Philanthropy and Feds Innovating on Citizen Engagement


By Tara McGuinness, Office of Management and Budget (OMB)

In September, the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and Neighborhood Funders Group convened 100 local, regional, and national funders for Towards a More Resilient Place: Promising Practices in Place-Based Philanthropy. Here, Tara McGuinness of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) shares innovative approaches that funders and the federal government are using to engage communities in place-based work.

“It is the civil society leaders who, in many ways, are going to have the more lasting impact… Because as the saying goes, the most important title is not ‘president’ or ‘prime minister’; the most important title is ‘citizen.'” – President Barack Obama

Today, institutions big and small are challenged to answer this call to make certain the citizen—the most important stakeholder—is at the center of their agendas. How can we ensure the views and perspectives of American citizens, and the collective voices of their communities, genuinely shape institutional policymaking and programming? This is one of the central questions of our time.

There are signs in communities across the country and the globe that citizens expect more responsiveness and transparency in from their leaders, institutions, and governments. Meaningful citizen engagement is not a new challenge. But there may be more at stake today than ever before when it comes to the significance of public participation in shaping institutional agendas.

The Towards a More Resilient Place convening in Aspen showcased work from a wide range of philanthropies tackling this challenge. The gathering highlighted innovation, from The Colorado Trust’s effort to “allow Colorado communities to lead the decision-making process toward controlling their own futures” in its approach to promoting health equity, to new organizing methods through the Center for Neighborhood Leadership to put citizen voices at the table for discussions on equitable transit growth.

Communities, working with local partners, are making strides. Take Flint, Michigan, for example.  While you may have heard of only negative news about Flint, the city has perhaps one of the most sustainable, inclusive plans for its future. In 2011, Flint developed an award-winning master plan over the course of 300 public events, where over 5,000 Flint citizens helped to shape the content of a blueprint for the city’s future. The citizen’s voice is at the heart of the Imagine Flint Plan, but the challenge will be making the next generation of infrastructure investments responsive to this vision.

I was struck by the common challenge that philanthropic leaders share with leaders in the federal government: how to bring citizens into the process. Tackling the challenge of putting citizens in the driver’s seat has been a hallmark effort of the Obama Administration. President Obama ran for office as a community organizer who believed that solutions come not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up. He knew from his work on the ground in the south side of Chicago that the system of one-size-fits-all grant funding and resource allocation that wasn’t locally-led was no longer working for communities.

When the President came into office, he tasked his team with taking a fresh look at how the federal government and local communities work together to solve problems. Over these nearly eight years, we’ve quietly changed the way the federal government works with citizens to solve national problems. Today, 15 federal agencies are coordinating and teaming up with local leaders in over 1,800 communities nationwide to address priorities ranging from building resilience in the face of increasing natural disasters, to creating jobs in former coal country. These communities are starting to see visible results.

Another change has come from the Administration’s commitment to drawing upon the talents and interests of thousands of American citizens through challenge competitions.  More than 42,000 Americans have participated in over 300 challenges, resulting in $35 million in prizes. Today, citizens are regularly engaging with the federal government through to help solve problems as varied as finding effective ways to support children impacted by domestic violence, to visualizing and mapping new insights on cancer research and treatments.

Recruiting and sustaining meaningful citizen participation takes commitment and smart, strategic plays. Recently, Johns Hopkins University rolled out its Federal-Local Partnerships Playbook, which captures some of the Obama Administration’s techniques for enhancing interagency coordination and working with local leaders and citizens to address stubborn challenges in communities. This Playbook has been published through an interactive format so that citizens and partner organizations can add new insights over time, and ensure we all benefit from learning what works best in and for communities.

The move towards greater transparency, higher levels of collaboration, and increased efforts to put citizens at the helm of shaping the future of their communities is not easy.  There is really no “how-to” manual, and genuine inclusivity takes time and energy. But the test for tackling the next generation of problems (for philanthropy, non-profits, and the federal government) will be found in our institutions’ ability, with all the resources they bring to bear, to put Americans and their voices at the center of driving our nation’s agenda.