This conversation is the fifth in the series, Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places. Innovative democratic professionals are recreating some of our most fundamental institutions, shaping new democratic practices and struggling against the sometimes profoundly counter-democratic tendencies of contemporary American institutions. While their work is always in progress, their experiences hold value for anyone interested in democracy’s future. 

Andrea Arnold is an Assistant City Manager of Decatur, Georgia, a town where citizen participation plays a significant role in the daily life of government. We talked recently about why participation is valuable for communities and what city managers can do to help encourage more of it. Being involved in Decatur is easy, fun, and meaningful. To illustrate this, Andrea shares a story about parking.

Parking Problems

I came to the city in 1997 at a time that property values were increasing, demographics were changing, and people were concerned that what made Decatur unique and special was at risk. The new popularity of Decatur among developers and young professionals was a source of stress and conflict within the community.

My first day at work was also a City Commission Monday. There was a proposal on the agenda for a small liberal arts college to build a parking deck adjacent to residential property. This issue seemed to embody the growing tension and division within the community. The college sits in a primarily residential area.  The school wanted to expand enrollment.  The parking deck was needed to accommodate growth in student enrollment.  The neighborhood residents did not want additional construction, traffic, noise, or lights associated with growing student population. On the flip side, a growing, prospering college could be seen as positive for the once declining community. Over 500 people attended the meeting, which typically drew only fifteen or twenty. People came out because they felt threatened by such a development, and cared about the community. Over the course of the meeting, you could see the divide: black or white, young or old, new to the community or old-timer, part of the college or neighborhood resident.

The city could have done nothing, but instead they addressed the conflict head-on. City leaders—residents, elected officials, and business owners—came together and developed a plan for addressing the community conflict. The city used the principles developed by the national Study Circles Resource Center to hold a citywide citizen dialogue, calling it the Decatur Round Tables. The participants identified what was important to them about life in Decatur and used this feedback to develop action items and action teams. These items formed the foundation of the 2000 strategic plan process. Ultimately, the parking lot was built in a brick building that blends into the neighborhood. Just as important, the city had found a new and effective tool for dealing with controversial issues. As other issues arose, the City was able to use the study circle model to have meaningful dialogue and to reach consensus.

Albert Dzur: Let’s talk a little about how civic engagement has come to be part of daily life in Decatur.

Andrea Arnold: We are relatively small and I think that is an advantage. We are about twenty thousand people in four square miles, which is very densely populated area for Georgia. I think it is the most densely populated city in the state. And it is a very urban community. We are an in-town community. We are adjacent to Atlanta—downtown Atlanta is about six miles away. We have a highly educated population. We are the county seat for DeKalb County. We have lots of attorneys, lots of folks who work for Georgia State University, Georgia Tech University, Emory. Emory is just outside of our city limits, so we have people associated with the hospital and the university. We have a lot of folks who work or have worked in media. CNN’s a big one. Agnes Scott College, a women’s college, is right here in our city limits and we have a seminary. So that gives you a little bit of an idea of what we look like.

In terms of citizen involvement, we strive for a balance between “high touch”—where people want to come out and connect with other people—and “high tech”— where citizens can engage with the community using technology such as Open City Hall, social media, and online surveys. This is how we define community engagement: people want to be connected to their community, so we simply give them lots of opportunities to do that.

AD: Are there particular forums that you hold to bring people in?

AA: This may sound too simple to be true, but one thing that we have done for years is put on lots of community events. We have a book festival and an art festival and the beer festival and the wine festival. People come out and have a good time, but there is also a method behind this. Probably one of the best decisions we ever made was to hire a volunteer coordinator, whose sole job is to recruit and corral volunteers, which is not an easy task. So you get people engaged in supporting these events, and they get to know each other, they get to know their neighbors. It is all good and well. Everyone’s happy at the beer festival. But then when there are really serious and contentious issues, like the development moratorium, and people are coming out with their concerns, those relationships have been built and that trust has been built. A lot of it is about connecting people and building trust within the community, so you engage folks in a positive way and then when there are tough times or tough issues you have that trust in place. Whereas in some places people are completely disengaged, and then what happens when there is some controversial issue? They come out, they have no level of trust in the people they have elected, and it is not normally very pretty. So the first thing I would mention are the community events—and I would say there is a deliberateness about the community events.

