Real, greatly improved citizen engagement

Jan 2021 Michael Baskin, Chief Innovation Officer for Montgomery County, MD and Govlaunch co-founder, Lindsay Pica-Alfano collaborate to share insights to help guide efforts for more meaningful and effective engagement. See:

What is real citizen engagement?

Most think of citizen engagement as a good turnout and vibrant Q&A to close a meeting. But citizen engagement can be so much more. And it needs to be if we are to truly develop inclusive and vibrant cities of the future.

Michael Baskin, Chief Innovation Officer for Montgomery County, MD learned what constitutes real citizen engagement through past experience serving on the Boston Mayor’s Youth Council. The Council was a first-of-its-kind program and has since become a model of youth inclusion in engagement for cities around the world.

Real citizen engagement involves talking with the community, really listening, and working alongside them to develop plans. Baskin says: “Government exists for common problems, and common problems must be solved together.”

He adds: “When we work to bring citizens together, reckon with common issues, and find something in common worth building, we get to the heart of public service.”

Here are four of Montgomery County’s guiding principles for engagement:

1.   Connect people to each other…and to purpose

Baskin credits Liberating Structures, designed to “include and unleash everyone” as a valuable tool for engagement work internally and with the public. These structures are easy to implement and can have a profound impact on the effectiveness of your engagement efforts, centred around defining the objective and strategies for working collaboratively to get there.

2.   Every interaction engages or disengages

At every interaction point, you must evaluate: “will this engage or disengage?” Baskin says: “Every interaction either invites generative dialogue and co-creation or shuts it down.”

Be mindful of how you present information and how you structure town hall meetings and community forums. Every interaction should be engaging, efficient and impactful.

3.   Engagement at its best humanises but at its worst dehumanises

You never want citizens to question whether their opinion matters or if they’re simply seen as a number. But they will if you don’t reinforce the message that they are valued through action. How do you do that? Build a team with the best people, create space for new ideas and collaboration, and when possible, leverage effective technology.

If you’re looking for the right technology partner, check out the Govlaunch Podcast. We’re highlighting a number of leading engagement tools that were built with local governments and their constituents in mind.

4.   Create “with” not “for”

Baskin cautions against the mindset that citizens are “customers” and feels strongly that for meaningful engagement, co-creation needs to be front and centre. At its best, local government creates a collaborative environment that encourages joint problem-solving. The move from designing ‘for’ to designing ‘with’ is growing. Baskin says: “We’re ready for the next evolution – holding space for others to design. We can be a platform to enable community creation.”

Community organiser Marshall Ganz provides another perspective: “Organising is not about providing services to grateful clients. […] It’s about turning communities into constituencies. Constituency comes from the Latin con stare which means to stand together. Client, interestingly, comes from the word inclinare, which means to lean upon, to depend upon. Organising is not about creating dependency, it’s about enabling power.”

Citizen engagement is not a box to check – creating real engagement takes a concerted effort. With County Executive Marc Elrich, Montgomery County makes meaningful engagement a priority, and its commitment shows. The county’s innovation team continues to be a resource and advocate for people making things better: effective, efficient, and equitable.


A Ladder of Citizen Participation – Sherry R Arnstein

Originally published as Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224. I do not claim any copyrights.

Webmasters comment, November 2004.

The following article is quite old, but never-the-less of great value to anyone interested in issues of citizen participation. The concepts discussed in this article about 1960’s America are still mostly unknown by people around the world. Many planners, architects, politicians, bosses, project leaders and power-holder still dress all variety of manipulations up as ‘participation in the process’, ‘citizen consultation’ and other shades of technobable.

This article was reprinted in “The City Reader” (second edition) edited by Richard

  • Gates and Frederic Stout, 1996, Routledge Press. Their editors’ introduction is well worth reading.

Please copy and re-distribute this article. Let’s work to help people understand the difference between ‘citizen control’ and ‘manipulation’. If you’re reading this then I assume you are interested in empowering people to take charge of their lives and their surrounding. I salute you for this work.


1.       Citizen participation is citizen power

Figure 1. French student poster. In English, “I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, you participate…they profit.”

Because the question has been a bone of political contention, most of the answers have been purposely buried in innocuous euphemisms like “self-help” or “citizen involvement.” Still others have been embellished with misleading rhetoric like “absolute control” which is something no one – including the President of the United States – has or can have. Between understated euphemisms and exacerbated rhetoric, even scholars have found it difficult to follow the controversy. To the headline reading public, it is simply bewildering.

My answer to the critical what question is simply that citizen participation is a categorical term for citizen power. It is the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future. It is the strategy by which the have-nots join in determining how information is shared, goals and policies are set, tax

resources are allocated, programs are operated, and benefits like contracts and patronage are parceled out. In short, it is the means by which they can induce significant social reform which enables them to share in the benefits of the affluent society.

