The New Orleans Citizen Participation Project

by Committee for a Better New Orleans
Vetted

Sometimes it seems like the last 10% of a particular project can take 50% of the time, and it has seemed that way around here on a couple of our efforts over the last few months.  But now we are 95% of the way through that last 10% on two major pieces, with signficant progress on two other projects, so we are looking to wrap up the year in style!

The long-anticipated "Big Easy Budget Breakdown" website -- providing budget to actual figures for New Orleans city government going back to 2007 -- has at last completed every bit of data entry and verification.  We are working to coordinate with the city on a press conference to launch the site, but with or without them, we are going live the first week of December at the latest.  The site did get a bit bogged down due to some differing points of view over at City Hall, but we think it was worth the wait to get everyone aligned.  With the process now complete, not only can we bring this vital information to the community, but we now also have an approved template for every year going forward.

Also delayed but now nearly complete is our second budget-related website, the "People's Budget Game."  This will allow any New Orleans resident to create his/her own version of the city budget.  As part of all future budget cycles, we will engage as many residents as possible to do this -- including bringing laptops and trained volunteers to libraries, neighborhood meetings, churches, etc. -- and then provide the aggregated data to the budget staff.  We have been intentional from the beginning about making this replicable for other jurisdictions, and about making it as easy to use as possible.  Accommodating these important objectives just required more time than we had hoped, but we are doing initial testing of the site right now and at the very latest, will be able to go live with it early next year.

We are also very pleased to report that this project was selected as a finalist for this year's Greater New Orleans Foundation PitchIt! contest for nonprofit innovation, and ultimately won third place in the contest.

Another major piece of work that has gone well is the Participatory Budget (PB) process we are doing with partners in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward.  The first majorcomponent of this was the Lower Nine Resilience Festival, which took place on August 29, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  The event went off extremely well.  In addition to raising the first seed money for the PB process, the Resilience Fest also served to promote some unity and healing in this very damaged section of our city.  This conversation is ongoing, as is the fundraising for the PB process.

Another project that is in that 95th percentile of completion is our Residents Guide to City Government.  The latest and most ambitious of our community information guides, the Guide is now in final proofreading stages before going to press.  The publication will provide a huge amount of information to residents about the workings of city government, with a focus on being able to determine exactly who residents need to talk to (and how to contact them) in order to access specific programs, services, permits, etc.  With a bit of luck on the timing, this could be the hottest holiday present in the city!

Finally, the New Orleans Media Group (nola.com, The Times-Picayune) did a substantial story on the status of civic engagement in New Orleans, pointing out the inadequacies of city government's performance in this area.  CBNO President Keith Twitchell was cited extensively in the article.  Several of the subsequent online comments endorsed the content and made the connections between quality civic engagement mechanisms and other critical components of civic life such as voting.

As we look ahead to the holiday season and year end, we are really gratified by the amount of community involvement we have experienced throughout the year, on so many levels and in so many ways.  The ultimate goal of civic engagement is to create a truly informed and empowered community, and from our vantage point, progress on this is palpable.  It is nice to have specific accomplishments, like the budget websites and the Residents Guide -- after all, these are the tangible milestones that enable us to continue marching forward -- but nothing is more rewarding than hearing ever louder the voice of the people.  On that note, thank you for your incredibly valuable support this year; we wish you a joyous holiday season and a fulfilling new year!

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It is a time both somber and celebratory as we approach the ten-year anniversary of the arrival of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the federal levee system that devastated New Orleans.

We celebrate the fact that so much has been done here.  The city has a vitality that is simply remarkable.  We have become one of the top entrepreneurial cities in the United States, a spirit that grew out of having to do so much of our rebuilding ourselves.  Many areas of New Orleans look much better than they did before the flooding.

We are somber because there are still so many residents that are not included in the progress.  There are still neighborhoods struggling deeply.  And we remember so many who perished, and so many who remain displaced.

