This conversation is the eighth 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. 

Jamie Verbrugge is the city manager of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Engaging residents in the work of government there is now routine, but it was not always so, and it still faces some resistance among a few elected officials. We talked recently about both how purposeful engagement is encouraged and what city managers can do to sustain it. Jamie begins our discussion by explaining why the city came to embrace public participation as a regular practice to help address stubborn community problems.

The Definition of Insanity

Brooklyn Park is a Northern suburb of Minneapolis. It is the sixth largest city in Minnesota and the second largest suburb in the metro area. Over the last twenty-five years it underwent the most dramatic demographic change in the metro area, second only to the neighboring community Brooklyn Center. In the 2010 census, Brooklyn Center was the first minority majority community in Minnesota, and Brooklyn Park was right behind. At that time it was about 48 percent non-white and is now well past that. It is a diverse community: 20 percent of the population is foreign born, including the largest concentration of Liberians living outside the Republic of Liberia.  

In the last two decades, the city saw a dramatic increase in crime, especially in violent crime. The Police Executive Research Forum did a study in 2007, which discovered that about a third of all the crimes committed in the community were being perpetrated by youth and that about a third of all the victims of those crimes were youth.

So in 2008 staff in city government started to work on youth-oriented activities and on focused enforcement of problem neighborhoods. While not strictly modeled on New York City’s code enforcement strategy, their approach utilized the same data-driven practices to identifying crime hot spots and strategically allocating resources. But despite some early success with the approach, violent crime remained a problem. After homicides in 2008 and 2009 involving kids as victims and perpetrators, the mayor and council came to the police chief and city manager and said, “This is like the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It isn’t working. We’ve got to do something else. We’ve got to completely rethink what we’re doing.”

Albert Dzur: This rethinking of criminal justice approaches led you in the direction of greater community involvement?

Jamie Verbrugge: The police chief had been participating in the strategic planning process for one of our community’s school districts and they had what they called the core planning team. The approach is focused on partnership with the community in setting an intentional future. We started by having community cafés where people came out and talked about what they valued and liked in the community. We had over 400 people show up on one day in three different sessions. We packed the room. A lesson we learned is to just reduce the barriers that people have to get to these events: we offered food, we offered day care, we offered transportation, and amazingly people respond. You don’t have an excuse to not be there. We’re taking all your excuses away.

That was a very positive event. We compiled all the information from that café into a data book and then we recruited our core planning team. The core planning team was thirty-one people: twelve city staff, sixteen community members, and three members of the city council—the mayor and two council members. One of the sixteen community members was the superintendent of the school district, so we had a nice synergy between the schools’ strategic planning process and what we were starting. That core planning team was selected through an application and screening process and we didn’t choose the usual suspects. We selected people for diversity of background, education, income, tenure within the community, demographic mix, geography within the city, and also based on what they would bring to the group in terms of their professional experience and personality. We interviewed fifty-six people for those sixteen spots.

We ended up locking thirty-one people in a room for thirty-four hours over the course of three days and came up with our mission statement and core values. Strategic objectives focused on youth, diversity, and resources, and we really put together the playbook for how we were going to proceed. One of the critical pieces was to say that we are going to do it in partnership with the community and so what does that look like? We would have action teams that were equal part city staff and community members. We would have implementation teams that were equal part staff and community members. We tried to find people who could influence policy, who could bring resources to the table, and so we got a core group of committed folks who were working consistently based on action plans that were laid out.

We also invited people in to the process in a manner similar to the traditional approach of selecting advisory commissions to city council like a planning commission. We have a number of long-standing advisory commissions, such as a long-term improvement committee and a budget advisory committee, that meet once a month. We took that same approach but we decided not to do it within the traditional formalities of applying to a commission, interviewing before city council, and being selected to serve with the expectation of following Robert’s Rules of Order. At that time the city council was OK to do that. It involved the mayor and the council essentially giving up some of the traditional power and authority that they have and turning things over to the community. One of our delimiters that we adopted was that we won’t do any new policy, we won’t implement any new program without first soliciting the feedback of people who will be impacted by that decision. It was an overt statement to say that we’re going to engage actively to get people’s feedback rather than rely on the traditional method of three minutes at a microphone at a council meeting. We put a lot of effort and a lot of resources into how we structured that.

AD: You had fifty-six people for sixteen spots. Did the fifty-six volunteers emerge from the community café process? How did they show up?

JV: We did have the applications available for folks at the cafés but we also did active marketing. The police chief and I put together a public service announcement, we advertised in our newsletter, our local paper, on cable, and on the websites. All they had to do was go to the Web site to get the application. We had different city staff teams doing the interviewing. They all sat down and agreed on criteria for what they were looking for. Interviewing that many people was going to be a drag on resources so we put together four different interview teams and each of them interviewed about fifteen people. 