1.1.  Empty Refusal Versus Benefit

There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process. This difference is brilliantly capsulized in a poster painted last spring [1968] by the French students to explain the student-worker rebellion. (See Figure 1.) The poster highlights the fundamental point that participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo. Essentially, it is what has been happening in most of the 1,000 Comm-unity Action Programs, and what promises to be repea-ted in the vast majority of the 150 Model Cities programs.

2.    Types of participation and “nonparticipation”

A typology of eight levels of participation may help in analysis of this confused issue. For illustrative pur-poses the eight types are arranged in a ladder pattern with each rung corres-ponding to the extent of citizens’ power in deter-mining the end product. (See Figure 2.)

The bottom rungs of the ladder are (1) Manipulation and (2) Therapy. These two rungs describe levels of “non- participation” that have been contrived by some to substitute for genuine participation. Their real objective is not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting programs, but to enable powerholders to “educate” or “cure” the participants. Rungs 3 and 4 progress to levels of “tokenism” that allow the have- nots to hear and to have a voice: (3) Informing and (4) Consultation. When they are proffered by powerholders as the total extent of participation, citizens may indeed hear and be heard. But under these conditions they lack the power to insure that their views will be heeded by the powerful. When participation is restricted

Figure 2. Eight rungs on the ladder of citizen participation

to these levels, there is no follow-through, no “muscle,” hence no assurance of changing the status quo.

Rung (5) Placation is simply a higher level tokenism because the ground rules allow have-nots to advise, but retain for the powerholders the continued right to decide.

Further up the ladder are levels of citizen power with increasing degrees of decision-making clout. Citizens can enter into a (6) Partnership that enables them to negotiate and engage in trade-offs with traditional power holders. At the topmost rungs, (7) Delegated Power and (8) Citizen Control, have-not citizens obtain the majority of decision-making seats, or full managerial power.

Obviously, the eight-rung ladder is a simplification, but it helps to illustrate the point that so many have missed – that there are significant gradations of citizen participation. Knowing these gradations makes it possible to cut through the hyperbole to understand the increasingly strident demands for participation from the have-nots as well as the gamut of confusing responses from the powerholders.

Though the typology uses examples from federal programs such as urban renewal, anti-poverty, and Model Cities, it could just as easily be illustrated in the church, currently facing demands for power from priests and laymen who seek to change its mission; colleges and universities which in some cases have become literal battlegrounds over the issue of student power; or public schools, city halls, and police departments (or big business which is likely to be next on the expanding list of targets). The underlying issues are essentially the same – “nobodies” in several arenas are trying to become “somebodies” with enough power to make the target institutions responsive to their views, aspirations, and needs.

2.1.  Limitations of the Typology

The ladder juxtaposes powerless citizens with the powerful in order to highlight the fundamental divisions between them. In actuality, neither the have-nots nor the powerholders are homogeneous blocs. Each group encompasses a host of divergent points of view, significant cleavages, competing vested interests, and splintered subgroups. The justification for using such simplistic abstractions is that in most cases the have-nots really do perceive the powerful as a monolithic “system,” and powerholders actually do view the have-nots as a sea of “those people,” with little comprehension of the class and caste differences among them.

It should be noted that the typology does not include an analysis of the most significant roadblocks to achieving genuine levels of participation. These roadblocks lie on both sides of the simplistic fence. On the powerholders’ side, they include racism, paternalism, and resistance to power redistribution. On the have-nots’ side, they include inadequacies of the poor community’s political socioeconomic infrastructure and knowledge-base, plus difficulties of organizing a representative and accountable citizens’ group in the face of futility, alienation, and distrust.

Another caution about the eight separate rungs on the ladder: In the real world of people and programs, there might be 150 rungs with less sharp and “pure” distinctions among them. Furthermore, some of the characteristics used to illustrate each of the eight types might be applicable to other rungs. For example, employment of the have-nots in a program or on a planning staff could occur at any of the eight rungs and could represent either a legitimate or illegitimate characteristic of citizen participation. Depending on their motives, powerholders can hire poor people to co-opt them, to placate them, or to utilize the have-nots’ special skills and insights. Some mayors, in private, actually boast of their strategy in hiring militant black leaders to muzzle them while destroying their credibility in the black community.

3.    Characteristics and illustrations

It is in this context of power and powerlessness that the characteristics of the eight rungs are illustrated by examples from current federal social programs.

3.1.  Manipulation

In the name of citizen participation, people are placed on rubberstamp advisory committees or advisory boards for the express purpose of “educating” them or engineering their support. Instead of genuine citizen participation, the bottom rung of the ladder signifies the distortion of participation into a public relations vehicle by powerholders.

