Inclusive Community Engagement & Equitable Participation to Improve 4 Core Functions of Local Government

Katie Hannon Michel, Cesar De La Vega, & Tina Yuen

Democracy requires public participation and community engagement to engender a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Local governments have a responsibility to engage their community members in a robust and equitable manner in order to effectively carry out the key functions of government, such as crafting and implementing laws, budgets, plans, directives, and strategic visions. However, government practices often fall short of this ideal, even though many take an active interest in improving their approaches. The inability of many local governments to strongly and authentically engage their constituents in public decisions has contributed to producing, maintaining, and even worsening social and health inequities that persist today.

An equitable, inclusive community engagement approach to public decisions ensures that the people most affected and most marginalized, especially those who have been historically left out of these conversations (eg, low-income people, returning citizens, communities of color, recent immigrants, speakers of English as a second language), have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Inclusive civic engagement results in government processes, practices, and decisions that are more responsive to community priorities, avoid many unforeseen consequences, and create relationships that hold local governments accountable. Effective community engagement can also lead to decisions that result in a more equitable distribution of the drivers of good health, like where public transit infrastructure is located or investments in neighborhood parks, schools, or housing. Additionally, giving people more control over the decisions that affect their lives and their communities has positive impacts on health. Most important, improvements in government practices, such as local agencies’ engagement strategies, can lead to lasting changes in organizational culture, policies, and processes that extend long after any one public decisionmaking process. With a greater commitment to intentionally increasing equity in their community engagement efforts, local governments are in a better position to address social and health inequities and promote access to resources, services, and programs that help people lead healthier lives.

A number of strategies can be used to build more effective community engagement and public participation — particularly of groups who are traditionally left out. This blog post highlights 4 core functions of local government, examining how current “business as usual” efforts to engage the community can reinforce inequitable outcomes and then offering promising strategies that advance more robust and inclusive community engagement and participation.

1. Budgeting

Budgeting is one of the most important things local government does. Budgeting involves allocating limited financial resources to support the delivery of key public services — from public safety, roads, and public transit to parks and libraries. A local government’s annual operating budget reflects its vision, strategies, and priorities for the future and determines which projects and services will actually be implemented each year.

Although budget decisions have a direct impact on residents’ day-to-day lives, public participation in the budgeting process is often minimal. As with many local legislative decisions, the most common forum for input on budgets is through public hearings. The specific details of the budgeting process vary across local governments. Typically, however, the person who oversees a budget, such as the mayor or town manager, identifies fiscal priorities and drafts a proposed budget after considering requests from individual departments and agencies. The proposed budget is then submitted for approval by the local legislative body, such as the city council. Before the budget is adopted, state law generally requires the local legislative body to hold a public hearing at which residents can provide input or voice concerns. The legislative body may revise the budget based on residents’ feedback but generally is not required to do so.

The shortcomings of public hearings as an effective method of engaging the public are well documented. First, hearings are a one-way street of communication from the public to decisionmakers and do not promote learning and deliberation among participants. This situation arises partly because procedural laws typically require only that the public have an opportunity to be heard. Legislators are not compelled to respond to comments or allow participants to engage each other in conversation. Further, participants generally have only a limited amount of time to present their views and may be prevented from speaking more than once during a hearing. The experience of having only 3 minutes at the microphone often leaves people feeling unsatisfied and frustrated and may deepen mistrust of government by creating the impression that decisions are predetermined and legislators are holding the hearing merely to fulfill a legal requirement. A recent report found that participating in a public hearing is more likely to reduce a participant’s sense of efficacy and community attachment than increase it.

Second, public hearings tend to attract only the “usual suspects” — either avid supporters or opponents of the decision under consideration. Overall attendance is generally low, and people who are able to attend are often disproportionately white and affluent. Further, there may be barriers to participation for some communities, including language, literacy, and cultural differences, in addition to competing family and work commitments. As a result, projects that receive funding are more likely to reflect the priorities of people with economic and political power and less likely to reflect the priorities of people who are marginalized in the decisionmaking process.

Local governments can go beyond the minimum public hearing requirements to meaningfully engage all community members in budget decisions that affect them. For example, an increasing number of local governments in the United States are experimenting with participatory budgeting (PB), a process that allows community members to directly decide how to spend all or part of a local budget. PB increases transparency and, when deliberately designed as an inclusive process, can empower people who have historically had less access or control over budgeting decisions.

In Porto Alegre, Brazil, where PB was first developed in the 1980s, this method has successfully shifted public investments to underserved neighborhoods. Since PB was initiated, the percentage of neighborhoods with running water has increased from 75% to 98%; sewer access has increased from 45% to 98%; and the number of families receiving housing assistance has increased 16-fold. In the United States, a recent PB pilot in Greensboro, North Carolina, resulted in funding for crosswalks, bus shelters, bike lane improvements, and public murals, among other things. An evaluation found that the pilot successfully included people of color and low-income residents, reflecting the city’s demographic makeup, and increased participants’ willingness to participate in other types of civic engagement. Such a commitment to inclusive engagement and decisionmaking may be tough to initiate and sustain, given the entrenched dynamics that often plague local government politics. Incorporating inclusive engagement strategies like PB requires steadfast commitment.