We also have Decatur 101, a version of a civic engagement or civic education class that you can see in a lot of communities. Somewhere between eight to nine hundred citizens so far have gone through Decatur 101.

AD: How long has this been going on?

AA: About ten years. You sign up for Decatur 101 and you commit to five or six meetings, either mornings or evenings. My evening focuses on administrative services, personnel, budget. You come out to city hall. You meet my staff and me. We talk about what we do, why we do it, and who we are. Then we have a really fun budget exercise everyone participates in.  Often, people do not really know what they are getting into. Their neighbor told them to take Decatur 101, and they learn a tremendous amount about their community. What we hear from people who go through this is they say they are most impressed when they see how much we—their public employees—love our jobs: we love what we do, we are extremely competent. They then become our biggest supporters and spokespeople when they are out in the neighborhood. And when some issue comes up they can say, “Oh well, I was at that class and here’s the real story,” or “This is who you need to call about it.” So I would say that is another way that we get people engaged. This is about us providing information and making ourselves available.

Citizens do not just vote to elect someone and then we carry it out. That is not what a community is.

We also use a computer program called Open City Hall, developed by Peak Democracy. We periodically put up questions on Open City Hall and ask people to chime in. For example, we put the budget out there every year on Open City Hall and people can vote yes or no on whether they like this or not and provide their feedback. But Open City Hall can be used for any number of issues. Recently we were looking at making changes to a tree protection ordinance. While we worked on the ordinance, the City Commission approved a ninety-day moratorium on tree removal. During this ninety-day period we met with stakeholders such as property owners, developers, and real estate agents. Also, the City’s Environmental Sustainability Board, which is made up of community volunteers appointed by the City Commission, gave input on the ordinance. In addition to these public meetings, just prior to the public hearing, we posted the proposed ordinance and supporting documentation on Open City Hall and asked people if they supported the adoption of the proposed ordinance. We received 564 comments, which were provided to the City Commissioners. After hearing from the public, the City Commission is now in the process of modifying the proposed ordinance. Our use of technology is motivated by our understanding that, for a lot of people, coming to a city commission meeting at 7:30 on a Monday night is not the most convenient thing. So you have an option to participate from home.

Probably one of our biggest citizen engagement projects was our 2010 strategic plan—it was a huge process. It even has its own website: We started with a ten-year plan from 2000, so this project was an update of that earlier plan. We had what we call community round tables run by trained volunteer facilitators.

If I was going to participate as a citizen in the round table, I was committing myself to at least three sessions held in public places, people’s homes, and churches. There were certain themes that came out of the round tables. There was one about development and one about transportation—we got a lot of feedback about traffic and transportation. And then we would have what we called academy sessions where experts come out and provide their professional expertise. Both residents and business people were involved in the conversation. We were pretty creative this time. We used the round table process to some extent with the strategic planning ten years ago, but this time we added the academies and also incorporated social media a lot more. We used Facebook and Twitter to keep people updated on the progress of the plan. We held meet-ups at coffee shops—you might get a text, “This morning ten o’clock we are going to have a meet-up at Starbucks. Drop by and give us your feedback on this part of the planning process.”

AD: It sounds like more than just the usual suspects got involved.

AA: Oh definitely, yes.

AD: I am interested in how you reached people. We started off our conversation talking about trust and how people typically do not know very much about public officials and the work of city government. So how do you reach out to folks who have not been involved much before?

AA: Part of this is we have been doing that engagement work for years. You have gotten your foot in the door because you attended the arts festival. You volunteered for the beach party. Or you went to Decatur 101 and you are on our mailing list. After all that, we have an extensive database of people who have in some way been involved in the city.

AD: So, you might give them a call or send them an email telling them about some upcoming event or project?

AA: Yes, yes, yes.

AD: Why do you think it is important for people other than public administrators and city officials to be involved in handling issues like planning? One line of thought holds it is the job of the administrator to do the planning and it is the job of the citizen to do the voting.

