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Strategies to Engage Parents in Public Decisions

The Issue

Busy parents often lack the skills or inclination to participate in public decision-making processes. Yet their insights help insure that programs for children and youth are effective. Public officials can use a variety of civic engagement tools to engage parents, including advisory committees, outreach workers, community conversations, mini-grants, or program design workgroups. But the strengths and limits of these strategies, especially in engaging low-income parents or others who are not usually engaged in public deliberation, are not clear.

What Has ANR Done?

UC Davis Cooperative Extension (CE) specialist Dave Campbell and CE colleagues in eight counties examined parent and public participation in California’s First 5 program. First 5, funded by taxes on tobacco products, supports health, child care and school readiness programs for children, ages 0 to 5, and their families. Five private foundations teamed with eight county First 5 commissions to promote civic engagement. Using strategies adapted to local conditions, participation in planning processes was promoted from a cross-section of the community, especially low-income parents. The UC researchers found tradeoffs in civic engagement strategies:

• Advisory committees—formal structures have influence over decisions, but are often uninviting to parents; informal structures are more inviting, but have less power.
• Outreach workers—can overcome language and cultural barriers, but comes at the expense of influencing decision makers.
• Community conversations—provide a non-threatening way to share information and build trust, but must focus on serious debate over key issues.
• Mini-grants—allows parents and community groups to engage directly in public work, but requires a lot of staff management.
• Program design workgroups—brings parents and community members into settings with power over how dollars are spent; requires heavy staff investment.
• Outreach strategies that mix diverse parents in large conversations don't always work. These parents are better reached by small-group or one-to-one conversations with trusted individuals.

The Payoff

Better Data to Inform Civic Engagement Strategies

Drawing on the UC Davis evaluation, Harder and Company Community Research documented successful civic engagement during subsequent years of the project. For example, First 5 Contra Costa held a series of community-friendly meetings that rotated through the county. First 5 San Diego teamed with the Consensus Organizing Institute to provide training and assistance to parent leaders.


Supporting Unit: Human & Community Development

David Campbell, Community Studies Specialist, UC Davis, (530) 754-4328; dave.c.campbell@ucdavis.edu