Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Building Civic Capacity: Lessons from Watertown, South Dakota

By Matt Tarleton, Project Manager.  

In a paper for the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, Susan Saegart, a professor at the City University of New York, defines community building as an approach which emphasizes, among other things, “communities working together to identify and solve their problems… sustained stakeholder engagement (and) development of a sense of common purpose and an action agenda.”* Dr. Saegart notes that civic capacity, or community capacity (used interchangeably), is a specific byproduct, albeit a largely intangible one, of community building. Dr. Robert Chaskin, Deputy Dean for Strategic Initiatives at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, defines community capacity;“the interaction of human, organizational and social capital existing within a given community that can be leveraged to solve collective problems and improve or maintain the well-being of a given community. It may operate through informal social processes and/or organized efforts by individuals, organizations, and the networks of associations among them and between them and the broader systems of which the community is part.”**

I could devote this entire blog entry to the countless definitions of community building, community capacity, and civic capacity that exist in the community development literature. But at the end of that blog, I still couldn't tell you which one is the best or most accurate definition. Civic capacity – or whatever you want to call it – is one of those “you know it when you see it” kind of things.

Over the course of the last year, I can say with confidence that I’ve seen and experienced civic capacity at its pinnacle. 

Watertown, South Dakota.

Midway through 2012, Market Street began working with a group of residents in Watertown – the H20-20 Steering Committee – to develop a new vision plan for the community. This group of residents came together in 2011 to initiate the next phase of visioning for Watertown, a town with great success in implementing previous vision plans in recent decades. While we received support from many great organizations in the community throughout the process, our client was not a single organization. It was a group of dedicated citizens. The committee involved many new, young leaders in Watertown, including a high school senior. In my five years at Market Street, I can’t recall another high school student, or college student for that matter, being included on a steering committee. Considering the opinions, needs, and wants of bright, young residents – all processes could benefit from that! 

Our challenge in Watertown, as with any community visioning process, was to ensure that all citizens, businesses, and community institutions were empowered to share their opinion about the community’s preferred future. A vision plan that isn’t grounded in resident input and community consensus will receive little support come implementation.

While our team personally spoke with roughly two hundred individuals in person during our initial trips to Watertown, it was crucial that we provide all 21,000+ residents of Watertown an opportunity to share their vision. An online survey was developed and the H20-20 steering committee took on the task of promoting it in August. The committee members spread the word via email, communicating with any and all individuals that they were able to contact. Coworkers were emailed, along with distribution lists for nearly every community organization in town – the Watertown Community Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, the Redlin Art Center, the Watertown Police Department…you name ‘em, they helped promote it. Even the community’s secondary and post-secondary institutions emailed all students and faculty, imploring them to take the survey. Committee members conducted interviews on local radio stations. Op-eds were written in the City’s newspaper. A page promoting the process and the survey was included in every utility bill mailed that month. Cashiers at grocery stores gave customers the same information at checkout lines. An electronic billboard was leased on the City’s main highway to promote the survey.

The result: 2,219 responses from a community with just over 21,000 residents. As a share of total population, Watertown’s response rate shattered Market Street’s record for resident engagement in a community survey. Once we compiled all open-ended comments, we were left with a document that was 525 pages long.

Fast forward a few months to January, 2013. The H20-20 Steering Committee is ready to reveal the product of many months work: Watertown’s Vision for 2020 (the final Vision Plan, including a summary of all findings and all recommendations, is available for download here). In planning the big reveal, the H20-20 Steering Committee knew that thousands of residents had taken the time to share their input, and they wanted to honor that time and effort with a public celebration. This past Thursday, January 24th, the H20-20 Steering Committee hosted a Public Rollout Party at Lake Area Technical Institute, the community’s world class technical college that has been repeatedly named one of the top five technical colleges in the United States by the Aspen Institute. More than 600 residents attended the event to hear about the many initiatives included in the Vision Plan. Hundreds of residents have signed up and committed to serve on one of many committees that will coordinate and guide the implementation of the Vision Plan’s various recommendations. Hundreds more signed up as volunteers for specific initiatives that piqued their interest – initiatives related to community beatification, the arts, recreation, events, and many others.

What started as a resident-led visioning initiative evolved into a resident-defined vision and what is sure to be a resident-led implementation effort. Brad Johnson, a columnist for the Watertown Public Opinion, opined in his column on January 26th that the H20-20 visioning process is “perhaps the most intensive citizen-driven effort ever developed in South Dakota” and that “the enthusiasm for improving this city is unlike anything I’ve witnessed.” The citizens of Watertown have demonstrated an interest and willingness in not only defining their vision but also participating in the implementation of their vision on a scale that every community, regardless of size or location, should envy.

While many of our clients immediately turn to fundraising (and rightfully so) in the weeks immediately following the completion of a strategic planning process, Watertown, South Dakota is a reminder that – while dollars are always critical – there is no substitute for civic capacity and we should never underestimate its value or importance in building the successful communities we desire.

*Saegert, Susan. Community Building and Civic Capacity. CUNY Graduate Center for the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change.
**Chaskin, Robert J.  Defining Community Capacity: A Framework and Implications from a Comprehensive Community Initiative.  Paper presented at the Urban Affairs Association Annual Meeting, Fort Worth, April 22-25, 1998.