This illusory form of “participation” initially came into vogue with urban renewal when the socially elite were invited by city housing officials to serve on Citizen Advisory Committees (CACs). Another target of manipulation were the CAC subcommittees on minority groups, which in theory were to protect the rights of Negroes in the renewal program. In practice, these sub-committees, like their parent CACs, functioned mostly as letterheads, trotted forward at appropriate times to promote urban renewal plans (in recent years known as Negro removal plans).

At meetings of the Citizen Advisory Committees, it was the officials who educated, persuaded, and advised the citizens, not the reverse. Federal guidelines for the renewal programs legitimized the manipulative agenda by emphasizing the terms “information-gathering,” public relations,” and “support” as the explicit functions of the committees.

This style of nonparticipation has since been applied to other programs encompassing the poor. Examples of this are seen in Community Action Agencies (CAAs) which have created structures called “neighborhood councils” or “neighborhood advisory groups.” These bodies frequently have no legitimate function or power. The CAAs use them to “prove” that “grassroots people” are involved in the program. But the program may not have been discussed with “the people.” Or it may have been described at a meeting in the most general terms; “We need your signatures on this proposal for a multi- service center which will house, under one roof, doctors from the health department, workers from the welfare department, and specialists from the employment service.”

The signatories are not informed that the $2 million-per-year center will only refer residents to the same old waiting lines at the same old agencies across town. No one is asked if such a referral center is really needed in his neighborhood. No one realizes that the contractor for the building is the mayor’s brother- in-law, or that the new director of the center will be the same old community organization specialist from the urban renewal agency.

After signing their names, the proud grass-rooters dutifully spread the word that they have “participated” in bringing a new and wonderful center to the neighborhood to provide people with drastically needed jobs and health and welfare services. Only after the ribbon-cutting ceremony do the members of the neighborhood council realize that they didn’t ask the important questions, and that they had no technical advisors of their own to help them grasp the fine legal print. The new center, which is open 9 to 5 on weekdays only, actually adds to their problems. Now the old agencies across town won’t talk with them unless they have a pink paper slip to prove that they have been referred by “their” shiny new neighborhood center.

Unfortunately, this chicanery is not a unique example. Instead it is almost typical of what has been perpetrated in the name of high-sounding rhetoric like “grassroots participation.” This sham lies at the heart of the deep-seated exasperation and hostility of the have-nots toward the powerholders.

One hopeful note is that, having been so grossly affronted, some citizens have learned the Mickey Mouse game, and now they too know how to play. As a result of this knowledge, they are demanding genuine levels of participation to assure them that public programs are relevant to their needs and responsive to their priorities.

3.2.  Therapy

In some respects group therapy, masked as citizen participation, should be on the lowest rung of the ladder because it is both dishonest and arrogant. Its administrators – mental health experts from social workers to psychiatrists – assume that powerlessness is synonymous with mental illness. On this assumption, under a masquerade of involving citizens in planning, the experts subject the citizens to clinical group therapy. What makes this form of “participation” so invidious is that citizens are engaged in extensive activity, but the focus of it is on curing them of their “pathology” rather than changing the racism and victimization that create their “pathologies.”

Consider an incident that occurred in Pennsylvania less than one year ago. When a father took his seriously ill baby to the emergency clinic of a local hospital, a young resident physician on duty instructed him to take the baby home and feed it sugar water. The baby died that afternoon of pneumonia and dehydration. The overwrought father complained to the board of the local Community Action Agency. Instead of launching an investigation of the hospital to determine what changes would prevent similar deaths or other forms of malpractice, the board invited the father to attend the CAA’s (therapy) child-care sessions for parents, and promised him that someone would “telephone the hospital director to see that it never happens again.”

Less dramatic, but more common examples of therapy, masquerading as citizen participation, may be seen in public housing programs where tenant groups are used as vehicles for promoting control-your- child or cleanup campaigns. The tenants are brought together to help them “adjust their values and attitudes to those of the larger society.” Under these ground rules, they are diverted from dealing with such important matters as: arbitrary evictions; segregation of the housing project; or why is there a three-month time lapse to get a broken window replaced in winter.

The complexity of the concept of mental illness in our time can be seen in the experiences of student/civil rights workers facing guns, whips, and other forms of terror in the South. They needed the help of socially attuned psychiatrists to deal with their fears and to avoid paranoia.

3.3.  Informing

Informing citizens of their rights, responsibilities, and options can be the most important first step toward legitimate citizen participation. However, too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information – from officials to citizens – with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation. Under these conditions, particularly when information is provided at a late stage in planning, people have little opportunity to influence the program designed “for their benefit.” The most frequent tools used for such one-way communication are the news media, pamphlets, posters, and responses to inquiries.

