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