GeneralEn Route to Changing the Conversation: How to Make Citizen Engagement Work

En Route to Changing the Conversation: How to Make Citizen Engagement Work

Cornelia Forsthuber
Cornelia Forsthuber
I'm passionate about including the next generation of CityChangers into the conversation, exploring my city, and meaningful conversations. In my free time, I enjoy the other good things in life: literature, hiking, and eating my way through Vienna.

How can you make authentic citizen participation work? Warren Logan, Policy Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations in the city of Oakland, has made a name for himself by not just superficially asking for the opinion of fellow citizens, but by building trust and starting an honest dialogue. What is his secret ingredient for functioning civic participation, and what are the questions you should ask? We sat down with him to hear first-hand how he and his team are doing things differently.

To narrow the gap between public office and the community, and to understand which measures are well received and how, it is essential to overcome communicative hurdles and to start a dialogue based on trust. But how do you do that? How do you get people on your side, especially those who may have been ignored for years or who do not feel listened to? How do you get unstuck from the superficial way you involve citizens?

There are some short- and long-term changes to be made, from listening and building trust to changing the way your City hires. Here’s a 6-step journey to change the conversation with your community, peppered with examples from Warren Logan’s wealth of experience:

1. Emphatically Understand Different Perspectives

When it comes to transport planning (or city planning in general), it’s all about understanding what your decisions feel like for those affected by it: “I think it’s really important for the people working for the City, outside of even transportation, to understand not just sympathetically but empathetically what it is like to be on the ground here, whether that’s taking the same forms of transportation”, Warren explains. Not hiding behind a desk (or steering wheel) it is not as self-evident as one would hope: if you’re planning a bus system, ride the bus. If you’re planning bike lanes, you need to learn to ride a bike.

Whether it’s promoting cycling or walking, note that understanding different perspectives also works in reverse: you need to understand and consider the driver’s perspective. Even though you don’t want to advocate for car drivers, it is still necessary to recognise how many people are doing it – and make them your allies. When it comes to road safety, car drivers probably agree that a road is unsafe. Agreeing on that, “they are actually aligned with your goals and not just adversarial”.

2. Create an environment that allows for authenticity

“You have to create an environment that encourages people to either get hired in the City or actively participate in the engagement process”, Warren says decisively. Get more voices at the table and challenge people to share authentically what the problem is with traffic safety – or, frankly, anything. Imagine this: you’re a City official, and you’re asking citizens what’s the biggest challenge for them. “They’re telling you, say, traffic safety. If you then go ahead with something like: thank you for your answer, I’m going to huddle up with my team and deliver an improvement! – that has very little to nothing to do with citizen engagement.”

Instead, you should see this as the starting point of the interaction: ask them where in the city they experience what they name as their biggest challenge, get to that spot, and see what they see, experience what they experience – if possible, in their presence. Warren strongly believes in the transformative power of having the community see that you’re seeing it and that you recognise it is just as serious as they see it. That is how trust is built, and that is the ultimate requirement for authentic citizen engagement.

3. Learn to Build Trust

Easier said than done – building trust is the be-all and end-all of engaging with the community. It is essential, for that reason, to have empathetic people on your team. It’s a challenging task to build trust with community groups that do not trust you and, in truth, might hate you.

“I would love to start bringing in more people with sociological backgrounds to really understand the history of these communities and the constructs that they’re dealing with.”

Warren shares an anecdote from the popular Slow Streets Programme that the City of Oakland launched last year: “It was met with grand acclaim and high derision, and one of the solutions that we finally landed on for helping people feel like they could trust this programme was literally the signs-change.” In the neighbourhoods of East Oakland, where the largest part of the community is Black and Latino, people initially had troubles identifying with the programme and met it with a level of mistrust.

The Slow Streets team replaced the bike symbol with one of a local advocacy group (Scraper Bikes Team) and added a very subtle difference: the typical outline of children on the ‘children at play’ sign was replaced with two girls running towards the frame, their outline including pom poms in their hair. “If you see it, you see it. These little girls, to me, look very much like girls that I see in the neighbourhood, just by the outline of the pom poms on their hair. That level of detail is gobsmacking, it’s just amazing.”

People started responding positively, acknowledging how they see themselves in these signs. “Part of me was – really? It’s just a sign! And another part was – wow, it’s just a sign. And the fact that this is what’s turning the tide shows me that it’s not just a matter of perfect stripes of paint on the ground. It’s the way in which we represent the community as a mirror back to itself”, he recapitulates.

The adapted Slow Street Sign in East Oakland – including the Scraper Bike symbol and the two girls with pom poms. Image credit: Warren Logan

4. Overcome Opposition by Asking Deeper Questions

Sometimes, it’s okay to disagree. When you involve citizens in your decisions, programmes or projects, there will not always be a consensus. Also, you cannot expect citizens to always give you nicely prepared, clearly formulated, straightforward statements and ideas: reactions can be emotional and not reveal at first glance what the statement is really about.