Meetings can also be turned into vehicles for one-way communication by the simple device of providing superficial information, discouraging questions, or giving irrelevant answers. At a recent Model Cities citizen planning meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, the topic was “tot-lots.” A group of elected citizen representatives, almost all of whom were attending three to five meetings a week, devoted an hour to a discussion of the placement of six tot-lots. The neighborhood is half black, half white. Several of the black representatives noted that four tot-lots were proposed for the white district and only two for the black. The city official responded with a lengthy, highly technical explanation about costs per square foot and available property. It was clear that most of the residents did not understand his explanation. And it was clear to observers from the Office of Economic Opportunity that

other options did exist which, considering available funds would have brought about a more equitable distribution of facilities. Intimidated by futility, legalistic jargon, and prestige of the official, the citizens accepted the “information” and endorsed the agency’s proposal to place four lots in the white neighborhood.

3.4.  Consultation

Inviting citizens’ opinions, like informing them, can be a legitimate step toward their full participation. But if consulting them is not combined with other modes of participation, this rung of the ladder is still a sham since it offers no assurance that citizen concerns and ideas will be taken into account. The most frequent methods used for consulting people are attitude surveys, neighborhood meetings, and public hearings.

When powerholders restrict the input of citizens’ ideas solely to this level, participation remains just a window-dressing ritual. People are primarily perceived as statistical abstractions, and participation is measured by how many come to meetings, take brochures home, or answer a questionnaire. What citizens achieve in all this activity is that they have “participated in participation.” And what powerholders achieve is the evidence that they have gone through the required motions of involving “those people.”

Attitude surveys have become a particular bone of contention in ghetto neighborhoods. Residents are increasingly unhappy about the number of times per week they are surveyed about their problems and hopes. As one woman put it: “Nothing ever happens with those damned questions, except the surveyor gets $3 an hour, and my washing doesn’t get done that day.” In some communities, residents are so annoyed that they are demanding a fee for research interviews.

Attitude surveys are not very valid indicators of community opinion when used without other input from citizens. Survey after survey (paid for out of anti-poverty funds) has “documented” that poor housewives most want tot-lots in their neighborhood where young children can play safely. But most of the women answered these questionnaires without knowing what their options were. They assumed that if they asked for something small, they might just get something useful in the neighborhood. Had the mothers known that a free prepaid health insurance plan was a possible option, they might not have put tot-lots so high on their wish lists.

A classic misuse of the consultation rung occurred at a New Haven, Connecticut, community meeting held to consult citizens on a proposed Model Cities grant. James V. Cunningham, in an unpublished report to the Ford Foundation, described the crowd as large and mostly hostile:

Members of The Hill Parents Association demanded to know why residents had not participated in drawing up the proposal. CAA director Spitz explained that it was merely a proposal for seeking Federal planning funds -that once funds were obtained, residents would be deeply involved in the planning. An outside observer who sat in the audience described the meeting this way: “Spitz and Mel Adams ran the meeting on their own. No representatives of a Hill group moderated or even sat on the stage. Spitz told the 300 residents that this huge meeting was an example of ‘participation in planning.’ To prove this, since there was a lot of dissatisfaction in the audience, he called for a ‘vote’ on each component of the proposal. The vote took this form: ‘Can I see the hands of all those in favor of a health clinic? All those opposed?’ It was a little like asking who favors motherhood.”

It was a combination of the deep suspicion aroused at this meeting and a long history of similar forms of “window-dressing participation” that led New Haven residents to demand control of the program.

By way of contrast, it is useful to look at Denver where technicians learned that even the best intentioned among them are often unfamiliar with, and even insensitive to, the problems and aspirations of the poor. The technical director of the Model Cities program has described the way professional planners assumed that the residents, victimized by high-priced local storekeepers, “badly needed consumer education.” The residents, on the other hand, pointed out that the local store-keepers performed a valuable function. Although they overcharged, they also gave credit, offered advice, and frequently were the only neighborhood place to cash welfare or salary checks. As a result of this consultation, technicians and residents agreed to substitute the creation of needed credit institutions in the neighborhood for a consumer education pro-gram.

3.5.  Placation

It is at this level that citizens begin to have some degree of influence though tokenism is still apparent. An example of placation strategy is to place a few hand-picked “worthy” poor on boards of Community Action Agencies or on public bodies like the board of education, police commission, or housing authority. If they are not accountable to a constituency in the community and if the traditional power elite hold the majority of seats, the have-nots can be easily outvoted and outfoxed. Another example is the Model Cities advisory and planning committees. They allow citizens to advise or plan ad infinitum but retain for powerholders the right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice. The degree to which citizens are actually placated, of course, depends largely on two factors: the quality of technical assistance they have in articulating their priorities; and the extent to which the community has been organized to press for those priorities.

