Strengthening Government and Community through Genuine Partnerships

Local governments everywhere tend to think of their jurisdictions as places and people with needs. They seek to address these needs by relying on tax revenues and bureaucratic expertise. Such a top-down approach may be appropriate at times, but it is certainly not sufficient. If government treats people as nothing more than customers, they think of themselves as taxpayers rather than citizens.

If government treats people as nothing more than customers, they think of themselves as taxpayers rather than citizens.

Moreover, government and its partner agencies can’t address all of the needs on their own. Needs are growing more rapidly than government resources. And, increasingly complex social and environmental issues can’t be resolved by agencies in the absence of community even if they have unlimited resources.

Some local governments are beginning to recognize that their communities have untapped resources as well as unmet needs. They are empowering and partnering with their communities through programs such as bottom-up planning, neighborhood matching funds, and participatory budgeting. Consequently, people are starting to identify as citizens and see the government as an extension of themselves. Not only are many more resources available to address local needs, but the solutions tend to be more creative, holistic and appropriate.


Steps to Effective Partnerships

Building true partnerships between government and community isn’t easy. Before they can empower the community, agencies must first cease the harm that they inflict on community and begin removing their own obstacles to engagement. Three major steps need to be climbed in order to get to effective partnerships:


Do No Harm

Ironically, in their sincere effort to help the community, government and other institutions often do it a disservice. They impose their own agenda which distracts the community from its priorities. They don’t sufficiently value the time and contributions of the citizens who do get involved so that they are less likely to participate in the future.

Most egregiously, institutions tend to violate the Iron Rule of community organizing: “Never do for people what they can do for themselves.” Agency leaders often speak for the community. They provide services that were formerly the community’s responsibility. They foster dependence by funding community leaders.

Never do for people what they can do for themselves.

I’m not necessarily arguing for fewer or smaller institutions. There clearly are needs in communities that are best served by government and other agencies. And, most agencies don’t have enough resources as it is to adequately address those needs. Institutions should focus on what they are uniquely capable of and allow communities to do what they do best.


Remove Obstacles

It is extremely difficult for the community to partner with institutions as they are currently constituted, because institutions aren’t accessible. Government offices are typically located far from where many people live and open during the same hours when most people work. Specialized language and bureaucratic procedures make it challenging for people to participate. Community volunteers can’t possibly be involved in the totality of their neighborhood, because every aspect of the neighborhood (e.g. public safety, parks and recreation, public health, housing, economic development, transportation, arts and culture, youth, seniors, etc.) is associated with a different agency, each with its own staff, meetings, plans and programs.

Government tends to be both too centralized and too segmented to relate to communities. Top-down decision-making doesn’t accommodate the community’s voice and cookie cutter programs and regulations don’t respect unique neighborhood design or community culture. Professional experts often discount the wisdom of communities, and they work in silos that make it difficult for them to share the community’s more holistic perspective.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle is bureaucratic red tape. Rather than working through legitimate issues such as safety, liability, maintenance and labor agreements, too often these obstacles become a convenient excuse for government to say no to community initiatives.

Don’t have government red tape be an excuse to say no to community initiatives.


Build Capacity

When agencies start to make room for community and to remove obstacles to partnership, the next step is to assist community in rebuilding its capacity. Agencies must be careful to do so in ways that empower the community and don’t lead to further dependence. Appropriate capacity-building roles for agencies include leadership development, assistance with outreach and networking, and programs such as those described below that encourage the community to identify and utilize its own assets.


Hallmarks of Effective Partnerships

There are three hallmarks of effective government-community partnerships. When they are in place, they allow government to do what my former colleague, Henry Moore, described as “leading by stepping back.”


Neighborhood/Community Focused

Effective partnerships are locally based rather then centralized. They are focused on whole neighborhoods or communities rather than on separate functions. Consequently, the community can easily participate and the resulting actions are both integrated and culturally appropriate. Following are some tools that have been used to help government move in this direction:

  • Seattle, Sydney and many other cities have established little city halls in neighborhood business districts, shopping centers, libraries or other decentralized locations. Not only do these facilities enable citizens to access a wide range of city information and services in one convenient location, but the coordinator for each little city hall also serves as an overt double agent, helping both government and the community to accomplish their goals by working together.
  • Many cities have established interdepartmental teams with a neighborhood focus. The City of Toronto, for example, has organized 13 Neighborhood Action Teams “to support integrated City service planning and delivery from a neighborhood perspective.”



Effective partnerships begin by focusing on a neighborhood/community’s strengths rather than its needs. These underutilized resources include the gifts of every individual, voluntary associations, the built and natural environment, economy, and culture.

  • Seattle developed the Neighborhood Matching Fund as a powerful incentive for communities to mobilize their strengths. The City provides cash for community-initiated projects when matched by an equal community contribution of cash, volunteer labor, and/or donated goods and services. Over the past 25 years, the City’s $60 million investment has leveraged $85 million worth of community resources, more than 5000 projects have been completed, and tens of thousands of citizens have worked together to make these projects possible. The program has since been replicated by towns and cities throughout the world.
  • Involving All Neighbors is a Seattle Department of Neighborhoods program that involves persons with developmental disabilities in community life by focusing on their gifts and connecting them to existing community initiatives.



