Across the United States, in response to diversifying communities, local and municipal governments are forming more representative boards and commissions. However, appointments may fail to promote essential changes to culture and practices within policy-making organizations.
In "Transforming Collaborative Governing Bodies for Immigrants' Authentic Engagement," (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 4) José W. Meléndez and Calvin G. Hoff examine how collaborative government bodies' culture affect immigrant members' sense of satisfaction, productivity, and perception of influence. The research team proposes a number of recommendations for planners looking to foster more inclusive governance processes.
This study focuses on Oregon, a predominantly white state currently experiencing significant demographic shifts. In phase 1 of the study, the researchers inventoried 504 collaborative governing bodies focused on issues like zoning, transportation, and public health throughout the state. In phase 2, they conducted 46 interviews with immigrant members and analyzed how organizational culture has affected their experiences within collaborative bodies.
Study results show that immigrant satisfaction is frequently affected by formal procedural rules. Among the most contentious is Robert's Rules of Order, which was described by one study participant as culturally white and by others as intimidating.
However, many individuals noted that a degree of informality within their board's culture helped build mutual trust and limit the impact of these procedural norms. Interactions that fostered cordial relationships between members before or after official business were also integral to building trust, fulfillment, productivity, and psychological safety. An explicit equity lens supported participants, enabled them to share their experiences, and helped touch on issues affecting historically marginalized populations.
Participants who reported higher degrees of satisfaction appeared to perceive their influence more positively both internally on the governing body and externally. Meanwhile, clear lines of communication with partners, staff, elected officials, stakeholders, and the public increased participants' sense of belonging and impact.
The biggest detractors for participants included other members' discomfort surrounding equity issues, a lack of diversity in leadership, and the failure to provide an orientation for new members.
Reforming Organizational Culture
Reforming organizational culture isn't straightforward, but year to year improvements better prepare and allow individuals to participate as valued body members.
In the service of equity, urban planners in collaborative governance should rethink structures and norms. Beyond diversity in membership, planners need to make meaningful changes to board practices and culture.
To counter the status quo, planners or organizers can facilitate relationship-building, prioritize open communication, celebrate the work of participants at important milestones, and fully explain technical programs and procedures during the onboarding stage.
Most critically, planners need to reevaluate practices that prevent authentic participation to achieve more just processes and results. Going forward, they should undertake "frank anti-racist discussions" to reveal additional insights into how different government bodies help or prevent the creation of inclusive cultures. While challenging, dedicated steps to build more welcoming systems will enhance the experience of everyone within a given body.
The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.
Top image: E+ Courtney Hale
About the author
Adin Becker is a student in the master of urban planning program at Harvard University.