AD: Were volunteers compensated?

JV: They were not.

AD: Did it surprise you that so many people wanted to be involved?

JV: Yes—I was pleasantly surprised. Before that we had pretty good volunteer participation in the community. We’ve had an annual volunteer recognition for many years and it is always well attended—there are always a couple hundred people there. But it’s the usual suspects: the same older white people who are involved in the Lions, the Elks, the Women of Today, and those traditional civic clubs and social organizations. That’s not to say that’s bad, but we have 25 percent of the community that’s black or African, 12 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent South East Asian, so we know there are these other groups. 

You don't have an excuse not to be there. We offer food, we offer daycare, we offer transportation.

One of the places we really focused our outreach on was faith communities. And when I go and talk about this to other cities, I stress that our mindset has to change. We have this hang-up about the separation of church and state, so we try to stay away from the church communities. But if you really want to get to where people are, first of all you have to go to where they are. You have to go to the youth groups, the sports clubs, the social organizations; you have to go to the churches. They’re probably the most organized communities that exist now, given the deterioration that Robert Putnam and others have documented in American social organizations.  The faith communities are the strongest places to go, so we’ve really actively supported them and invited all of the different denominations into the process.

AD: Can you explain how community engagement became a core part of how the city responded to its crime problems?

JV: We had a lot of neighborhood disinvestment. We had a rapid growth in the number of single-family residential properties that were converted to rental properties within neighborhoods already facing the destabilizing factor of rapid demographic change. You no longer have the association of long-time neighbors, and then there is this new element of different races and different cultures and different ethnicities. That doesn’t engender trust. Then you also had transient populations moving into these communities who lack the motivation of pride of ownership. So you started to see a greater increase in code enforcement cases. You started to see the properties going into disrepair—such as chipped or peeled paint, broken windows. Those are the sorts of things we focused on in the beginning. We gridded the community based on highest incidence of crime and code enforcement. We focused on the twenty worst quadrants for a couple of years through our neighborhood action plan and it was successful. It dramatically affected those areas. But what we discovered was that the relationship between the city and the service provider and a service responder was transactional. What we were trying to get to was a transformational rather than a transactional relationship between the communities and the neighborhoods and the city staff. Rather than calling the city and expecting us to solve all of their problems, the idea was to empower neighborhood communities to become problem solvers on their own. And because of that breakdown in the social compact within neighborhoods we had to rebuild relationships. And that’s why we started the more community-based effort, to get people away from having the city be the problem-solver for everything. 

AD: What are you creating, exactly, that isn’t already there? You have a city council.  You’ve got local boards and committees. Can’t people be involved in that way?

JV: They can, but one limitation is the traditional way of thinking about what is rightly the purview of a local municipal government in terms of service delivery and what is actually needed within a community. For example, one of the debates in our city council when we wanted to open up a teen recreation center came from a couple of council members who felt very strongly that it was too “social servicey” and that social services in Minnesota are the purview of the counties. They thought it was beyond our responsibility as a city, so we shouldn’t have to take that on as a tax burden. Our argument was that maybe the schools should be taking care of these kids, but after 2:00 p.m. and before 6:00 p.m. when the parents come home they end up being our responsibility, whether we like it or not. We’re going to engage those kids one way or another. What we’re trying to do is create positive opportunities for interaction. And that’s what the council wound up coming around to. In the last five years they have increased our spending by about $800,000 on recreation and also on reorienting our police department to focus on this.  

Public involvement means more programs that are created by and sustained by volunteers in the community. So we have a resources group that meets monthly. We have a youth group that meets monthly. We have a diversity team that meets monthly. Based on action plans that state community priorities, they’re coming up with programs and activities to raise awareness, to engage more people, to do events in the community that are going to engender pride and encourage investment—not just monetary investment but sentimental investment, to try to grow affinity in the community.

The other big piece is measurement: we wanted to measure the effectiveness of this approach. We told the council that we expect to improve conditions, but we’ve got to be able to prove that. So we took three big measurements through a community survey. We set three “big hairy audacious goals,” as Jim Collins calls them: 90 percent of the community will say they are proud to live in Brooklyn Park; 90 percent believe it is a thriving community; 90 percent believe they have the opportunity to succeed in Brooklyn Park. These are audacious goals: 90 percent is a big number. When we surveyed the first year our numbers were at 72 percent thriving; 74 percent opportunities; and 80 percent pride. I thought we’d be starting at a bigger deficit than that just on the heels of the recession, with the local economy still performing poorly compared to the rest of the metro area. A lot of indicators were working against us, but we still had this reservoir of good will. The next time we surveyed two years later those three numbers went up to 88 percent, 90 percent, and 90 percent. Just within three years of starting this work we made a huge difference in how people feel about the community.

