A recent Harvard study examines Somerville’s successes with civic engagement.

A recent study on Somerville’s civic engagement activities published by the Harvard Kennedy School offers insights on citizen interaction at a time when local governments seek new ways to engage residents and create a more civil environment for public discourse.

In May, Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation published “Civic Engagement in Somerville: Joe Curtatone’s Story of How Community Activism Powered a Remarkable Urban Renaissance,” a first-person account by the former Somerville mayor about his experiences building civic engagement. Curtatone, who was mayor from 2004 to 2022, is a senior fellow at the Ash Center and president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council.

While the study focuses on the previous administration, Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne said Somerville continues to seek broader participation. The city is working on its first participatory budgeting process, she said, and a recent survey, called Public Safety for All, garnered the city’s highest and most diverse survey response rate ever, due to outreach. She emphasized the importance of learning from different approaches.

“The exchange of good ideas between cities is a powerful force for positive change, so if academic attention helps get the word out about Somerville’s community engagement approaches, I’m glad we can contribute,” Ballantyne said. “But it’s also a reminder that we too need to continue to learn from other cities and our residents.”

Harvard released the study soon after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the use of “civility restraints” at public meetings violates free speech rights. The ruling landed as public officials face increasing hostility from constituents and seek new strategies to engage the public in more constructive ways.

Curtatone has had a long academic association with Harvard, which teaches about his work in its government programs. For instance, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative teaches mayors about the Curtatone administration’s data innovations. The Harvard study describes how officials helped bring the MBTA Green Line extension into Somerville, developed the Assembly Square area, and addressed childhood obesity through a Tufts University partnership. The Shape Up Somerville program became the model for First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” fitness campaign.

Under Curtatone, Somerville created SomerStat, a program collecting data on everything from potholes to public health; established a 311 “One Call to City Hall” program for residents to report problems; engaged the public through the development of the SomerVision2040 comprehensive planning process; and created the SomerViva Office of Immigrant Affairs to improve outreach. Somerville also began holding twice-yearly community meetings in each of its seven wards to discuss city data and pressing issues, with participation from top-level department heads.

The Harvard study also describes a process of trial and error, and fine-tuning engagement efforts as engagement needs varied from issue to issue.

“That’s why it’s so important for politicians, academics and activists to understand that there is no one blueprint for building better civic engagement,” Curtatone said.

That process continues today. Ballantyne said Somerville relies on numerous outreach measures, including community meetings, surveys, task forces, listening sessions, coffee hours, staff availability at events, emails, 311 calls, interactions with the city’s multilingual Equity Outreach Team, and work with community partners. Ballantyne said her daily bus commute also gives her insights into constituents’ needs.

“You have to be prepared to meet people where they are,” Ballantyne said, “whether that’s speaking their language, heading out into the community to where people gather, or offering up a range of ways to participate that fit into their lives.”

The city benefits from an active citizenry, but engagement remains an ongoing challenge, said City Council President Ben Ewen-Campen.

“I love Somerville, and I’m proud that we’re getting recognition, but I also think that we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “It’s a perpetual thing.”

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