Home On the Agenda Building Democratic Skills for City Leaders Through Lessons Learned Post-Katrina

Building Democratic Skills for City Leaders Through Lessons Learned Post-Katrina

April 5, 2016

City managers have a unique power to shape the future of their municipalities. They are responsible not only for day-to-day administrative operations of their cities, but also for engaging their citizens. In many situations, they essentially run their cities, even more so than the mayor. As cities face opportunities or challenges that drive them to reinvent or rebuild, city managers are crucial liaisons for engaging the public in these efforts.

In February, I delivered a workshop on Democratic Skills for Public Leaders to a group of 50 city and county managers. The workshop was the opening session of the Association for Pennsylvania Municipal Management’s Executive Development Conference in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. We tailored the workshop to the specific needs of city managers, focusing on tools and techniques they can employ to strengthen the participation infrastructure in their cities.

It can be daunting for a city leader to choose the most effective platform to reach their constituents. City leaders have a vast range of civic engagement tools at their disposal, including phone calls, newsletters, email, town hall meetings, social media and many others.

Many participants were incorporating both technological and face-to-face tools to engage their constituents. During the workshop, I focused on how they could most effectively coordinate and combine face-to-face engagement with civic technology as they design engagement processes for their communities.

We first discussed successful cases where innovators used both face-to-face and technological tools to engage citizens, including Portsmouth Listens and participatory budgeting. After, the group broke into small groups to design a comprehensive engagement strategy using a combination of engagement methods. To make the exercise feel more real and grounded, we used an exercise based on past engagement work in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I worked in Moss Point, Mississippi, to help local city government and nonprofit leaders build their capacity to rebuild both the physical and civic infrastructure of the city.

In August 2005, Moss Point, like its neighbors throughout the Gulf Coast, was hit by Hurricane Katrina. The city’s downtown and predominantly low-lying African American neighborhoods were flooded or destroyed. The city was already struggling to recover from a closed industry and the devastation left by the hurricane provided the extra push the city needed to redefine itself.

Moss Point is a perfect example of a city that engaged its citizens after a disaster to rebuild better and more resilient. I used Moss Point’s community leaders’ experience in community building and renewal as a successful case study in community engagement.

During the workshop, each participant worked through a scenario in which they were a first time, newly elected city council member, as was the case for several Moss Point officials. Two months after being elected into office, their city is devastated by the historic storm. One month has passed since the storm and the initial relief effort is underway. Downtown, including City Hall, has been devastated. Federal and state funds will be available to rebuild and recover.

In this scenario the mayor has expressed his vision for turning this horrific event into an opportunity to rebuild a stronger city, and the city council is committed to engaging citizens in shaping the rebuilding efforts. I tasked each group with creating an engagement strategy using the techniques that I covered earlier in the workshop to address the immediate and long-term needs of their residents.

The participants worked in small groups to brainstorm ideas on how to engage their citizens, particularly those who have traditionally been marginalized, while working in a crisis situation with limited resources. Each group enthusiastically tackled the challenge and emerged with innovative engagement strategies. After, I shared with them the strategies that Moss Point city leaders employed to be stronger, more resilient and more inclusive.

The city and county managers who attended the workshop were seasoned professionals. It was essential to design and deliver a workshop that addressed the unique challenges that they face, gave them practical skills that they can apply in their own communities and was respectful of their vast experience by challenging them.