AA: Right. Well, we believe strongly that our citizens should be involved and we want them involved in problem-solving, decision-making, making planning decisions, and ultimately having them take some action to make improvements in the community. It is not just they vote to elect someone and then we carry it out. That is not what a community is. Maybe that is what a city is, but it is not what a community is. A community is when everybody within that community is playing a role and everyone is playing a role in the decision making and also taking some action to make improvements in the community. It is being a citizen. I think you have a job as a citizen to be involved and to be engaged. And we need to give you the opportunity to be involved and engaged.

AD: Are there some issues or problems that strike you as particularly illustrative of the point that as a citizen we have jobs to do? I am wondering why a community is a problem-solving place, an action-taking place, and why residents have to bear some responsibility for the community. Why is that? Why can’t public administrators do this work of government on their own?

AA: I think about something like the budget process. A property owner, as a resident and taxpayer, should be given the opportunity to take part. They are providing their money to the operation of the city to the community. They need to have a role in that. We have not talked about our budget focus groups meetings yet. We have opportunities during the budget process where the community can come out and we literally just sit down together to talk about the budget. In many ways, the participants guide the conversation or the focus of the conversation. We also get a lot of good ideas from them. And I think it is okay for us to say that we in city government do not have all the good ideas, we do not have all the answers. I think that we would be remiss in not tapping into the resources in our community that we are not going to have with our two hundred city employees. We could have the resources, the brainpower, of two hundred people or we can have that collectively at twenty thousand people. We have some amazing volunteers out here who have an expertise in development, storm water, trees, traffic, engineering—a wealth of experience and knowledge that we could not otherwise pay for.

AD: That makes a lot of sense to me. You have talked about citizens being involved in Decatur 101 and learning about city government and about public officials and public employees. Do they learn about each other, too, in these venues?

AA: Absolutely. That is part of the connectivity. That is a lot of what people are thinking about when they are coming out of their homes to attend Decatur 101. We also have a really large volunteer event over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. Around twelve hundred volunteers out of our population of twenty thousand people come out Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. That Monday used to be just a holiday for folks and Martin Luther King’s legacy was not otherwise very well celebrated. So the community initiated this idea of having a service project. We will identify homes within the community—normally lower income, elderly people who have had trouble maintaining their homes, whether it is yard work, or simple repairs, or not so simple repairs. A lot of them have not asked for assistance; they just did not want to ask for help. But again, we have the relationships that are built up in the community and we find out that Ms. Smith does not have running water at her house or the lights are out. So we will have fifty to sixty homes on the list and twelve hundred volunteers. We will have house captains. Contractors and developers who work in the community will be a captain of a house. They donate time and materials for a lot of these repairs. Then there are folks like me who can change light bulbs or do basic yard work. People are out there because, number one, they want to help, but they also just want to be out there with their neighbors. And it is an opportunity for them to meet people with whom they otherwise may not be crossing paths.

So whether it is the festivals, or a service project, or Decatur 101, we are either offering or supporting connections. With the service project we provide a lot of labor for that and supplies, even though we are not the driving organization for it. We make sure these opportunities occur where people can connect. I think it also results in a lot more civility. It is not uncommon for there to be something controversial on our agendas, but when people are at the meetings they are civil and respectful and a lot of communities cannot say that. And again, I think it is because these are people who have worked shoulder to shoulder in some other capacity or they know someone who has. They are connected, so there is going to be more respect and civility.

AD: Civic engagement is something that many communities find hard to develop.

AA: So often they wait until there is a problem. Someone in a community nearby came here and said, “We want to start civic engagement. We’ve got this problem and so we need to get people engaged.” And we responded, “Well you should have started five years ago. Get them engaged when times are good. Get them engaged in the budget process. Get them engaged in learning about the community. Get them engaged in a fun activity and then five years later when you’ve got whatever it is the controversy is then you will have some supporters. You have to do your homework.”

AD: What are some of the barriers preventing people from getting involved that you have encountered?

