Decatur, GA: How One City Capitalizes on Citizen Engagement

by | Nov 29, 2016

Citizen engagement is a topic that has recently gotten a lot of … well, engagement among community leaders.  ICMA’s Center for Management Strategies recently hosted a webinar (now available as a CD) on the topic.  The Alliance for Innovation has the most materials on this subject – including a large number of case studies pulled from its membership around successful engagement strategies.  The Alliance also has multiple workshops and presentations on the subject that can help communities get started, or refine their existing engagement strategies.

There is good reason for this to be a hot topic.  Researchers from the UK found that 58% of the public there wanted to be more actively involved in decisions shaping public services, establishing spending priorities and designing public services.  In April of 2013, Pew Research Center released data that claimed 48% of American adults directly took part in a civic group or activity in 2012.  It further stated that 39% spoke out or contacted a government official, with 34% doing that through online methods.

So a recent article in the Atlanta Journal caught my attention about the City of Decatur.  The city is looking to update its Tree Conservation ordinance.  According to the article, this is the first update since 1989.  The council had 30 residents speak at the first public hearing on this matter, which shows a strong interest.  But what really caught my eye was a statement in the article that the city received many more comments at its “Open City Hall” website.  I had to visit.

Open City Hall is powered by Peak Democracy’s online citizen engagement software.  The product captures a “yes” or “no” vote, but also allows users to provide written feedback which they sort and analyze.  I was familiar with it because the City had used it previously to ask citizens about a change in the development ordinance related to accessory structures.  Disclaimer:  SAFEbuilt provides building inspections and plan review services to Decatur – so I was interested in what kind of feedback they would get on that topic.  I was pleasantly surprised that 31 people shared their opinion on that topic.  Believe me, hearing from 31 people about accessory structures is a good showing.

Back to the Tree Conservation Ordinance.  Decatur posted an excellent executive summary of the issue and ordinance on its website.  They also included a link to the full ordinance for people that like to read ordinances.  The newspaper article was right – the City got a lot of feedback online.

The information was viewed by 918 unique users/addresses (I may be one of those now).

  • 178 Decatur citizens opposed the ordinance as written (6 individuals living outside the city limits also opposed)
  • 46 Decatur citizens supported the ordinance as written (5 people outside the city limits also supported it)
  • 327 users left feedback but did not sign in to claim their statements – no name, address, etc. – and therefore were not counted in the final tally.
  • 2 citizens were neutral

WOW.  That is a lot of feedback from citizens.  If you figure that a Council can hear around 15 citizen comments in an hour, the 224 citizen postings could add up to 15 hours of public engagement and feedback.  Additionally, 103 of the comments were posted by people between the ages of 30 and 49.  This is a demographic group that is traditionally under represented at public meetings.  It is difficult to get off work, get the kids to basketball or dance, get dinner ready and then go out to a public hearing (especially when it is 20 degrees – I have a whole three page rant about our Georgia weather recently, but I will spare you from that here because it makes me sound older than my demographic group, which is 30 – 49 year olds that seldom attend public hearings).

There are so many things to admire about the process Decatur has implemented and successfully used.  First, the staff provided a very well written and balanced summary of the ordinance and the issues the ordinance seeks to resolve.  There are no hidden “gotcha’s” or vague references.  It is a transparent document (that’s a metaphor – the paper is quite opaque).

Secondly, the City and Council have done a great job of promoting the Open City Hall website as a forum for ideas and comments.  The administration and Council has obviously listened and utilized the feedback from this service on previous ordinances.  Citizens trust the Open City Hall website as a real method to provide honest feedback because the City has built this trust based on its previous use of the forum.

Lastly, the citizens of Decatur are to be commended for taking the online process seriously.  I read through the comments left by citizens and they are genuine responses to the ordinance.  Some provided feedback for what they would like to see different while others gave reasons for what they did not like.  This is information that can be used.  And I know the City of Decatur will use it to create an updated ordinance that reflects what its citizen’s want in a Tree Conservation Ordinance, because as I mentioned before, they used similar information in the past to create a good update to their rules for accessory structures.

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