It is not surprising that the level of citizen participation in the vast majority of Model Cities programs is at the placation rung of the ladder or below. Policy-makers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were determined to return the genie of citizen power to the bottle from which it had escaped (in a few cities) as a result of the provision stipulating “maximum feasible participation” in poverty programs. Therefore, HUD channeled its physical-social-economic rejuvenation approach for blighted neighborhoods through city hall. It drafted legislation requiring that all Model Cities’ money flow to a local City Demonstration Agency (CDA) through the elected city council. As enacted by Congress, this gave local city councils final veto power over planning and programming and ruled out any direct funding relationship between community groups and HUD.

HUD required the CDAs to create coalition, policy-making boards that would include necessary local powerholders to create a comprehensive physical-social plan during the first year. The plan was to be carried out in a subsequent five-year action phase. HUD, unlike OEO, did not require that have-not citizens be included on the CDA decision-making boards. HUD’s Performance Standards for Citizen Participation only demanded that “citizens have clear and direct access to the decision-making process.”

Accordingly, the CDAs structured their policy-making boards to include some combination of elected officials; school representatives; housing, health, and welfare officials; employment and police department representatives; and various civic, labor, and business leaders. Some CDAs included citizens from the neighborhood. Many mayors correctly interpreted the HUD provision for “access to the decision-making process” as the escape hatch they sought to relegate citizens to the traditional advisory role.

Most CDAs created residents’ advisory committees. An alarmingly significant number created citizens’

policy boards and citizens’ policy committees which are totally misnamed as they have either no policy- making function or only a very limited authority. Almost every CDA created about a dozen planning committees or task forces on functional lines: health, welfare, education, housing, and unemployment. In most cases, have-not citizens were invited to serve on these committees along with technicians from relevant public agencies. Some CDAs, on the other hand, structured planning committees of technicians and parallel committees of citizens.

In most Model Cities programs, endless time has been spent fashioning complicated board, committee, and task force structures for the planning year. But the rights and responsibilities of the various elements of those structures are not defined and are ambiguous. Such ambiguity is likely to cause considerable conflict at the end of the one-year planning process. For at this point, citizens may realize that they have once again extensively “participated” but have not profited beyond the extent the powerholders decide to placate them.

Results of a staff study (conducted in the summer of 1968 before the second round of seventy-five planning grants were awarded) were released in a December 1968 HUD bulletin. Though this public document uses much more delicate and diplomatic language, it attests to the already cited criticisms of non-policy-making policy boards and ambiguous complicated structures, in addition to the following findings:

  1. Most CDAs did not negotiate citizen participation requirements with residents.
  2. Citizens, drawing on past negative experiences with local powerholders, were extremely suspicious of this new panacea program. They were legitimately distrustful of city hall’s motives.
  3. Most CDAs were not working with citizens’ groups that were genuinely representative of model neighborhoods and account-able to neighborhood constituencies. As in so many of the poverty programs, those who were involved were more representative of the upwardly mobile working-class. Thus their acquiescence to plans prepared by city agencies was not likely to reflect the views of the unemployed, the young, the more militant residents, and the hard-core poor.
  4. Residents who were participating in as many as three to five meetings per week were unaware of their minimum rights, responsibilities, and the options available to them under the program. For example, they did not realize that they were not required to accept technical help from city technicians they distrusted.
  5. Most of the technical assistance provided by CDAs and city agencies was of third-rate quality, paternalistic, and condescending. Agency technicians did not suggest innovative options. They reacted bureaucratically when the residents pressed for innovative approaches. The vested interests of the old-line city agencies were a major – albeit hidden – agenda.
  6. Most CDAs were not engaged in planning that was comprehensive enough to expose and deal with the roots of urban decay. They engaged in “meetingitis” and were supporting strategies that resulted in “projectitis,” the outcome of which was a “laundry list” of traditional pro-grams to be conducted by traditional agencies in the traditional manner under which slums emerged in the first place.
  7. Residents were not getting enough information from CDAs to enable them to review CDA developed plans or to initiate plans of their own as required by HUD. At best, they were getting superficial information. At worst, they were not even getting copies of official HUD materials.
  8. Most residents were unaware of their rights to be reimbursed for expenses incurred because of participation – babysitting, trans-portation costs, and so on. The training of residents, which would enable them to under-stand the labyrinth of the federal-state-city systems and networks of

subsystems, was an item that most CDAs did not even consider.