The CPP project has had a good summer.  In response to repeated requests from us, Mayor Landrieu moved his annual Budget Town Hall meetings to earlier in the budget cycle; while we still do not think that these really provide substantial community input opportunities, at least they are taking place before most decisions have been finalized.  And we have some indication that the administration is open to a significant rethinking of how these sessions are conducted.

We received word today, after months of delay, that the city is ready for us to launch the Big Easy Budget Breakdown website.  This site will provide city budget to actual numbers going back to 2007, which will provide a real insight as to how the city collects and spends money.  And we also today reviewed progress on our next tech-based project, putting the Peoples Budget Exercise online; this project is actually slightly ahead of schedule and will be ready to launch this fall.

We have formally rolled out our Neighborhood Participation Plan (NPP) facilitation service, which will do a lot to make sure that NPP meetings are productive for residents, neighborhoods and the business owner applicants.  As we previously reported, the NPP is basically working well, but applicants need more information and support services to really get the process right, which will in turn provide better information and input opportunities to neighborhoods.  And our reports will give City Planning staff more complete and accurate information about community views on specific applications.

However, back to the approaching Katrina anniversary:  the single largest focus for us right now is the Lower 9th Ward Resiliency Festival.  The Lower 9th Ward was the hardest hit neighborhood when the levees failed, and remains the farthest behind in the recovery.  We have been working with organizations and individuals in this neighborhood for several months now to put on this Festival, which will showcase neighborhood musicians, artists, cooks and other cultural contributors, of which there are many.  We hope the Festival will indeed demonstrate the resiliency of this area, while also reminding city leaders of how much work remains to be done here.  And as previously reported, revenues generated by the Festival will then be used for a community-based Participatory Budgeting process.  This will of course have tremendous direct benefits to the Lower 9 residents, as they will be able to fund some recovery projects that are of importance to them; from our standpoint, the opportunity to demonstrate the community's capacity (and desire) to conduct a PB process is exceptionally valuable.  As city leaders continue to claim that New Orleans is not ready for PB, having a truly disadvantaged community fund and conduct their own PB process is incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

It is an emotional time in New Orleans, and we would be remiss if we did not express our profound gratitude to those people from all over the United States, and all over the world, who have contributed in so many, many ways to revitalization of our beloved home.  From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.

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Residents are rising up in New Orleans and demanding more and better opportunities for input!

One of the most damaged areas of New Orleans in the post-Katrina levee failures was the lower 9th Ward.  To this day, this area is less than 50% rebuilt.  However, those residents who have rebuilt and returned are a dynamic, motivated group.  They also feel -- with justification -- that they are very under-served by both government and the private sector.  So, while our city administration continues to tell us that the community is not ready for Participatory Budgeting (PB), a collaborative of organizations and residents from the lower 9th Ward has come to CBNO and asked us to help them conduct their own PB process.  With the tenth anniversary of Katrina approaching on August 29, this group is producing a Lower 9 Resiliency Festival, with cultural, recreational and faith activities.  The funds they raise from sponsorships, merchandise sales and the events themselves will be used to create a pool of money for the PB process.  CBNO will then guide the community through the process, culminating in a vote by lower 9th Ward residents on how they want to spend the money to improve their community on their own.  Not only is this a powerful statement about community self-determination and resiliency, we are confident that it will garner a good bit of media attention.  It will prove to our city leadership that people in New Orleans are more than ready for Participatory Budgeting, and is likely to create a demand for PB from other segments of the city.  It is so gratifying to see residents themselves take the initiative, ask for our expertise and support, and put together a shining example of community participation!  We are doing everything we can to make sure that they do raise the funds necessary for a really strong PB process.

