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Using Citizen Academies to Educate and Engage your Citizenry

A majority of your citizens and business members do not have a good understanding of how local government works. It may be hard to imagine, especially if you are someone who is immersed in your community’s governmental activities, but I believe it to be a true statement. This fact shouldn't be all that surprising, however, since our educational system has traditionally focused primarily on the federal and state government levels. To help counter this lack of knowledge, a few communities have instituted “citizens academies,” which offer constituents the opportunity to learn about different aspects of local government functions via a one-time or a series of presentations.

Police Citizen Academies

Many police departments regularly conduct “citizens police academy programs” as one way to help community members get a better understanding of police work. These often consist of an evening class held multiple times over several weeks (with a range between 8-14 weeks), although some are held as a one-day, weekend event. Topics may include investigations, traffic enforcement, patrol operations and procedures, K-9 use, and SWAT/hostage negotiations. These programs are very popular (such as those organized by Lynnwood and Auburn) and frequently have a waiting list of people wanting to participate.

But what about educating your community members about the many other functions of local government? While it’s hard to beat the lure of a mock crime scene investigation (CSI) or a “ride-along” with a police officer, academies with a broader-focus have also attracted their fair share of interest.

Academies Addressing Basic Local Government Functions

Some academies provide an “Introduction to Local Government 101” and address most aspects of local governance, such as:

  • City Council/City Manager functions
  • Finance/Budgeting
  • Planning/Building/Code Enforcement
  • Roads/Transportation/Public Works
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Fire
  • Police

The City of SeaTac’s Community Leadership Academy, now in its second consecutive year, includes nine, two-hour sessions and is set to take place on Wednesday evenings from May 3 to June 27, 2017. The Snoqualmie Citizens Academy takes a similar approach and emphasizes its informal and interactive approach, but does so within an eight-week time period. Rockingham County (NC) has transitioned to a citizen-led series, and the County’s Citizens’ Academy webpage has video links to all of the sessions offered through its first, government-led program, which was held in 2012.

Planning-Related Citizens Academies

Because land use planning and zoning affect what people can do with their property, other citizens academies focus primarily on planning and land use. The Lakewood (CO) Citizens’ Planning Academy is six weeks in length and covers everything from comprehensive planning to subdivision/development project review, and even includes a mock public hearing on a development proposal.

A few years ago, the City of Bellingham organized a Planning Academy I for Neighborhoods, which was intended to provide neighborhood representatives a broad understanding of comprehensive planning, land use law, the city's planning history and regulations. It was also an opportunity for city staff to meet constituents and better understand the needs of the neighborhoods. The city followed it up with a Planning Academy II, which was designed to engage community members in creating a “toolbox” of housing types. The resulting, community-designed toolbox would later become adopted as the city’s Infill Housing Ordinance.

Finally, Sacramento’s (CA) Citizen's Planning Academy offers a very comprehensive curriculum that addresses many different aspects of community planning and includes two field trips.

Another Approach

Instead of limiting themselves to one type of citizens academy, the City of Redmond provides for a variety of different academies, including:

  • A “Local Government 101” series;
  • An academy related to the Community Advisory Committee process for people appointed to assist with development of recommendations for policy and code amendments; and
  • A one-day Community Academy Workshop that is organized upon request to address specific local needs and interests, such as those related to emerging technologies, communication, and transportation management. 

As local governments look for methods to engage their community members, organizing a citizens academy is an idea that warrants consideration.

Additional Resources

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Steve Butler

About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.