These findings led to a new public interpretation of HUD’s approach to citizen participation. Though the requirements for the seventy-five “second-round” Model City grantees were not changed, HUD’s twenty-seven page technical bulletin on citizen participation repeatedly advocated that cities share power with residents. It also urged CDAs to experiment with subcontracts under which the residents’ groups could hire their own trusted technicians.

A more recent evaluation was circulated in February 1969 by OSTI, a private firm that entered into a contract with OEO to provide technical assistance and training to citizens involved in Model Cities programs in the north-east region of the country. OSTI’s report to OEO corroborates the earlier study. In addition it states:

In practically no Model Cities structure does citizen participation mean truly shared decision-making, such that citizens might view them-selves as “the partners in this  program “

In general, citizens are finding it impossible to have a significant impact on the comprehensive planning which is going on. In most cases the staff planners of the CDA and the planners of existing agencies are carrying out the actual planning with citizens having a peripheral role of watchdog and, ultimately, the “rubber stamp” of the plan generated. In cases where citizens have the direct responsibility for generating program plans, the time period allowed and the independent technical resources being made available to them are not adequate to allow them to do anything more than generate very traditional approaches to the problems they are attempting to solve.

In general, little or no thought has been given to the means of insuring continued citizen participation during the stage of implementation. In most cases, traditional agencies are envisaged as the implementers of Model Cities programs and few mechanisms have been developed for encouraging organizational change or change in the method of program delivery within these agencies or for insuring that citizens will have some influence over these agencies as they implement Model Cities programs By and large, people are once

again being planned for. In most situations the major planning decisions are being made by CDA staff and approved in a formalistic way by policy boards.

3.6.  Partnership

At this rung of the ladder, power is in fact redistributed through negotiation between citizens and powerholders. They agree to share planning and decision-making responsibilities through such structures as joint policy boards, planning committees and mechanisms for resolving impasses. After the groundrules have been established through some form of give-and-take, they are not subject to unilateral change.

Partnership can work most effectively when there is an organized power-base in the community to which the citizen leaders are account-able; when the citizens group has the financial resources to pay its leaders reasonable honoraria for their time-consuming efforts; and when the group has the resources to hire (and fire) its own technicians, lawyers, and community organizers. With these ingredients, citizens have some genuine bargaining influence over the outcome of the plan (as long as both parties find it useful to maintain the partnership). One community leader described it “like coming to city hall with

hat on head instead of in hand.”

In the Model Cities program only about fifteen of the so-called first generation of seventy-five cities have reached some significant degree of power-sharing with residents. In all but one of those cities, it was angry citizen demands, rather than city initiative, that led to the negotiated sharing of power. The negotiations were triggered by citizens who had been enraged by previous forms of alleged participation. They were both angry and sophisticated enough to refuse to be “conned” again. They threatened to oppose the awarding of a planning grant to the city. They sent delegations to HUD in Washington. They used abrasive language. Negotiation took place under a cloud of suspicion and rancor.

In most cases where power has come to be shared it was taken by the citizens, not given by the city. There is nothing new about that process. Since those who have power normally want to hang onto it, historically it has had to be wrested by the powerless rather than proffered by the powerful.

Such a working partnership was negotiated by the residents in the Philadelphia model neighborhood. Like most applicants for a Model Cities grant, Philadelphia wrote its more than 400 page application and waved it at a hastily called meeting of community leaders. When those present were asked for an endorsement, they angrily protested the city’s failure to consult them on preparation of the extensive application. A community spokesman threatened to mobilize a neighborhood protest against the application unless the city agreed to give the citizens a couple of weeks to review the application and recommend changes. The officials agreed.

At their next meeting, citizens handed the city officials a substitute citizen participation section that changed the groundrules from a weak citizens’ advisory role to a strong shared power agreement. Philadelphia’s application to HUD included the citizens’ substitution word for word. (It also included a new citizen prepared introductory chapter that changed the city’s description of the model neighborhood from a paternalistic description of problems to a realistic analysis of its strengths, weaknesses, and potentials.) Consequently, the proposed policy-making committee of the Philadelphia CDA was revamped to give five our of eleven seats to the residents’ organization, which is called the Area Wide Council (AWC). The AWC obtained a subcontract from the CDA for more than $20,000 per month, which it used to maintain the neighborhood organization, to pay citizen leaders $7 per meeting for their planning services, and to pay the salaries of a staff of community organizers, planners, and other technicians. AWC has the power to initiate plans of its own, to engage in joint planning with CDA committees, and to review plans initiated by city agencies. It has a veto power in that no plans may be submitted by the CDA to the city council until they have been reviewed, and any differences of opinion have been successfully negotiated with the AWC. Representatives of the AWC (which is a federation of neighborhood organizations grouped into sixteen neighbor-hood “hubs”) may attend all meetings of CDA task forces, planning committees, or sub-committees.