To learn about how communities can use a public health framework to inform budgeting decisions, check out Data for the People, a research tool developed by the Participatory Budgeting Project that uses data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps to generate tailored maps and reports for neighborhoods and cities to help them better understand residents’ wants and needs.

2. Local Legislation & Policymaking

Legislative bodies at the local level, such as county boards of supervisors and municipal city councils, pass laws and policies on a wide range of issues. In addition to budgeting decisions, local legislative bodies make decisions that affect the quality, affordability, and accessibility of public transportation, housing, parks and open space, waste management services, and water and energy utilities. In short, local legislation has a huge influence on who has access to the social and economic conditions that create health.

Unfortunately, a wide range of local laws have created and perpetuated health disparities, either intentionally or unintentionally. This problem can be traced, in part, to which communities and individuals have had — or lacked — power to influence, participate in, or control legislative policymaking. Public participation in legislative decisions is central to our democratic form of government, but in practice, some people have been left out. This inequitable distribution of power and influence is partly the result of laws and policies that create barriers to participation for people of color, low-income people, immigrants, convicted felons, and other marginalized groups. Further, a suite of state and local procedural laws require local legislators to merely inform or consult with the public about a policy decision rather than use other more robust forms of public participation. As a result, the public’s ownership and control over decisions are kept to a minimum.

This legal framework, combined with other structural factors, means that legislation is often adopted, implemented, and evaluated with little or no direct input from the people who will be directly affected by the policy or from those who experience the greatest health inequities. Consequently, local laws often fail to account for the wants and needs of residents who are experiencing inequities. Indeed, traditional policy development processes are likely to maintain the status quo or, in the worst cases, exacerbate existing inequities or even create new ones.

Local policymakers can use a number of strategies and tools to ensure more equitable engagement and representation of all residents in the policymaking process:

  • Revise public participation laws. Local governments can revise their public participation laws to authorize and support more meaningful forms of civic engagement — from deliberative face-to-face meetings between policymakers and residents to neighborhood online forums. Local governments can also establish programs through which public servants co-design policies and services in direct partnership with local residents.
  • Use Public Deliberation to shape policy decisions. Public Deliberation is a form of public discussion that seeks collective solutions to challenging social problems. The word public refers to ordinary people, emphasizing inclusion of groups whose voices are often marginalized in political processes and in daily life. Deliberation refers to a discussion that is informed, values-based, and transformative. Deliberative processes have been used to strengthen local government practices internationally and have been recently introduced in the United States.
  • Advance human-centered design principles. In California, the Civic Design Lab, housed within Oakland City Hall, used human-centered design principles and systems thinking to develop a new Healthy Housing Inspection program. The lab conducted surveys, interviews, and workshops with Oakland residents in areas with the greatest concentration of housing habitability issues to learn about their experiences. The lab also engaged in process mapping with city Code Enforcement Services staff to learn about current practices. Based on what they learned, the lab developed 2 prototypes of a proactive rental inspection policy and a separate prototype that showed what services might be included, depending on how much the community would be willing to pay for the program. The lab then conducted a community design review workshop at which residents provided feedback on the prototypes.
  • Engage in participatory action research. When assessing community needs and concerns and potential policy solutions, local government agencies — such as local health departments and planning agencies — can use participatory action research approaches like Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) to gather and analyze information. CBPR is a process in which institutions engage those most affected by a community issue to conduct research and analysis and then identify strategies that address those issues.

To learn more about how governments can transform the policymaking process and embrace bottom-up decisionmaking, check out the Kirwan Institute’s report The Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement: A Guide to Transformative Change.

3. Planning

Another core function of local governments is to help plan for the future growth of a community. State laws usually stipulate how often localities must update their comprehensive plans or master plans, and the laws often require some level of public participation in the planning process. Plans include policies, strategies, and actions to meet a locality’s future goals for their community, touching on a wide range of issues like housing, transportation, land use, economic and community development, parks and open space, environmental quality, and public safety. Community engagement efforts provide key information to help understand needs and concerns and, ultimately, to gather support for proposed projects.

Like many other statutory requirements for engagement, community outreach and participation requirements for planning often set a low bar. Public hearings, for example, usually occur late in the process, allowing concerns and opposition among community members to build and also making it virtually impossible to address the issues raised. As in the case of budgeting and other local legislation, opportunities for community engagement are limited in where and when they occur, which affects who attends and participates. A recent study has shown that people who do show up and participate in local planning meetings tend to be male, older, and homeowners. This fact calls into question who is the “public” in public meetings. Without representation from a broad range of diverse perspectives from the community, participation processes run the risk of producing a plan that is responsive to the needs of only those with economic and political power.