AD: You mention these three groups: a resources, youth, and diversity group. Are those steered by your department or are city staff people just involved as on hand advisors?

JV: In setting up these structures we wanted to be nimble. We knew we had to have somebody responsible for coordinating the work, so we created a community engagement coordinator position. And we started out by having those teams co-chaired by a community member and a staff member. So for our diversity team our community liaison officer from the police department worked with a woman who was a member of the Lions and the Women of Today—a really active community volunteer. We found the highest-performing volunteers in the community and made them the chairs of these teams. They had a track record of motivating people, bringing people in, and getting things done. We matched them up with a staff person, recognizing that when we were starting things up we would have to lend more city resources to these efforts. Over the three years we’ve been able to back off the city resources because the teams have largely become self-sustaining.

They are evolving too. We are seeing some transition in the teams now that people heavily involved for the first few years are starting to phase out. We expected that. So we’re in the process right now of replacing a lot of the team leaders and trying to bring new people into these teams and keep the momentum going. Sustainability was something that our council members talked about a lot when we got into this thing. We saw that in a lot of other community-based approaches sustainability is the biggest issue. We knew that we were going to have to continue to grow volunteers and develop volunteers, and so far we’ve been able to do that.

AD: Do you think sustainability is linked to the fact that a wide array of groups are getting involved and are interested?

JV: Yes. It is also because we have tried to make it an inclusive rather than an exclusive process. People don’t have to go through an interview with the city council; they don’t have to get appointed. This has actually been a little bit of a rub with my governing body, as elected officials have changed from the ones that we had originally. 

AD: That is what happens in a democracy from time to time.

JV: It does. And it can be a bit of a challenge if new council members don’t necessarily agree with the vision or the priorities that were set. They may want a more formal structure, perhaps for political reasons, or maybe they don’t like how the leadership from the community has evolved. Part of this has to do with a leadership void, though we’ve had a couple of strong leaders. You actually have to grow leaders and so it’s a leadership development opportunity—similar to what is going on in our advisory commissions. The informal process allows people to come into a team or come into an event planning project just based on what their interest is and based on what their gifts and their talents are. And if they want to be focused on one issue and contribute to that and then step out, we’re good with that. It’s like Volunteer 101: you want to plug people in where they’re going to be successful and where their interest lies. We allow them to do that informally, and I think that has a lot to do with why we are able to keep people in the engagement process. 

AD: Can you point to ideas or policy options that have emerged from public participation that you do not think would have emerged otherwise?

JV: Yes. An issue we’re working on right now has to do with equity and disparities in the metro region. A research report done by the metropolitan council—our regional planning agency—identified areas of Brooklyn Park where we have the lowest income and the highest incidence of poverty and crime as being “racially concentrated areas of poverty,” which is a very specific designation. There are implications for transit and transportation planning, for comprehensive planning for communities, and for schools. We are talking about all of this now through the lens of diversity and how it relates to issues within our community, and I don’t think we’d be having that conversation if diversity weren’t one of the three strategic objectives that our engagement process identified.

There is a lot of fear about giving up power, and frankly it comes more from elected officials than appointed ones.

Our city council, despite having a community that’s 50 percent nonwhite, consists of a mayor and six council members who are all white. And six of the seven are males. So it is not an elected body that is reflective of the community. That’s not to be critical of them and to say that they’re doing this for that reason; it is just that on a lot of these issues they’re not thinking through the same lens as the community. So having the voice of the community through an engagement process helps elected officials understand why it’s an issue. We are not necessarily applying city resources to fixing it, but how we respond to some of these issues—whether it’s through economic development initiatives or other programs—is being informed by that process.

AD: You are implying that there is this community voice, but it doesn’t get expressed well through the traditional formal channels, whether that is an election or a committee hearing or whatever. You need something different, like cafés, workgroups, and advisory boards to express the community voice. Is that what you’re saying?

JV: That was the learned lesson. It was not an objective going into the process. The objective going in was to move away from transactional relationships with city government to transformational relationships within and amongst the community members. And we wanted to recognize that the role of government is changing from service delivery to one of convener and facilitator. People have more of a voice because a community that has typically not been involved in those traditional structures has now been invited into that process. It’s natural that you’re getting inputs that are more reflective of the community than you had through those traditional mechanisms.

AD: I understand how the youth crime issue would press you as a city manager to involve the community. Can you give some examples of how the city moved away from the transactional mode?

