Overall, “citizen-centered” approaches to civic engagement needs more marketing and communication about what, exactly, the concept means and why they are needed. As noted, applicants generally appreciated hearing about the “citizen-centered” concept, but that did not mean they all understood it. When asked to define the phrase, applicants’ answers varied widely, and not very many included key elements of the Case Foundation’s definition, such as the need for diverse discussions. A common answer was “serving people better,” e.g., “basic services given to the community/public and without regards to race, color, sex, creed, nationality. Everyone can be served.” (See Figure 8.)
Hardly anyone said that in citizen-centered projects, the outcomes or objectives are left open for deliberation instead of being defined from the beginning. A rare example would be this definition: “people discussing and working directly on local/community issues with other people who may or may not hold views different from their own.”
As expected, MIYO winners understood the concept of “citizen-centeredness” much better than other applicants and were more enthusiastic about it. One winner thought that the phrase was jargon—a good as any of the alternative phrases, but not moving for most citizens, who care more about local issues and problems. A community partner of one grantee said he had not heard the phrase before. He did understand it, but he personally used “community-centered” instead and also liked “civic culture” as a defining phrase.
Applicants who defined “citizen-centered” consistently with the Case Foundation’s definition fared substantially better than other applicants in the process. For instance, those who thought in terms of good services for citizens received an average of 94 points from peer-reviewers in the process, compared to 112 points for those who wrote about citizens’ voices being heard or their ideas being incorporated into decisions. (The peer reviewers did not see their definitions, which were provided on surveys completed long after the MIYO program itself.)
Thus, it appears that the MIYO process was good at distinguishing truly citizen-centered applicants from those interested in service provision. It also appears that many groups that would like to see themselves as “citizen-centered” are still basically interested in serving the public.
These findings reinforce the need for marketing or dissemination in the future. One of the grantees suggested a major focus of future efforts should be “training and marketing to leaders” so they can learn to “let go a little.” She felt that if they understood the citizen-centered concept, they might become more open to genuine public engagement. Another applicant felt the Foundation should seed and publicize a “critical mass” of citizen-centered projects so leaders can understand that they work.
Citizen-centered work takes time and patience … Community engagement and problem-solving involving wide swaths of communities are not easy, nor do they lead to results quickly. Convening public meetings are only one part of the process, although they nearly always form the foundation for ongoing, sustained civic work. Thus, the Foundation’s efforts to lay that groundwork seem to have borne fruit.
…but it appears that when provided with resources and support, it can be sustainable. Two years after grant awards, 80 percent of the winners were still highly involved with their projects and had made plans to continue them, indicating that this program was able to give them the foundation from which to do so.
That support doesn’t necessarily mean providing enormous amounts of money. At a time when investors are seeking new ways to “change the world” with less resources, it appears supporting these kinds of community-based, citizen-centered efforts can serve as a relatively low-cost yet potentially effective strategy. Citizen-centered engagement not only helps entire communities address particular issues of concern to them, but also strengthens the capacity of that community to address whatever issue confronts them in the future.
Technology is important to strengthening communities and citizen-centered efforts, but its uses must be developed and implemented appropriately and strategically. Funders often value technology and its considerable potential for fundraising, marketing, organizing, recruitment, and program implementation. But that potential may go unrealized if those individuals the funders are targeting do not have the time, resources, and/or inclination to use it.
It is also important to understand the tricky balancing act that occurs between encouraging experimentation with technology and encouraging true citizen-centered community-based efforts in which residents themselves decide what makes the most sense for their communities in terms of communication and networks. Those wanting to encourage more technology use in these efforts, therefore, may want to consider working with communities to map and/or assess the technological skills and needs of those communities first and then again with residents, designing projects that will capitalize on this knowledge.
Foundations, corporations, and community leaders may want to consider providing trainings for individuals in communities where citizen-centered projects are occurring. These trainings could focus on the benefits of technology, what it offers, and how to use it most effectively. They could be tiered in terms of people’s comfort levels (e.g., basic, intermediate, advanced), as well as designed to help the leaders of citizen-centered efforts weave together more seamlessly the on-line and offline aspects of this work (an ongoing and major challenge).