This case study is part of our Voice of the People Award series. VOP winners are selected based on their results on The National Community Survey (The NCS), a resident feedback assessment that focuses on the foundations that create a high quality of life. Categories include the economy, safety, utilities, design, natural environment, parks and recreation, health and wellness, and inclusivity and engagement. Winners demonstrated significant improvements or excellence on The NCS in each category.
Meet people where they’re at—that’s the philosophy that has kept Decatur, Georgia’s culture of community engagement strong throughout drastic changes in how people work, live, and communicate.
“Covid has forced a lot of us to pivot in a way that we engage our communities and think more intentionally about how we reach folks,” said Renae Madison, Communications Officer for Decatur.
Decatur rates above the national average on The NCS for most aspects of inclusivity and engagement, including sense of community, civic pride, and resident connection.
Decatur integrates engagement into their planning processes.
“Engagement gives people buy-in. We work for the folks in our community and we want our residents to feel like their voices are being heard,” Madison said. “They pay taxes so they also deserve input into where their money is going.”
Decatur emphasized digital communication once the pandemic hit. They used websites, video meetings, and online roundtables. Removing the traditional barriers to City events, like commuting or inconvenient meeting times, allowed more people to attend.
“Our engagement increased when we started to do virtual sessions. It made us even more committed to giving options for people to engage in the best way that makes them feel comfortable,” Madison said.
Screenshot of a Decatur virtual meeting
Decatur maintains its in-person outreach as well. For example, Decatur leaders gather feedback at farmers’ markets and other local hubs. As an extra effort to let people know they care, they often send personal invitations to City events. The invitations are an example of Decatur leaders' priority to build relationships and get people involved in local government, whether with individual residents, nonprofits, or other community leaders.
“We try to reach everyone from teens to seniors every time we do something,” Madison said. “We have to be able to step out and do the extra work to hear their voice and perspective and build those relationships.”
Feedback isn’t something that is sought once and then put on a shelf—it’s a continuous process.
The City asks residents to provide deeper feedback on topics that came out of previous engagement opportunities. In a recent initial collaborative session, themes about affordable housing, equity and racial justice, transportation, and civic engagement surfaced. The City followed up with another meeting where residents had an opportunity to add additional thoughts to the emerging themes and provide input on specific goals and action items. After they collected feedback, officials shared how resident input will be used with the community.
The strategy of collecting and communicating the plan created a cycle of trust that strengthens the sense of community that is so strong in Decatur.
“People should not be afraid of community engagement. It’s very important. Their feedback may not always turn out the way we want it to turn out, but it helps us to make better decisions for our community,” Madison said.