Graduate Students Find Solutions to Support Cities

April 5, 2021

When addressing citizen engagement challenges, city officials should remember that simple strategies that require minimal resources can be used to effectively improve engagement practices.

The caveat? A commitment from leadership.

Three graduate students from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University (GSU) researched the local engagement challenges expressed by five cities as part of GMA’s Hub Cities Initiative. In their final report, Hiba Amjad, Amber Fields and Dylan Simmon outlined their key findings from stakeholder interviews, provided an overview of strategies and engagement best practices from across the nation and made recommendations on which best practices each of the five cities could consider using to address its specific challenges.

“The students did an outstanding job on this report,” said Brian Wallace, GMA’s Director of Strategic Initiatives. “We had such a great experience with the GSU students that worked on a homelessness report during the spring of 2020, that we signed another group up last fall to look at engagement challenges cities face.”

“From the research two general recommendations were advanced in the report. And these were found to be durable and effective approaches even during COVID,” said Dr. Joseph Hacker, the faculty advisor on the project. “The first is ‘Open Sessions,’ where promotion and feedback is accomplished outside of traditional townhall meetings. Brownbag discussions, Facebook Live and Leader Roundtables can be done in nearly any mode and provide community feedback. The second is ‘Small Target Campaigns’ where underserved or represented groups are targeted to promote or engage in working relationships.”

Hacker went on to say that both strategies can be done informally or virtually as needed. “There are many engagement strategies from across the country where appropriately masked and distanced outreach efforts are in small groups and building trust,” Hacker added. In the report, the students provided a matrix that cross-referenced engagement priorities—catalysts to increase outreach, reaching youth, reaching under-served communities, building trust, and so on—with specific best practices that can be used to meet those needs, such as art competitions on civic issues, dialogue circles, service learning and participatory budgeting, among other practices.

“Many of these strategies were being used before COVID hit, but have been refined through experience,” Hacker said. “The takeaway being that when it comes to effective citizen engagement, cities should lean into what they are already doing and find a way to extend their outreach by getting out of the office or taking the message directly to those affected.”

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.

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