Key-Learnings on Civic Capacity from a Roundtable of Experts and Practitioners

Greater Ohio Policy Center, in partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, convened a roundtable of experts and practitioners to discuss building civic capacity in smaller legacy cities. Many of the resources in the “building civic capacity” and “encourage a shared vision” sections were uncovered during that roundtable or provided by roundtable participants [a full list of whom are listed in the acknowledgements section].

Some of the important discussions from the roundtable did not neatly fit into one the resource categories for this toolkit, so overall themes and key learnings are summarized here.

Capacity building – particularly for the long-term – should be an activity that is undertaken intentionally.

Building a community’s muscle to be able to plan and respond to challenges should not happen by accident – it is a process that should be undertaken intentionally. First of all, communities with weakened civic capacity or a narrow talent pipeline should acknowledge the need to grow their pool of community leaders and to strengthen the ties between them. Many communities have been making do with what they have for a long time, even if things are not getting better. Challenging that status quo may be difficult, even if that is what is necessary for positive change to take place. Finding ways to underscore the need for additional capacity is an important first step.

From there, communities can focus on developing strategies to identify, recruit, and develop leaders. Schools are important sites of a community’s long-term leadership development, and cannot be left out of these discussions.

Who has a seat at the table in making community-wide decisions?

Civic capacity is closely tied in with the idea of leadership, and the question of who gets a seat at the leadership table to make community-wide decisions is a critical one for any community. This is a multifaceted issue, and one that deserves more exploration. But roundtable participants touched on a few key aspects of this question:

Role of the private sector: Research has shown that cities with strong civic capacity have engaged members of the private and public sectors that work together regularly. Successful public/private sector collaborations require both sectors to value the others’ contributions and respect the unique circumstances under which they operate.

Equity and inclusion: Ensuring that leadership circles are truly reflective of the community it critical for perceptions of legitimacy and for their long-term success. Cultivating leaders from underrepresented groups should be a key focus of capacity building work. Additionally, communities should think beyond traditional leadership roles and also consider how to empower residents to use their assets and talents to strengthen their neighborhoods.

Changing nature of community leadership: Key employers in many smaller legacy communities are no longer corporations but anchor institutions like hospitals and universities. Representatives from these institutions are more often filling community leadership roles.

Creating and committing to a process of decision-making helps build the trust, and thereby capacity, of collaborative groups.

In managing collaborations of stakeholders that may not typically work together, determining and sticking to a process for decision-making is key. Focusing on how the group will work together sets expectations among participants and creates norms for interactions. Setting a clear process for decision-making can also help the group to remain focused on their purpose for working together instead of getting sidetracked by smaller issues.

Keeping stakeholders engaged also requires maintaining a sense of momentum, which can be challenging when tackling a significant, long-term problem. Celebrating small victories as they occur can help participants feel like progress is happening and that their work is creating results. Acknowledging the contributions of individuals helps them to feel that their work is valued, making them more likely to stay engaged.

Outside support organizations – particularly groups are not located within a community – can encourage a culture of collaboration and provide additional support.

While much of the hard work of building capacity must be done by stakeholders from within a community, support organizations with a broader focus than a single community like foundations, trade associations, or advocacy organizations, can help play a role in supporting local capacity building efforts.

A key role for these organizations is serving as a neutral third party that can convene local conversations that may be too charged for a local stakeholder to host. Additionally, outside organizations can help local stakeholders make new connections to their peers in other communities, which can catalyze new ideas or approaches.  These support organizations may also be able to provide access to experts or best practice research.