Therefore, it is important not to pull up stakes and stop programmes/projects at the first sign of resistance or opposition:

It is okay to disagree, and it is necessary to ask deeper questions to get to the root of the matter. This may take time, but it is essential if you don’t treat citizen participation as an annoying checkbox in your project plan.

Ask further questions and try to see through that first layer of emotion. Be honest and open to starting a conversation, even if it’s an uncomfortable one. Here’s another example from the Slow Streets Programme:

When one of the advocates that represent Oakland’s communities of colour opposed and told Warren they hated the programme and didn’t want it, he pushed back and asked whether removing all signs that made these streets Slow Streets was what the community wanted. Surprisingly, quite the opposite was the case – it’s not that they wanted the programme removed, it’s that they thought it didn’t go far enough.

What is said and what is being asked for can be two very different things, especially where emotions are involved.

“Try and see through that first layer of anger, disgust, and mistrust. If you’re mad at a friend and tell them to go to hell and that you never want to speak with them again – you don’t want to actually do that; you’re hurt. Friends and family members understand that. You might be hurt today, but you’re still going to come back to the dinner table and talk it through. And that is what we’re trying to do”, he explains.

That type of trust and authenticity is not an easy goal to achieve, but it’s a powerful foundation to build when it comes to involving and hearing the community in a non-superficial way. It’s not about agreeing all the time – sometimes it comes down to simply having a good, constructive argument with someone.

5. Zooming Out to the Bigger Picture

When faced with opposition and citizens disagreeing, try to zoom out to the core goal. If they’re opposing your proposed measure on making a specific street safer, can you at least agree on the street being unsafe and that it shouldn’t stay that way? If so, you both acknowledge that there is a problem and that something needs to be done (instead of accepting that everything stays the way it is).

After acknowledging that there is a need for change, the next step is to find out why exactly someone opposes your proposed solution. Ask specific questions:

  1. Do you disagree because you don’t know what it is? Is there something I can explain better?
  2. Do you think it is not going to work?
  3. Do you feel like this is helping the wrong people, or it won’t help you?
  4. Are you against this improvement because you worry about the secondary or tertiary impacts that it will have on you?

The fourth question probes the far-reaching social implications of proposed improvements. It alludes to possible gentrification processes, which can be initiated by measures such as new cycle paths, for example. The opposition then has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with the fact that people are afraid that these bike lanes will give wealthier people cause to move into their neighbourhood, rent to go up, and them having to move somewhere far away.

This is the linchpin that people don’t speak about, and this is what Warren and his team are trying to get to: “Getting the community to a place where they can vocalise that they deserve traffic improvements, and they deserve cultural competency, when we talk about how it is that we’re going to improve traffic safety without kicking them out at the same time – that statement is hard for people to make, and it is often the thing that they really need to be saying.”

At the same time, it’s equally important for those working in the City to hear this statement, even when it is not said word for word. Understanding these mechanisms and having this conversation can be a gamechanger, and it also helps with understanding why it is that, sometimes, a specific community group that you are implementing projects or improvements for are exactly the ones that feel discouraged from using them.

6. Change the Way You Hire

One thing Warren points out is his passion for people and how this is his major motivation for starting to work in government. “You don’t take an underpaid job where people yell at you all day if you don’t want to help people”, he says jokingly. This passion for people is what unites his team – not necessarily their educational backgrounds. While traditionally, city planners came and come from engineering, architecture, urban studies, and city and regional planning, a transition can be seen lately:

“People have started to recognise, fortunately, that there are a lot of other types of expertise that can be brought into this conversation that probably are more important – like anthropology, public health, or public policy.”

Oaklands safety manager within the Department of Transportation, for example, has a public health background. “You wouldn’t naturally think of that as someone to work with our engineering team, except that she brings a totally different mindset that is so critical for the ways that we’re trying to help people”, Warren explains. “I hope that our team starts to reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the work that we need to do and the holistic way in which our community sees these types of issues.” This is the paradigm that needs to be advanced:

“I would encourage people who are not thinking of city planning to be curious about that profession. There are so many people out there that are passionate about their communities and about helping people in their communities, and yet, they are not the ones that apply for the jobs that I’m hiring for.”

Advice for CityChangers

What is it that Warren Logan wants passionate CityChangers to internalise?

  • Be there, and be emphatic: sometimes, all it needs is for you to get up from your desk and experience the city in the way that your community experiences it. Likewise, if you want to change something in your city and want to get local politicians on board, invite them to step out of their office and onto the streets with you.
  • Be humble and obnoxiously curious: if people are mad and yelling at you, don’t turn away. Dare to start the conversation. Why are they mad at you or your proposal? What underlies this emotion? If you’re the one yelling: try to vocalise what it is that’s annoying you and why, as it might help find a better solution together.
  • Ask deeper questions and find common ground: it’s okay to disagree. It’s all about how you deal with opposition and how you both find common ground by agreeing on a bigger picture. Then, ask deeper questions to get to the core of where the opposition is rooted.
  • Care about representation and diversity: Cities, change the way you hire. Citizens, dare to apply for jobs that your City has advertised. Diverse City teams are able to connect with diverse communities in your city in a better, less paternalistic way.

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