Neighborhood Action Initiative
Creating Washington D.C.’s Municipal Budget & Strategic Plan
The Washington D.C. Citizen Summits was the longest-running large-scale town meeting in the U.S. Input from 13,000 participants significantly influenced the district’s priorities on growth and development, annual spending and legislative initiatives.
A Mayoral Effort
In 1998, Anthony Williams ran for Mayor of the District of Columbia on a platform of government accountability and improved service. After decades of mismanagement and pervasive distrust of the government, Williams maintained that the Mayor’s Office must be held accountable for providing top-rate services to citizens. Mayor Williams sought to build faith in the District’s future by actively engaging the community in the governance process and proving that the government would listen and act upon what residents had to say.
Early in his first term, the Mayor began working with AmericaSpeaks to develop the Neighborhood Action Initiative that would involve the Washington DC community in setting shared priorities, connecting those priorities to the city’s budget process, and holding the government accountable for implementing the desired changes.
Citizen-Driven Management Cycle
Throughout William’s term, Neighborhood Action oversaw a management cycle that integrates strategic planning, budgeting, performance contracts and a public score card. At the start of the cycle, several thousand residents would came together at a “Citizen Summit” – a 21st Century Town Meeting® – to review budget and policy options that have been developed by the Mayor and his cabinet and establish shared priorities. Input from the Citizen Summit was then used to develop the Mayor’s final budget and policies. Performance contracts and scorecards for each of the city’s agency directors held them accountable for implementing the priorities that come out of the Citizen Summit.
Four Citizen Summits were held in the District of Columbia between 1999 and 2005 and a Youth Summit was convened in 2005. During this time, Neighborhood Action also held planning processes in every neighborhood across the city to develop Strategic Neighborhood Action Plans. In all, more than 13,000 citizens reflecting the city’s demographic diversity participated in these activities and played a direct role in establishing governance priorities for the District of Columbia.
Citizens Influence Their City
The Washington D.C. Citizen Summits has been the longest-running large-scale town meeting in the U.S. Input from participants has significantly influenced the Administration’s priorities in terms of growth and development, annual spending and legislative initiatives. Residents have come to the forums with concerns about safety, education, youth outcomes, housing, and government responsiveness, among other issues – and their efforts have borne fruit.
Accomplishments of the Neighborhood Action/Citizen Summit work are numerous:
- The initiative instituted a new governance process that transformed the relationship between citizens and the development of the municipal budget.
- Millions of dollars in the city budget were allocated to citizens’ priority concerns, such as education, senior services, drug treatment slots, housing and public safety.
- Structural and programmatic changes were made. For example the creation of “Hot Spots” and additional police officers citywide to focus on communities requiring the most attention, expanding adult literacy programs, and reforming the Juvenile Justice System can all be directly linked to Summit feedback.
- A new and codified role for youth in the District’s policy development process was established.
- These efforts redefined the city government’s relationship with its citizens by creating a consistent means for public input that was directly linked to formal decision-making processes.
Citizen Summit I – November 1999
At the first Citizen Summit, 3,000 people discussed the priority areas that became the basis for the city’s strategic plan: building healthy neighborhoods, investing in children and youth, strengthening families, economic development, making government work, and unity of purpose. A follow-up meeting in January 2000 enabled 1,500 more residents to review the plan and to join with their neighbors to identify community priorities for the 100 plus neighborhoods in the city. The final plan served as the foundation for the city’s Fiscal Year 2001 budget which, consistent with citizen priorities, included an additional $70 million for education, $10 million for senior services, and 1,000 new drug treatment slots.
Bringing Citizen Participation to the Neighborhood Level. During Citizen Summit I, participants identified a need for neighborhood-based planning. They also called for specific methods, within the DC government structure, for identifying, prioritizing and resolving recurring neighborhood problems. From these concerns, two new governing structures were formed: the Office of Neighborhood Planning which would engage citizens in every neighborhood in developing short- and medium-term action plans for improvements to their community; and the Office of Neighborhood Services which would use multi-agency teams of employees to work with citizens to tackle persistent problem areas.
Youth Summit – November 2000
Recognizing that Washington, DC’s youth are significantly affected by city policies and programs and responding to suggestions made at the Citizen Summit, in November 2000 the Mayor’s office sponsored a citywide forum to hear from young people. Approximately 1,400 District youth, aged 14-21, came together to voice their opinions.
Youth leaders worked closely with staff to plan and implement every aspect of the meeting. During the discussion, youth identified the issues of Safety/Violence, Education, and Jobs/Training as their greatest concerns. The Mayor addressed these issues in his subsequent program and budget plans.
The Youth Summit also led to the creation of a Youth Advisory Council with a statutorily-based role in governance. This body measures the effectiveness of youth programs, presents recommendations to improve the lives of youth, and reviews city policies that affect young people.
Citizen Summit II – October 2001
3,000 residents came together in Citizen Summit II to provide input on the city-wide strategic plan and to identify specific budget priorities. A follow-up meeting enabled 1,250 more people to engage in this discussion, and to meet in ward and neighborhood clusters to focus on priorities at that level.
An additional $25 million for a housing trust fund and $2 million to support further neighborhood-level citizen involvement in governance was allocated as a result of Citizen Summit II. In addition, this second summit helped advance the Strategic Neighborhood Action Plan (SNAP) process. SNAPS are citizen-developed visions that detail the top priority issues in each neighborhood, as identified by residents working with the City’s planners, informing and guiding decisions on the city budget
Citizen Summit III – November 2003
The 2,800 residents who participated in Citizen Summit III focused on three specific areas of policy: providing quality education, making neighborhoods safer, and expanding opportunities for residents. As a result of this effort, $200 million additional dollars were made available for education and nearly $20 million more were made available for police and juvenile-related initiatives – among other appropriations. In all, the work of the citizens in this Summit had a direct impact on more than 20 concrete policy proposals.
Citizen Summit IV – November 2005
2,000 DC residents came together for Citizen Summit IV, the last Summit of Mayor Williams’ tenure, to develop priorities around “Lifting All Communities” in the District of Columbia. In particular, discussion focused on how to support growth and development among youth, expand and improve job training and employment prospects for all citizens, rebuild the public library system, and increase inclusivity through housing and economic development policies. At the conclusion of Citizen Summit IV, all five mayoral candidates announced their commitment to continuing broad-based citizen engagement in DC.