Neighborhoods: Can they matter again in McGinn's Seattle?

The Seattle Model of involving neighborhoods is emulated in much of the world, but it fell from favor here over recent years. Even after making a smart hire for a Neighborhoods director, Mayor McGinn faces big decisions.

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The Seattle Model of involving neighborhoods is emulated in much of the world, but it fell from favor here over recent years. Even after making a smart hire for a Neighborhoods director, Mayor McGinn faces big decisions.

There's a lot to be learned from talking to former Department of Neighborhoods Director Jim Diers about community building and what he’s learned from his travels promoting what has come to be known as the Seattle Model of neighborhood organizing and bottom-up planning.  His book, Neighbor Power, a sort of “how to” of neighborhood organizing has been well received around the world — there’s now a Chinese edition — and given him the opportunity to travel to other places to see firsthand how communities deal with some of the same problems and opportunities he worked on here in Seattle.

Diers is excited to see other places embracing strategies and practices that were developed right here in Seattle but laments the fact that they have fallen out of favor at home. Nearly a decade after his departure, Seattle's department lacks leadership and is struggling to find its mission.

There are a lot of reasons why we should care about what happens with the department. With the right leadership and focus, it can again be a valuable tool for people across the city working to improve their neighborhoods.

It will be up to Mayor Mike McGinn to figure out what he wants from Neighborhoods. Will he merge it with the Office for Economic Development and Human Services? Will he make a commitment to giving more power to the neighborhoods? And what does that mean and how will it be structured?

McGinn is the inheritor of questions that have, in fact, gone unanswered for nearly a decade and have led to poor morale and frustration for a group of people committed to helping neighbors understand their government and help them build projects and community.

So how did we get here?

When Greg Nickels took office in 2002, he made some very good moves organizationally and some moves that would be perceived as heavy-handed. He created a system for making decisions, solidified power in the mayor’s office that had eroded to the city council, and created a strong policy team.

Entering office in the economic downturn of the dot-com bust, Nickels had to make some severe cuts. At the same time, Diers was advocating forcefully for his department and the neighborhoods it served. There was also unease within other departments that the Department of Neighborhoods was more on the side of the neighborhood activists than city departments.

In fact, Neighborhoods, through its neighborhood service center coordinators and neighborhood plan managers, was driving a lot of city policy. This was all part of the Seattle model of bottom-up planning. And a lot of people didn’t like it.

So, Nickels fired Diers and eliminated the neighborhood development managers — who were responsible for neighborhood plan implementation— but kept the service center coordinators. He also created the Office of Planning and Management (OPM) and moved the planners from the now defunct Strategic Planning Office (SPO) to various departments,  mostly to Seattle Department of Transportation and the Department of Planning and Development. He hired a new director for Neighborhoods, changed its mission, and gave it the difficult task of managing the newly created Race and Social Justice program.

This lasted just long enough for the new director to alienate other department heads and many community members, who wondered where this was all headed. It was, in fact, headed to another department, the Office of Civil Rights, where it is currently staffed by former DON and human services employees. While there is still a Race and Social Justice component within the Neighborhood Matching Fund program, the training and outreach is largely handled at the Seattle Office for Civil Rights.

Eventually, Nickels had to replace another Neighborhoods director.  A new director was hired, had similar success in alienation, and has now been replaced by the current mayor, Mike McGinn.

The good news for the department is that employee morale should improve with the hiring of Bernie Matsuno. Matsuno worked with Diers in the department, has strong community ties, believes in the mission (the original one), and has the support of the staff. However, Nickels also brought her in as an interim director at one point in the post-Diers era, so it remains to be seen whether this signals a change in direction in the new administration.

So, the larger question for McGinn is still what to do with the department? He deserves praise for making a good hire. But now he must make a decision: Should Neighborhoods be the conduit for interaction between the public and line departments, or should departments do this work themselves? Currently, we have both, which is the worst of all worlds given the budget constraints at the city. A decision must be made.

For Diers, it makes the most sense to have a single department, geographically located, with close ties to neighbors to act as the connectors or the conduit for interaction with the city. The department's staffers develop the relationships both within the city and within the neighborhood and across neighborhood interests, making it easier for the city and the neighborhoods to work as partners and help people understand what the neighbors want and what the city can do.

That approach also includes targeting investments and helping neighbors match it with sweat equity and volunteerism. This is the strategy of the Neighborhood Matching Fund (NMF), which has been copied in Sydney, Dublin, Victoria and many other cities. Diers does a lot of traveling carrying the word about how to build community and get things done.

And while we still have a NMF program it is about a third of the $4.5 million a year it used to be under Mayor Paul Schell. (The value to the community is probably further reduced after you factor in inflation and the fact that some staff salaries are now paid out of the fund.) And while I wouldn’t expect it to be at those levels anytime soon, nor would that probably be a good idea, the model works as a way to leverage public investments and build community at the same time. It also forces departments to work together, as many of the projects are interdisciplinary.

In the United Kingdom, Diers is helping develop a Neighborhood Matching Fund (NMF) across the country. The fund is currently set at $126 million and they are hiring 500 organizers and training 5000 community members to help communities create and develop projects. The UK is doing this at a time of slashing pensions and public spending, because the government sees it as a way to make investments in community go farther through community participation. Other strategies include neighborhood challenge grants, time banking, and participatory budgeting.

In Australia, Diers is helping the Municipal Association of Victoria develop bottom-up planning. When farmers in Golden Plains there were picketing city hall to protest inadequate services, the local council members said there was no money to enhance services. The community initiated bottom-up planning. About one-quarter of the 16,000 residents participated. Not only did they develop a plan, but the residents implemented most of the recommendations themselves. The Golden Plains Council soon had the highest citizen approval rating of any local government in Victoria.

Diers also has an interesting observation about the strength of community: Those places that have a high number of non-profit agencies generally have weaker community ties. He sees this largely due to non-profits taking the lead and neighborhood people thinking that someone else can do the work. The professional advocacy groups are also much better at lobbying and can devote staff to setting the agenda.

We can see this happening in Seattle, where battles over policy are usually between various interest groups based on ideological differences rather than the more meat and potatoes issues at a neighborhood gathering. People getting home from work to discuss how to slow down traffic on their street or how to raise money for a playground are more likely to focus on the project at hand and move on than is a full-time paid lobbyist for a single issue membership organization.

And while Diers, who has worked for non-profits, believes they are an important part of the body politic, the average Seattleite needs to be heard from, too. And the city has to work a little harder to find them and ask them what they think. Having a city employee in their neighborhood who understands the particular geographically based issues of place can really help both the non-profits and city government connect with their communities.

We are at a crossroads concerning the Seattle Model. The model doesn't work if we go just "half-way." And it makes no sense to have a Department of Neighborhoods if it does not have the ability to use neighborhood connections to influence how the government relates and responds to people. McGinn faces many tough choices as mayor. He has an opportunity to re-energize our city’s commitment to neighborhood and community development and bring in some new voices to our civic discussion. If he's successful, all of us in the city will be the winners.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.