AA: I look at my life: work and family makes it really hard. Work, family, other obligations, the timing of events. That is why we tried so many different options with our strategic planning process. Not everyone is going to come out to the meeting in the evening at someone’s house. But if I know I can pop into the coffee shop for a little bit, I will do that. It is really about trying to be accommodating to people’s lifestyles and rituals. I am that person that if I do not have a work night meeting, I am going home. I have my family and I am not going back out. But make it easy for me to pop in in the morning or even just chime in online.

We could have the resources, the brainpower, of two hundred people or we can have that collectively at twenty thousand people.​

AD: Another thing strikes me about what you have been saying. For Decatur 101, a person commits to going a certain number of days. For the strategic plan meetings, too, if you are going to be involved you are going to have to commit to doing a few things. So I wonder if a part of the attraction is that people come and do meaningful work. They really are serving a purpose.

AA: I think so. They know their time is not wasted. People want to do something that is meaningful and impactful. That is the beauty of the MLK service project: in a short amount of time you can have a dramatic and positive impact on someone’s life. The conditions we have seen people living in. Floors rotted out and that gets fixed on the weekend. And do you know what? If they do not get fixed on the weekend, those contractors start going back on their own time and fixing it. There are some amazing stories. They make people feel like they are part of something really special. Decatur is this special community they belong to and it is special because of the things citizens do and the lives they can impact. Yes, people want to be part of something special and meaningful.

AD: You told me that your father was a city manager in another town. Do you sometimes think about how different your job is from what was expected in his generation?

AA: The issues have not changed—that is one thing I believe we can agree on. There are always going to be traffic issues and speed limits can never be low enough; there can never be enough stop signs or speed humps. But the way decisions are made—it is just dramatically different. The people who were elected to make those decisions made those decisions.

AD: And if there were bad decisions then they did not get their jobs back.

AA: Hopefully, in the best cases, yes.

AD: They would be voted out.

AA: Yes, and that was the sum total of your civic responsibility: to vote. I am thinking here about Chapel Hill, where I grew up. Granted, there were public hearings. So a parking deck is being proposed downtown off of Franklin Street, for example, and this is an issue people tend to care about. They show up, say their piece, and the elected officials make their decision and everyone goes home. But otherwise there was not a tremendous amount of engagement. For the budget process, they had their legal public hearings and that was it. There were no focus groups or any other opportunities to sit around and provide input into the budget process. By contrast, here is something we started earlier this year in Decatur with the budget: not only do we have focus groups, which we used to hold at City Hall, but now we have taken them out to local restaurants and pubs—we had “Budget and Beer” last year. And who doesn’t want to drink beer and talk about budgets? And we had the Budget Expo this year. Imagine a small exhibit hall in our recreation center. We had all the departments come out and literally have a “show and tell.” The lady who handles wellness had a trampoline and was there to talk about what we are doing with wellness. And the fire department had their helmets and hoses and allowed the public the opportunity to come out and really see and get to know what we do. They heard from each department about what is in the budget for next year. I am pretty sure that did not happen with an earlier generation of public administration.

AD: It is not just a historical shift, either. You have colleagues, no doubt, in other towns, who are still in the traditional professional public administrator mindset: we have the academic training, we are specialists in government, and we have the legal responsibility to carry it out. And someone with this mindset might say to you: “You know, civic engagement is fine for Decatur but for my town we just can’t afford it. We can’t spend the time or the resources. Good for you over there in Decatur, but we just can’t afford it. We’ve got serious stuff to do.” What would you say to that person?

AA: Well first of all I would say you have to know what is right for your community. What the citizens of Decatur expect and support may be very different than, say, what the citizens in Rome, Georgia might expect. Not to say that they are any less worthy of civic engagement. I think you just have to recognize what they will accept. I do not know if another community would be able to stomach spending $500,000 on a planning process. But the idea that “we can’t afford it,” is easy to refute because for the most part what we do has no or low cost to the taxpayer. A budget expo or focus groups or the Decatur 101, these have only a very nominal cost. It is people’s time and it is a lot of effort. The day of Decatur 101, I may be sitting here saying, “I have real work to do. I have a deadline. I have a budget to crank out.” And you stop and say, “No, this is the real work. Decatur 101, that is real work and it is just as important and just as worthy as cranking the budget out.”

Research on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. Images provided by Albert Dzur and Andrea Arnold.