JV: One example is internally in terms of our staff. We recognized that if we’re going to change the way we’re doing business, we have to change the employee mindset too. So we made some significant changes culturally in the organization and intentionally in our employee training and development, talking about how we engage the community and why it is important to build those relationships rather than just going about things the way we used to do them.

Second, in the community we made an effort to be more facilitative with groups in terms of offering meeting spaces and providing training opportunities. We have done facilitator training for community members so that they could go into their groups and become more effective communicators, facilitators, and leaders within their own formal and informal structures. And we’ve seen more engagement in those groups as a result of the training. We have an Organization of Liberians in Minnesota which has been pretty dysfunctional throughout its history. We provided those training skills and they started to apply those facilitation methods. We also got them involved in our community engagement process, so they started to emulate behaviors we were demonstrating. This resulted in a lot less acrimony in their organizational meetings and a lot more professionalism. This is still a work in progress, but it’s an example of what can happen when you start giving people tools to take back into their community. 

AD: It seems like part of this transformation is moving away from traditional modes of civic involvement—such as talk, protest, or argument at a meeting, voting—and toward something else. You’re asking Brooklyn Park neighborhoods and residents to do some work with you. Is that accurate?

JV: It is. And like I say it is continuing to evolve. In the last year we hired a neighborhood coordinator and two part-time outreach assistants. And we’re actually working with the community to form neighborhoods. We’re hoping the neighborhoods take on additional responsibility for communicating amongst themselves using tools like Nextdoor to try to build that capacity and build those relationships. We’ve been holding community cafés for the neighborhoods to define their own geography—because what we don’t want to do is go in with a map and draw lines on the map and say “you’re now in this community.” We’re asking them to create their own identity, and then, once those neighborhoods are established, we will orient our city services to provide liaisons to those neighborhoods. 

The departments are really excited because it’s going to help us communicate even more with the residents because we’ll have a more formalized process for doing so. And it gives the community a better relationship with the city. If I’ve got a snowplow issue in public works I know that Steve is my designated neighborhood liaison. If I’ve got a recreation question I know that one of the program supervisors is my designated liaison. They will know whom to call. It’s going to improve constituent service and trust in communication.

AD: Do you have colleagues in Brooklyn Park or elsewhere who push back against the idea of the public administrator as facilitator and say, “Look, we’re supposed to know how to do things.” How do you respond? How do you get them to see your side of things?

JV: I don’t get the push back based on the responsibility or the role of the position.  The feedback I get is more related to positional authority and accountability. There’s a lot of fear about giving up power, and frankly it comes more from elected officials than from the appointed officials. My peers in public administration who are following best practices, whether it’s the Alliance for Innovation or through the International City/County Management Association, they see that the communities that are really demonstrating success and transformation are doing so because they’ve adopted different philosophies and approaches. They have recognized that the old way of doing business isn’t working. The professionals are ahead of the game on this one. Some elected officials, though they talk about always wanting to have the voice of the people, feel they got elected for a reason, and they show a great deal of reluctance to give up some of that control. That’s where some resistance has come, more than anything.

AD: What do you mean about issues of accountability? “I am an elected official, I was elected by this majority to do certain things and, well, I’m going to do those.” Or is something else going on?

JV: I’ve never been good at psychoanalyzing people. Ultimately you hope that the motivation is what is in the best interests of the community. Over the course of the last four years some of our initial detractors became our biggest advocates. And part of the transition is that the staunchest advocate was our previous mayor, who died of cancer. And then one of the biggest converts—a detractor who became an advocate—she died of cancer too. I lost two of our primary advocates in the last few years. New council members have come in. This is a part of the democratic process. There is a lot of training and bringing up to speed that has to happen. 

AD: What tends to soften people, in your opinion? 

JV: I think it’s the ones who are interested in the betterment of the community when they start to see the results. Sometimes it takes people a while because these things don’t necessarily produce fruits overnight. But when they start to see results attitudes begin to change. We measure success through a number of different things. One of them is positive media stories. It used to be that you couldn’t open a newspaper without some sort of bad story about Brooklyn Park. And now our positive news—whether it’s economic development or community engagement or something else—our positives to negatives are off the charts. Which is just great. We still have a crime problem. It’s getting better but it’s stubborn. But the perception in the media has changed. It used to be a pretty easy headline to write about Brooklyn Park, so we’ve worked really hard on the media to change that. And that’s reflected in our media coverage. So elected officials see that. They see the number of people who are attending events and it is really hard to deny all this. You know facts are stubborn things. People can have their own opinions but their opinions are going to run headlong into the facts. 

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