Speaking of resiliency and community leadership, New Orleans has been selected to participate in the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities initiative, a worldwide program about building resiliency to acute shocks and chronic stresses.  While many of the other cities in this program have strong civic engagement structures, or are including them in the Resiliency Plans that are the required initial component of the program, New Orleans is once again lagging behind on this subject.  In fact, the public comment period for the Resiliency Plan will happen seven months into an eight-month planning phase, which makes clear what kind of a priority city government places on community input.  However, the Citizen Advisory Committee for the New Orleans Citizen Particpation Project has stepped up in an attempt to correct this grievous oversight.  They are in the middle of a series of meetings to design an organizing and advocacy campaign to demand that the city include a permanent, formal, inclusive structure for meaningful, comprensive community participation in the Resiliency Plan, and that the structure be based on the NOLA CPP model.  Already one of the people involved has published a very aggressive op-ed piece in our local on-line media outlet, The Lens, and the group plans to have a major presence at the public meetings in July.  In the interim, CBNO is preparing a substantial white paper that makes clear the inextricable link between civic engagement and resiliency, and the group is going to demand a meeting with the leaders of the Resiliency Plan effort to push for a commitment to meaningful community engagement in the Plan.

Despite the continued reluctance of key city leaders to embrace meaningful community engagement, New Orleanians themselves are making it ever clearer that they want their voices to be heard, and to be heard right now.  This creates an extraordinarily powerful momentum for change, and CBNO is doing everything we can to guide and support this energy.  Both lower 9th Ward Participatory Budgeting process and the Resiliency Plan are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.  To our friends and supporters out there, we welcome any comments you have on this, and hope you will join us in maximizing our ability to seize these opportunties.

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Spring is in the air here in New Orleans, and we are happy to see more fruits of our labors sprouting up like the leaves and flowers!

Within a week, we will be submitting to the City Planning Commission our report on the Neighborhood Participation Plan (NPP).  The NPP is the first major part of the overall Citizen Participation Program to be adopted by New Orleans city government.  Over the past twelve months, we have surveyed residents and applicants (primarily business owners and developers) regarding their experiences with the NPP.

We are very pleased to report that overall, there is considerable appreciation for, and recognition of the value of, the NPP.  Not surprisingly, we received quite a number of recommendations for improvements, and will be including 17 specific recommendations in our report.  Rather surprisingly, satisfaction with the NPP was actually higher among applicants than residents.  Some people had predicted a business backlash against the NPP; instead, while there was a little bit of grumbling about the time it requires, the large majority of applicants appreciate the opportunity to discuss the project with their neighbors-to-be, and to begin building a relationship with the community.

From the residents' standpoint, there are issues with the notification timeline and process, and opportunities to improve the productivity of the NPP meetings.  Most of the complaints/suggestions (from both sets of respondents) are easily addressed.  Only a very small number of people were strongly negative.  This gives us plenty of information to make improvements, and a strong base from which to advocate for expanding the NPP to other city agencies that could clearly benefit from getting direct community input for their decision-making.

One interesting outcome from the survey was that both residents and applicants felt that having a city staff member present at NPP meetings would be helpful.  A few other comments from both sides also indicated that a stronger city presence throughout the process would be an improvement.  These comments clearly help build the case for implementation of the full Citizen Participation Program, as this is the only way to accomplish this.  Stay tuned for more on this ....

On another front, we are nearing completion of the website that will enable people to track the city's actual spending compared to budget over the past seven years.  We actually thought this was ready to launch, but the city did a little deeper review and asked for an additional set of numbers to be included.  These would reflect the large number of amendments to the budget that are made over the course of the year.  While we regret the delay, we agree that this will be good additional information for the site.  We have a tentative agreement now to launch the site in early April.

The city's long-deferred, comprehensively revized new Zoning Ordinance is about to come up for discussion again, and CBNO will be working with other community partners to make sure residents are informed about the content of the Zoning Ordinance and aware of their opportunities to provide input.  While more work remains to be done on this, the current Ordinance is tremendously out of date (roughly 40 years old and amended so many times as to be almost impossible to use); we will be working with partners and community members to get the new Ordinance into shape and across the finish line as soon as is reasonably possible.

Finally, we are preparing for our participation in the East-West Institute's program on the role of community engagement in post-disaster recovery.  The institute is bringing together representatives from five different entities in each of two American and two Japanese cities for a three-year program to exchange and develop information on this subject, concluding in a major symposium at the University of Pennsylvania.  CBNO was chosen to be one of the five from New Orleans.  We greatly appreciate this validation of our work and take our participation very seriously.  The first major activity will be a trip for the U.S. participants to Japan in June; look for our report in the next project report.