Though the city council has final veto power over the plan (by federal law), the AWC believes it has a neighborhood constituency that is strong enough to negotiate any eleventh-hour objections the city council might raise when it considers such AWC proposed innovations as an AWC Land Bank, an AWC Economic Development Corporation, and an experimental income maintenance program for 900 poor families.

3.7.  Delegated Power

Negotiations between citizens and public officials can also result in citizens achieving dominant decision-making authority over a particular plan or program. Model City policy boards or CAA

delegate agencies on which citizens have a clear majority of seats and genuine specified powers are typical examples. At this level, the ladder has been scaled to the point where citizens hold the significant cards to assure accountability of the program to them. To resolve differences, powerholders need to start the bargaining process rather than respond to pressure from the other end.

Such a dominant decision-making role has been attained by residents in a handful of Model Cities including Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dayton, and Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minnesota; St. Louis, Missouri; Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut; and Oakland, California.

In New Haven, residents of the Hill neighborhood have created a corporation that has been delegated the power to prepare the entire Model Cities plan. The city, which received a $117,000 planning grant from HUD, has subcontracted $110,000 of it to the neighborhood corporation to hire its own planning staff and consultants. The Hill Neighborhood Corporation has eleven representatives on the twenty- one-member CDA board which assures it a majority voice when its proposed plan is reviewed by the CDA.

Another model of delegated power is separate and parallel groups of citizens and power-holders, with provision for citizen veto if differences of opinion cannot be resolved through negotiation. This is a particularly interesting coexistence model for hostile citizen groups too embittered toward city hall – as a result of past “collaborative efforts” – to engage in joint planning.

Since all Model Cities programs require approval by the city council before HUD will fund them, city councils have final veto powers even when citizens have the majority of seats on the CDA Board. In Richmond, California, the city council agreed to a citizens’ counter-veto, but the details of that agreement are ambiguous and have not been tested.

Various delegated power arrangements are also emerging in the Community Action Program as a result of demands from the neighborhoods and OEO’s most recent instruction guidelines which urged CAAs “to exceed (the) basic requirements” for resident participation. In some cities, CAAs have issued subcontracts to resident dominated groups to plan and/or operate one or more decentralized neighborhood program components like a multipurpose service center or a Headstart program. These contracts usually include an agreed upon line-by-line budget and program specifications. They also usually include a specific statement of the significant powers that have been delegated, for example: policy-making; hiring and firing; issuing subcontracts for building, buying, or leasing. (Some of the subcontracts are so broad that they verge on models for citizen control.)

3.8.  Citizen Control

Demands for community controlled schools, black control, and neighborhood control are on the increase. Though no one in the nation has absolute control, it is very important that the rhetoric not be confused with intent. People are simply demanding that degree of power (or control) which guarantees that participants or residents can govern a program or an institution, be in full charge of policy and managerial aspects, and be able to negotiate the conditions under which “outsiders” may change them.

A neighborhood corporation with no intermediaries between it and the source of funds is the model most frequently advocated. A small number of such experimental corporations are already producing goods and/or social services. Several others are reportedly in the development stage, and new models for control will undoubtedly emerge as the have-nots continue to press for greater degrees of power over their lives.

Though the bitter struggle for community control of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools in New York

City has aroused great fears in the headline reading public, less publicized experiments are demonstrating that the have-nots can indeed improve their lot by handling the entire job of planning, policy-making, and managing a program. Some are even demonstrating that they can do all this with just one arm because they are forced to use their other one to deal with a continuing barrage of local opposition triggered by the announcement that a federal grant has been given to a community group or an all black group.

Most of these experimental programs have been capitalized with research and demonstration funds from the Office of Economic Opportunity in cooperation with other federal agencies. Examples include:

  1. A $1.8 million grant was awarded to the Hough Area Development Corporation in Cleveland to plan economic development pro-grams in the ghetto and to develop a series of economic enterprises ranging from a novel combination shopping-center-public-housing project to a loan guarantee program for local building contractors. The membership and board of the nonprofit corporation is composed of leaders of major community organizations in the black neighborhood.
  2. Approximately $1 million ($595,751 for the second year) was awarded to the Southwest Alabama Farmers’ Cooperative Association (SWAFCA) in Selma, Alabama, for a ten-county marketing cooperative for food and livestock. Despite local attempts to intimidate the coop (which included the use of force to stop trucks on the way to market) first year membership grew to 1,150 farmers who earned $52,000 on the sale of their new crops. The elected coop board is composed of two poor black farmers from each of the ten economically depressed counties.
  3. Approximately $600,000 ($300,000 in a supplemental grant) was granted to the Albina Corporation and the Albina Investment Trust to create a black-operated, black-owned manufacturing concern using inexperienced management and unskilled minority group personnel from the Albina district. The profitmaking wool and metal fabrication plant will be owned by its employees through a deferred compensation trust plan.
  4. Approximately $800,000 ($400,000 for the second year) was awarded to the Harlem Commonwealth Council to demonstrate that a community-based development corporation can catalyze and implement an economic development program with broad community support and participation. After only eighteen months of program development and negotiation, the council will soon launch several large-scale ventures including operation of two super-markets, an auto service and repair center (with built-in manpower training program), a finance company for families earning less than

