the need in Greater Minnesota for support from metro-based state agencies and organizations, and in September we responded to this call.

Eighteen Citizen Jurors and leaders from the three Dialgogue communities were selected to meet from September 8-9 with one another and representatives from state agencies. Over the two days, these representatives of rural Minnesota worked to uncover the shared priorities, actions, and barriers among their very different communities, and worked with the Center for Rural Strategies to tease out the personal stories underpinning their concerns about the changes rural Minnesota’s climate is experiencing. The stunning diversity of experience and perspective on climate issues the participants represented was unparalleled for traditional outreach efforts by agency staff, who rarely have such an opportunity to hear from rural residents.

Continue reading Toward A “Greater” Minnesota Climate Policy

2016 Twin Cities Election Forum

2016’s seemingly endless presidential campaign cycle stretched for nearly twenty months and came to a quick conclusion on November 8th, 2016. In a campaign marked with hostility and record levels of disapproval, civility between candidates and their supporters appeared to have evaporated. A departure from this tension-filled political climate occurred in Minneapolis ten days before Election Day: the Twin Cities Election Forum. Held at the University of Minnesota, and supported by the College of Liberal Arts’ Joan Aldous Innovation Fund, fifty-two Twin Cities residents gathered for five hours at the University of Minnesota to discuss the most compelling reasons to support each presidential candidate and understand why their fellow Minnesota residents might support each candidate.

The project was led by C. Daniel Myers, professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. As consultants for the project, Jefferson Center staff joined Dr. Myers by training student facilitators and assisting in the design and execution of the event. We selected participants to mirror, as nearly as possible, the demographic and political makeup of the seven county Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Continue reading 2016 Twin Cities Election Forum

Do Kids Care?

From time to time, we invite practitioners, researchers, and citizens from around the world to discuss their experiences of political engagement and democracy. This post is the third guest post from Bruce Acosta, a junior at Edina High School here in Minnesota.

Bruce was born in Dubai and spent most of his childhood in Canada and Australia. After moving to Minnesota in eighth grade, Bruce developed a passion for government and politics, specifically in terms of young people and their communities.

With an often negative portrayal in the media, it comes as no surprise that young citizens hold a certain skepticism about politics. Limited civics education in schools and the lack of young political role models alienate young people even further, contributing to the widespread perception of politics as “an adult matter”. Considering that only half of eligible voters aged eighteen to nineteen cast their ballots in this year’s election, it becomes evident that something must be done to mend the relationship between students and politics before it is too late. However, research in favor of open discussion of political issues and direct involvement of students in the democratic decision-making reveals that it is the social institutions in direct contact with children – families and schools – that must take the first step in addressing this clear insufficiency in political knowledge and experience that threatens the future of our nation.

Continue reading Do Kids Care?

The Future of Our Democracy

Regardless of your feelings about its outcome, this election has brought the divides in our country into sharp relief – divisions that threaten the health and vibrancy of our shared democracy.

Together, our country faces serious challenges. These challenges take different forms in different communities. We know, though, that communities have the capacity to address these issues and advocate for themselves.

That’s why our work envisions a different kind of democracy. A democracy where civic participation extends beyond the ballot box. A democracy that empowers citizens to solve problems, develop policy, meaningfully influence decision making, and inspire action. A democracy where all citizens, regardless of their differences, join together to create stronger communities and a thriving nation.

Today, we reaffirm our commitment to an inclusive democracy. We will continue to strive for accountability in our democratic institutions, for action and policy that responds to the ambitions of all Americans, for a unified expression of our power as citizens to shape the course of our lives.

Today, we ask you to join us. Contribute $20 to help us expand our efforts into new areas and new communities in 2017. Share your ideas for strengthening democracy. Commit to take action in your community.

Whether you’re feeling excited about the possibilities for change in America, or anger and despair at the uncertainty of our shared future, or both, there’s work to do today. Let’s get to it.

-Kyle Bozentko