As always, we thank you for your interest in, and support of, this challenging, rewarding, essential work.  Your role in its continued flowering cannot be overstated.  Thanks, and Happy Spring!

Latino Health Survey Release
Latino Health Survey Release

We've been wondering why we all felt so worn out around here -- then we looked back at all that has been accomplished in the last few months and realized we earned the right to feel that way!

Nothing was bigger than the release this week of the report on our Latino Community Health Survey in New Orleans, conducted in partnership with Puentes New Orleans and the New Orleans Health Department.  The findings are both deeply disturbing and cause for guarded optimism.  Among some of the more heartbreaking pieces of data:  nearly 2/3 of Latino residents in New Orleans do not have health insurance.  Roughly half have not seen a doctor in the past two years -- and nearly a quarter have never received any kind of formal health care.

The optimism comes from the fact that many of the barriers can be overcome fairly easily, with some political will and some resources.  For example, simplistic though this may sound, many New Orleans Latinos are not accessing health care simply because health facilities have no external signage to indicate that they are health facilities.  CBNO and Puentes have worked with a local sign company to develop a package where for just $1000 we can get external and internal signs made and installed -- and our City Council has agreed to waive the permit fee for the external signs.

Other solutions will involve more work -- training bi-lingual health workers, producing more information and outreach materials in Spanish (and other languages), increasing access to healthy foods and to recreation opportunities -- but none are out of reach.  The Health Department is already moving forward on several fronts, and we have begun raising funds for the signage packages and other important measures that will ultimately improve health outcomes for this vital segment of our community.

We've also had good results from our work to open up the city's budget to real community input.  We conducted a People's Budget Summit, with some 60 residents participating in a process whereby they created a People's Budget.  There were a lot of similarities to the budget proposed by Mayor Landrieu, but also some striking distinctions.  The underlying theme is that the community wants city funds invested more proactively -- libraries, job training and placement for youth, reacreation facilities, mental health care -- and less reactively in things like police and jails.  We received a good bit of very positive media coverage for the People's Budget; as part of that, we were able to make the case that the present city budget process does not allow for meaningful input and that such input would be very valuable to city decision-makers.

We also wrapped up work on the Big Easy Budget Breakdown website, which will enable anyone to compare city budgets to actual spending for the past seven years.  We will add each new year's figures as they become available.  The last piece of information from the city just arrived, and as soon as the holidays are past and people's attention is not so diverted, we will have a formal launch.  We talk a lot about how we want community input provided to government but at the same time, that input must be informed and thoughtful; this site will be an incredibly valuable tool for building community knowledge about the budget so that residents can provide that kind of quality input.

We are also nearing completion of the research related to our evaluation of the City Planning Neighborhood Participation Plan (NPP), the first major piece of our larger Citizen Participation Program to be adopted by city government.  We have now surveyed more than 60 residents about their experience with the NPP, and interviewed close to 20 business owners.  After completing more of both over the next two weeks, we will begin writing up the evaluation, with recommendations for improvements to the NPP, immediately after the holidays.

Some of our attention has been slightly diverted by the fact that CBNO has been offered matching funds by a few long-time supporters for a year-end campaign.  So any contributions we receive between now and January 5 will be doubled!  We hope to get support for several of the $1000 clinic signage packages as well as general funds to help us build on all this momentum as we move into 2015.

Whatever you may be celebrating at this time of year, we hope you are able to do so with a sense of peace and joy, and to share your celebration with the people who mean the most to you.  We are so grateful for the support we have received this year and what it has enabled us to do for the city we love so much.  We are happy to have a little break for the holidays, and look forward to coming back even stronger next year!

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Organization Information

Committee for a Better New Orleans

Location: New Orleans, LA - USA
Website: http:/​/​cbno.org/​
Project Leader:
Keith Twitchell
President
New Orleans, LA United States
$5,601 raised of $100,000 goal
 
79 donations
$94,399 to go
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