$4,000 per year, and a data processing company. The all black Harlem-based board is already managing a metal castings foundry.

Though several citizen groups (and their mayors) use the rhetoric of citizen control, no Model City can meet the criteria of citizen control since final approval power and account-ability rest with the city council.

Daniel P. Moynihan argues that city councils are representative of the community, but Adam Walinsky illustrates the nonrepresentativeness of this kind of representation:

Who . . . exercises “control” through the representative process? In the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto of New York there are 450,000 people – as many as in the entire city of Cincinnati, more than in the entire state of Vermont. Yet the area has only one high school, and SO per cent of its teenagers are dropouts; the infant mortality rate is twice the national average; there are over 8000 buildings abandoned by everyone but the rats, yet the area received not

one dollar of urban renewal funds during the entire first 15 years of that program’s operation; the unemployment rate is known only to God.

Clearly, Bedford-Stuyvesant has some special needs; yet it has always been lost in the midst of the city’s eight million. In fact, it took a lawsuit to win for this vast area, in the year 1968, its first Congressman. In what sense can the representative system be said to have “spoken for” this community, during the long years of neglect and decay?

Walinsky’s point on Bedford-Stuyvesant has general applicability to the ghettos from coast to coast. It is therefore likely that in those ghettos where residents have achieved a significant degree of power in the Model Cities planning process, the first-year action plans will call for the creation of some new community institutions entirely governed by residents with a specified sum of money contracted to them. If the groundrules for these programs are clear and if citizens understand that achieving a genuine place in the pluralistic scene subjects them to its legitimate forms of give-and-take, then these kinds of programs might begin to demonstrate how to counteract the various corrosive political and socioeconomic forces that plague the poor.

In cities likely to become predominantly black through population growth, it is unlikely that strident citizens’ groups like AWC of Philadelphia will eventually demand legal power for neighborhood self- government. Their grand design is more likely to call for a black city achieved by the elective process. In cities destined to remain predominantly white for the foreseeable future, it is quite likely that counterpart groups to AWC will press for separatist forms of neighborhood government that can create and control decentralized public services such as police protection, education systems, and health facilities. Much may depend on the willingness of city governments to entertain demands for resource allocation weighted in favor of the poor, reversing gross imbalances of the past.

Among the arguments against community control are: it supports separatism; it creates balkanization of public services; it is more costly and less efficient; it enables minority group “hustlers” to be just as opportunistic and disdainful of the have-nots as their white predecessors; it is incompatible with merit systems and professionalism; and ironically enough, it can turn out to be a new Mickey Mouse game for the have-nots by allowing them to gain control but not allowing them sufficient dollar resources to succeed. These arguments are not to be taken lightly. But neither can we take lightly the arguments of embittered advocates of community control – that every other means of trying to end their victimization has failed!



The council connects, engages, and empowers Boston’s diverse youth through government and civic participation.

All in-person services will be temporarily unavailable, with the exception of email communication. The Mayor’s Youth Council will be accessible for program questions by email. Please contact with any questions or concerns. Do you need access to resources outside of civic engagement support? Please visit YOUth First.



The Mayor’s Youth Council is a model of youth inclusion in government and civic engagement. As the first Mayor’s Youth Council in the nation, it has spurred cities across the nation, and even internationally, to examine how they include youth in local government. Please contact if you are interested in the program.

Applications are currently closed and will reopen spring 2021.

The council is a group of high school students that come from every neighborhood in the City. All Ambassadors are appointed by the Mayor. They are charged with representing their peers, community members, and youth across the City. They work with:

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The goal of the program is to find and put in place positive solutions through civic engagement and project management. 


  • Increases voter participation from younger demographics.
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  • Educates youth about the civic process.
  • Encourages youth to prioritize social change and justice.

Listen to Mayor’s Youth Council directors talk about why civic engagement is important.


Council CommitteesArt and Culture CommitteeEducation CommitteeCivic Engagement CommitteeClimate Action CommitteePublic Health CommitteePublic Peace CommitteeWorkforce and Economic Development CommitteeYouth Lead the Change Committee


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