Should governments and other public institutions make an effort to “stay in touch” with citizens outside of a specific project that requires public engagement? Our October Webinar looked at two initiatives by the School of Government (SOG) at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill: a blog called CELE — Community Engagement Learning Exchange – in which people from various sectors write on their views and observations and elicit responses from other “ordinary” members of the public; and “Citizens’ Academies” (sometimes called “County University”, “Neighbourhood College” or “City Hall High”) – a way to educate members of the public on the workings of local government.
The initiative is overseen by Drs John Stephens and Rick Morse of the SOG. CELE steers a middle course between the “cheese sandwich” blog – “I had a cheese sandwich for lunch today” – and the extreme-view political blog. The idea, says Stephens, is to draw people into a conversation and exchange views and knowledge.
Not that there isn’t controversy. Stephen Hopkins, a community activist in Raleigh-Durham, NC, and former chair of the local NAACP Housing Committee, says he deliberately sets out to provoke people: “I want to get people’s blood boiling enough to want to comment,” he says.
Along with Hopkins, contributors to the blog include Kevin Smith, a civic employee in Raleigh who conceived the idea and brought it to the SOG in the first place; and Brian Bowman, communications director for the town of Knightdale, NC.
So how are these efforts improving the level and quality of P2? CELE is still in its infancy, and one of the metrics is the number of comments on the blog posts. Morse says there are still not enough of those to declare it a success – or not. He and Stephens acknowledge these things take time, but they are certain they’re on the right track.
The Citizens’ Academies are already showing promise, but also have their limitations. Morse says they’re seeing an increase in the proportion of people getting involved in civic affairs and more likely to take part in public engagement efforts when an actual project comes along that needs to be addressed. (Remember that Citizens’ Academies are not driven by a specific project but by general interest in finding out how government works.) One of the limitations is that the Citizens’ Academies tend to be attended by middle-class retired people who have the leisure to take part. Another is that some of the more marginalized people are not able to participate in CELE: Stephens concedes that this is not the best way to reach them.