Finally, and most importantly, effective partnerships should be led by those who will live with the outcomes: the community. It is not enough to decentralize services or to mobilize underutilized resources. The community must have a voice in deciding how those resources can best be used.

  • In the late 1990s, Seattle gave communities the power to create their own neighborhood plans. The community could define the scope of work and use city funds to hire a planner who was accountable to them. In return, the city insisted that all stakeholders be involved in the effort, that outreach be targeted at labeled groups, and that the entire community be given the opportunity to vote on the final plan. The 38 neighborhood planning efforts involved 30,000 people and resulted in over 5000 recommendations. Broad-based community ownership of the plans meant that the city was held accountable for implementation. Equally important, the community took responsibility for those recommendations that it could best implement.
  • Following amalgamation in rural Golden Plains, Australia, farmers were picketing Town Hall to protest inadequate services. Local officials had very few resources, so they turned to the only untapped resource they could find – their community members. In 2000, they involved one quarter of the municipality’s 16,000 residents in the creation of 23 community plans. The plans resulted in the identification of 120 priorities; 600 citizens volunteered to manage the implementation of these recommendations. Thanks to broad ownership, the community and government together found ways to implement 96% of the plans’ priorities. The Golden Plains Council subsequently received the highest citizen satisfaction rating of any local government in the State of Victoria.
  • Other cities give communities a strong voice in developing the government’s budget. In St. Paul, Minnesota, neighborhood representatives draft the city’s capital budget. The city budget of Puerto Allegro, Brazil is based on widespread neighborhood-level discussions.

The community must have a broad-based voice in deciding how resources can best be used.

Of course, the community’s voice must be broad-based. Too often, self-appointed leaders, whose mouths are bigger than their constituencies, claim to speak for the community. Government has a role in insisting that the associations with which it partners be democratic and inclusive. Government should also provide associations with the training, technical assistance, and other support they need in order to adequately represent the community.

  • In Taiwan, the federal government supports Community Empowerment Centers throughout the country and a Young Community Planners Program that provides in-depth training for aspiring activists.
  • In the United Kingdom, the coalition government is training 5000 community organizers.

It’s amazing what is possible when government takes as much interest in its democratic infrastructure as it does in its streets, parks, and regulations.


Home page image: Jim Diers




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About the Lead Author

Jim Diers
Jim Diers
Participatory democracy has been Jim Diers’ preoccupation and his career for the past 36 years. In his work with grassroots community organizations and with government and other large agencies, Jim has found ways to get more people engaged with their community and more involved in decisions that affect their lives. Jim moved toSeattlewith his wife, Sarah Driggs, after graduating fromGrinnellCollegein 1975. For six years Jim worked as a community organizer in the low-income, racially diverse neighborhoods ofRainierValley. Bringing people together to take action on issues ranging from dangerous intersections to obtaining a new health center, Jim helped the South End Seattle Community Organization grow to include 25 member churches and neighborhood organizations. Its annual meetings drew as many as 800 people. Jim spent the next six years with Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound where he organized medical center councils to review budget and quality-of-care issues from a consumer perspective. He also helped members organize special interest groups: the Senior Caucus, the Nuclear Awareness Group, and Partners for Health. Jim also organized­-and reinvigorated-the cooperative’s annual meetings, which attracted as many as 3,000 members. In 1988, Mayor Charles Royer appointed Jim to direct the City ofSeattle’s new Office of Neighborhoods. Jim was reappointed by the subsequent mayors, Norm Rice in 1990 and Paul Schell in 1998. By the end of Jim’s 14-year tenure, the four-person Office had grown into a Department of Neighborhoods with 100 staff. The Department’s mission is to decentralize and coordinate City services, strengthen communities and their organizations, and work in partnership with these organizations to preserve and enhance the neighborhoods. The Department manages 13 Little City Halls that provide basic services to citizens and serve as meeting places for neighborhood organizations. It supports about 400 community self-help projects each year through a $4.5 million Neighborhood Matching Fund that was recognized by the Ford Foundation and Kennedy School of Government as one of the most innovative local government programs in theUnited States. Another program of community empowerment involved 30,000 people in the development of 37 neighborhood plans. The Department also manages the City’s historic preservation program, a P-Patch Program of 75 community gardens, and a leadership training program. In 2000, the Department received the Full Inclusion Award from the American Association on Mental Retardation for its Involving All Neighbors program and a Best of the Best Award from HUD for its Cultivating Communities program. In 2001, Jim was named Public Employee of the Year by the Municipal League of King County. That same year he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law fromGrinnellCollege. After leaving the Department of Neighborhoods in 2002, Jim Diers worked for a year as Interim Director of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, for three years as Executive Director of the South Downtown Foundation, and for five years as Director of Seattle Community Partnerships for theUniversityofWashington. Currently, Jim teaches courses on community organizing and community development at the Universityof Washington. Jim also speaks, conducts workshops and provides technical assistance to communities and agencies around the world as a faculty member for the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and as the author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way which is available in English and Chinese editions.

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