The Denver Housing Authority’s (DHA) recent experience with their HOPE VI redevelopment projects showcases how local governments can use effective community engagement and outreach to not only incorporate community health needs but also generate community support. DHA’s decision to emphasize health in its redevelopment project came after it surveyed existing residents and found they had high levels of chronic disease and, consequently, high health needs. This engagement also revealed some creative ways that DHA could actively support health through the redevelopment process. As an example, DHA added metrics related to health promotion — including access to green space, physical activity, and child care — to its evaluation of the redevelopment’s impact, creating an additional avenue for residents to hold DHA accountable for meeting their needs.

DHA also hosted meetings to incorporate the survey findings into the redevelopment plan but initially struggled to gather residents that represented everyone. To address barriers to fully representative participation, DHA staff decided to engage residents informally through a pop-up lemonade stand during the summer months. This innovative approach was more welcoming to people who felt uncomfortable with attending the official community engagement meetings and more convenient for residents who did not have the time to attend public meetings. DHA also provided child care after hearing that lack of child care was a barrier to residents’ attending meetings. DHA staff didn’t stop at improving its community engagement practices to gather fully representative input. They followed through on the input from residents and adjusted development plans to respond to the health needs and desires of community members. This follow-through was critical to fostering goodwill and trust with the community and, ultimately, support for the redevelopment projects.

If you want learn more about the Denver Housing Authority’s initiatives to meaningfully engage with community members to advance health and housing goals, check out the Denver Housing Authority Case Study in ChangeLab Solutions’ Health & Housing Starter Kit. For more information about participation strategies for community planning, review the Local Government Commission’s Participation Tools for Better Community Planning.

4. Voting & Elections

One of the most fundamental ways that residents influence local government is by voting. When more people exercise their power as voters, they can elect local leaders whose values are aligned with their interests and hold leaders accountable to everyone they serve. Unfortunately, voter participation in local elections is abysmally low; a recent study found that in 10 of the 30 largest US cities, voter turnout was less than 15%. Those who do vote tend to be older and more affluent than the population at large and are less likely to be people of color. The number one factor in determining likelihood of voting is age: city residents 65 and older were 15 times more likely to cast a ballot than residents between the ages of 18 and 34.

Dallas is a key example of these trends. Of all the cities included in the study mentioned earlier, Dallas ranked last in voter turnout: only 6.1% of eligible voters participated in the 2015 mayoral election. Most participants were clustered in a voting oasis of relatively affluent neighborhoods, where turnout among voting-age citizens was at least 150% of the city average. Further, Dallas residents who are 65 and older have 22 times greater electoral clout than those aged 18 to 34, less than 2% of whom voted for mayor in 2015. These trends mean that a small fraction of older, high-income residents are exerting a disproportionate influence on critical local issues that affect everyone, like schools, parks, housing, police, and transportation.

A number of structural factors diminish the number of eligible voters or keep local residents from the polls. Federal, state, and local laws and policies all play a big factor in who shows up at the polls. Examples include strict state voter ID laws and felony disenfranchisement laws. Additionally, federal and state campaign finance laws enable wealthy donors to have an outsize influence on elections, and partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts dilutes representation for people of color.

State and local governments can adopt several types of pro-voter policies to address structural barriers and drive increased participation. For example, states like Oregon and California have streamlined the voter registration process by automatically registering eligible citizens when they apply for a driver’s license or vehicle registration, among other events. This type of policy is targeted to benefit young people, communities of color, low-income residents, and people with disabilities, all of whom are less likely to be registered to vote. In 2 states — Vermont and Maine — people who have been convicted of a felony never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated.

At the local level, a handful of cities have extended the right to vote in municipal and school board elections to non-citizens, including undocumented immigrants. Additionally, Berkeley, California, and several cities in Maryland have lowered the voting age for municipal elections to 16. Finally, municipalities are leading the charge on campaign finance reform; for example, New York City has a voluntary public financing program that matches small-dollar contributions to candidates for municipal office.

To learn more about voter turnout in local elections and strategies to increase participation, check out Portland State University’s resource Who Votes for Mayor?

This piece is part of the Building Healthy, Equitable Communities Series and is the sixth of our policy posts exploring the often unexpected ways that laws and policies can help — or hinder — community health. To learn more about building community members’ capacity to influence policies that affect their health, register for our webinar.

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Katie Hannon Michel, MELP, JD, is a legal fellow at ChangeLab Solutions who works to support sustainable communities, with a focus on healthy and just food systems.

Cesar De La Vega, JD, is a policy analyst at ChangeLab Solutions, where his work focuses on health equity, schools and child health, healthy housing, and creating active, accessible communities for all.

Tina Yuen, MPH, MCP, is a senior planner at ChangeLab Solutions. She works on active transportation and supports cross-sector collaboration and systems change aimed at fostering healthy, sustainable, and just communities.