Learning From Bostonians: How Citizens Make Their Voices Heard

On a recent Saturday morning, Segun Idowu told a small crowd gathered in Roxbury the story of how he had helped to win city support, and $2 million in funding, for a police body camera program.

One of his main insights about the success of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, which he had co-founded in light of the national debate after the Ferguson protests, was the following: If your idea requires city money, you need to come prepared with a detailed plan, target your pitch toward those who control the purse strings, and mobilize coalitions to back your plan so you’re not working alone. 

This was all sound advice for the people who had come to the meeting to learn about how to effectively advocate for issues they care about, but, at the same time, would also be a lot to ask of someone who’s new to advocacy or may not even know where City Hall is. 

Segun is an example of someone who could be described as a power user when it comes to interacting with Boston’s governing decisions. He’s an effective advocate because his knowledge of city power structures — who to talk to, and which processes to target — and highly engaged in city activities. 

Most Bostonians are not this engaged (nor would it be reasonable to expect people to be) and don’t know as much about the city’s budget process. This poses a challenge, as issue advocacy is often linked to budget decisions. There’s a dollar amount behind everything the city does and city spending is therefore a reflection of the city’s values.

For this reason, we, a team of three students enrolled in a field class at the Harvard Kennedy School taught by Professor Nick Sinai, want to answer the question of how we can ensure that Bostonians have easy and equal opportunities to have their voices reflected in the City’s budget decisions. You can learn more about this class and our project in collaboration with the City of Boston’s Budget Office and the Department of Innovation and Technology in our first blog post

To better understand the problem that we were trying to solve, we set out to learn what Bostonians are already doing to make their voices heard and where they encounter challenges in doing so. We conducted a total of 29 interviews with Bostonians from nine different neighborhoods, interviewed nine staff members at City Hall, and attended five public events.

Events pictured: A City Life Vida Urbana rally in East Boston, a Build BPS Boston Public School budget hearing at City Hall, and a civic engagement training hosted by City Councilor Michelle Wu.

Events pictured: A City Life Vida Urbana rally in East Boston, a Build BPS Boston Public School budget hearing at City Hall, and a civic engagement training hosted by City Councilor Michelle Wu.

Who We Found

We then grouped what we had learned into four personas, i.e. types of people we encountered:

  • The first were lumberjacks, or power users like Segun who are highly sophisticated activists. 

  • Gardeners: These people actively tend to community issues, just like a gardener tends to their plants. They’re more casual in their approach, but do things like attend neighborhood association meetings, meet-and-greets with their city council member, volunteered on a local campaign, or other activities.

  • Failed Lumberjacks: These are people who at one point in their life were active in community issues. They might have even built a network of city contacts through friends or colleagues. Yet, eventually they decided their involvement wasn’t working. It wasn’t making an impact or they felt the city didn’t care about their priorities, so they gave up. 

  • Greenhorns: These oftentimes younger residents who recently moved to the city, such as students, never had an issue that made them think about local government and don’t have an opinion on budget issues.

Key Takeaways

After talking with all four types of Boston residents, we had some central takeaways:

  • Residents are often motivated by particular issues, and are less likely to seek out information about the entire city budget;

  • Even the most engaged, politically aware citizens don’t engage with the budget process;

  • City Councilis often the main point of contact;

  • Modes of interactionwith the city are numerous;

  • Attending in-person meetings is challenging for many Bostonians;

  • Digital communication does not always play a substantial role—not every Bostonian subscribes to city email lists or follows city activities on social media; 

  • lack of trust exists among some communities; and

  • There’s a noticeable lack of feedback from the city when people attend city events, give public testimony at a hearing, or otherwise engage. 

With these people in mind, we will turn our attention next to prototyping solutions for Bostonians.

Karyn Bruggeman, Jan Geffert, & Isabel Schünemann