At CivicCon, effective democracy researcher expert Valerie Lemmie said good government begins with going outside and talking to citizens.

Pensacola News Journal

Modern government is marked by intense polarization, widespread mistrust and “wicked” community problems where it seems impossible to find solutions that completely satisfy anyone, let alone everyone.

Often citizens see government as indifferent and out of touch, and often elected officials see citizens as having a laundry list of problems but no solutions to offer.

“Neither of them have confidence in the other, and we can’t have a functioning democracy if that’s our reality,” Valerie Lemming said at a virtual CivicCon presentation Monday night.

Lemmie, the research director of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, has spent years studying what effective government looks like and decades working to discover ways to make democracy function more effectively. In the end, she said she believes effective government requires more than just elections, it requires every citizens having a voice and having a meaningful role in improving their community. 

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“Public distress often appears related to a lack of meaningful citizen influences on institutions,” Lemmie said. “As long as citizens don’t see what they say included in the policies and the practices of a government, as long as they express themselves and are ignored, they’re not going to come forward in ways that are immediately conducive to getting the work done. People have to be heard.” 

Lemmie said the most effective governments have two-way input, meaning institutions and citizens regularly share opinions on what the most important issues of the day are, how they can be addressed and what trade-offs people are willing to make to address them.

As an example, she noted that government in Arlington County, Virginia, developed a program where neighborhood residents were asked what roads they wanted paved instead of having it dictated to them by city engineers.

“What they found in Arlington County is the more often they were able to go out and talk to people before they did something, the more likely it was to ultimately be approved,” Lemmie said. “When (city staff) just made a decision — or they just simply did a charrette or had a public hearing where they invited people and nobody showed up — then when they started to move dirt, people were up in arms. … If you start by engaging people in the beginning, you don’t have that.”

Valerie Lemmie (Photo: Special to the News Journal)

Before joining the Kettering Foundation, Lemmie served as city manager for the cities of Cincinnati and Dayton in Ohio, as well as the city of Petersburg, Virginia. She said city staff would literally go door to door in communities to hear citizens’ ideas for and concerns about public works.

She said a common misconception is that the professionals know what’s best for communities because that’s what they are trained for. However, she said citizens bring valuable knowledge, skills and energy when they are engaged in ways that are meaningful and genuine.

For instance, she said as a city manager, she go out and ask folks not only what they wanted, but whether they were willing to help make it happen.

“I’d go out and say, ‘So here’s this plot of land. What do you think ought to be done with it, and why do you think that? How would you help us do what you think ought to be done? Who else ought to be at the table, talking to us about what we should do with this property?'” Lemmie said as an example. “So I start there, and then build up.”

She pointed to another example in Norfolk, Virginia, where residents of a neighborhood wanted desperately to stop the demolition of an old high school with deep historic significance to Black community members. Ultimately, citizens and elected officials reached a compromise that the city would maintain the building and pay the insurance, and citizens would staff, program and operate a recreation center.

“They co-produced a solution to what to do with a building that has sentimental and historic value in that community,” Lemmie said. “So it’s that kind of project, that kind of work, that we’re talking about is the essence of citizen-centered democracy, and that’s when it is working at its best.”

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Discussing how citizens can be more effective at communicating with government, Lemmie said it’s important to build consensus and practice working together. She said beyond just going to city council and saying what “I” want, it is much more swaying to be able to say tell council members that you spoke with 500 of your neighbors and this is what “we” want.

“We have been very successful as public institutions in dividing and conquering, pitting one community against another and allowing voices to be heard in some places and not in others,” Lemmie said. “So we have to really, I think, atone for that by making sure people are able to come together and talk. Even if one group brings an idea, then open it up to others.”

Lemmie said on the other side, a way to help improve the trust and effectiveness of government it to make citizen participation a valued part of the process, not just a box on a check list.

“It starts first with a commitment from the top of the organization that everybody in this community counts,” Lemmie said.

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CivicCon (Photo: Special to Pensacola News Journal)

She said some local governments no longer just accept staff recommendations. Instead, they require staff to identify what members of the community suggested the idea, who else was part of the conversation and what feedback they received from the affected community.

“(It’s) identifying community assets and resources and finding ways to bring people to the table and make them feel comfortable, and often that means going to their table and you becoming comfortable sitting at their table,” Lemmie said. 

“It’s about valuing the opinions of others, it’s about finding ways to engage as many community partners as you can, and to keep that pot keep growing and growing and growing and working together,” she added. “And in the end the reward is that people trust you, they work with you they have confidence in you, and as a public official you with them.”

Lemmie’s presentation was part of CivicCon, a partnership between the News Journal and the Studer Community Institute to help citizens make their communities better places to live, grow, work and invest through smart planning and civic conversations.

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The next CivicCon virtual event will feature returning speaker Ronald Ferguson, the director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University. Ferguson’s first CivicCon presentation in August 2019 focused on helping attendees understand the causes of and solutions to the academic achievement gap between Black and white students.

His upcoming presentation Nov. 6 will delve into the new The Basics Pensacola program Ferguson is launching in collaboration with the Studer Community Institute later this year. The initiative is based on the successful Boston Basics program, and it is designed to highlight five simple but powerful ways families can give their children a head start in early learning.

Registration for that free, online event is available by searching “CivicCon” at

For more information about CivicCon, including stories, videos and podcasts featuring past speakers, visit

Kevin Robinson can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8527.

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