The civic agency project: field observations 2021

San Francisco, May 2022

Back in 2019 we set out to explore the practice of civic agency to help communities and public agencies find new ways to navigate complexity and plan for uncertain futures. The underlying racial and social inequities exacerbated by the pandemic brought a sense of urgency to this task, and what started as an informal assessment of public participation practices in San Francisco, led to opportunities to test new approaches.

We were asked to support the design and implementation of public participation pilots that could serve as a compass for long-term civic partnerships. As we set out to "find the others" in collaboration with public agencies and community-based organizations, we were humbled to be in the company of people from diverse backgrounds, united by their dedication to improve outcomes for their communities. From this vantage point, we got a glimpse of a dynamic landscape of community members, leaders, and organizers that bring clarity to the public discourse, and teach us how to stand in solidarity while harnessing dissent.

Along the way, we have been energized by a culture of equity-centered service emerging from public agencies at all staff levels. We've come across remarkable staff members who recognize that equitable community outcomes can only emerge--and be sustained--when equity values are institutionalized through policy, practice, and public sector alignment. Much needed innovation in cross-agency collaboration, financing, and accountability, is in progress thanks to the perseverance of staff. As internal and external pressure builds up to transform governance and improve outcomes for the most vulnerable communities, new models of civic engagement are needed for communities and public agencies to share knowledge and effect change.

A growing awareness of systemic injustices and an expanded access to virtual collaboration tools precipitated by the pandemic, brought urgency to the civic engagement of communities historically underrepresented in city planning and public policy efforts. And while expanding representation is essential, working with vulnerable communities presents new responsibilities for public agencies, facilitators, and organizers. We have learned that their engagement must be intentional, underpinned by a robust ethics framework, and community-led. Organizers and co-facilitators must evaluate ethical concerns including the risk of re-victimization, and be trained to support difficult conversations with a restorative and trauma-informed approach. Decision-makers play a critical role: trust-building efforts can be set back without the political will to acknowledge, and repair past and present harms. From the institutional to the personal realms, these efforts demand absolute clarity of purpose and transparency on the possibilities and the limitations.

Effective, equity-centered civic engagement is complex and requires deep commitment from everyone involved. There are reasons to feel optimistic about recent efforts, but if equitable outcomes is our shared destination, we better get ready for a long journey on untrodden paths.