Community Engagement Done Right

By Nina Bennett and Anjali Chainani

It’s much harder to credibly close equity gaps without directly involving impacted residents. Before cities formulate policy, design programs, and establish budget priorities, they need to engage marginalized communities. Otherwise efforts to resolve disparities will be less effective and city leaders may be perceived as out of touch, no matter how well-intentioned.

(Download the “Avoiding Common Pitfalls in Community Engagement” resource guide here.)

Amidst the pandemic and a national reckoning over racism, community engagement practices have become more important than ever — and in some ways more difficult. Budget leaders looking to allocate COVID-19 relief funds and chart an equitable recovery face escalating pressures. These include increased politicization of municipal budgets; sharper demands for transparency and accountability; and frustration with the pace of visible change.

Community engagement done well can redirect mounting pressures toward productive ends. For example, by building relationships with community networks it can secure clear mandates for difficult budget choices that advance ​​equitable policies and programs. But beware: community engagement done poorly can do more harm than good. If staff cannot clearly explain how community input will directly inform decisions or marginalized groups aren’t fully represented, residents’ frustration and skepticism can grow.

A common misstep cities make is to focus on community outreach methods before thinking carefully about basic goals, according to Andrea Batista Schlesinger of HR&A Advisors. HR&A is supporting What Works Cities’ City Budgeting for Equity and Recovery (CBER) program by helping city leaders to embed equity in budgeting practices and tactics.

“It’s important to be clear on what you are looking for when you seek to engage,” Batista Schlesinger stressed during a meeting in September with CBER program participants. “Are you looking for data that helps support bold moves and quantifies a mandate? Or for ideas, or to build consensus?” When city leaders match up goals with the right engagement approaches, there can be powerful results. “You can build trust, and you can get better data and ideas that empower equitable actions,” she said.

A major strategic goal behind many community engagement efforts is to secure a clear mandate for policies and budget decisions. Efforts like surveys, public meetings, interviews, and focus groups can help achieve this goal by confirming (or challenging) assumptions about public sentiment. (Other major community engagement goals include designing and refining programs, and on-the-ground implementation of programs with non-government partners.)

Before designing and rolling out particular mandate-building tactics, however, start by asking structural questions. These questions can help align tactics to engagement goals, which in turn helps avoid common engagement pitfalls.

1. Data: What kind of data would be most valuable?

2. Perspective: Whose perspective do you need, and which perspectives have been historically marginalized or difficult to capture?

3. Representation: How will you know when outreach efforts result in an accurate reflection of the relevant communities?

Once you’ve answered these questions, staff can settle on specific tactics to reach targeted perspectives, increasing the likelihood of securing a mandate from the public for specific actions and investments.

In Miami-Dade County, for example, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava wanted to spark civic engagement and align her administration’s agenda with constituents’ priorities after taking office late last year. Her staff launched a countywide survey that could quickly reach a broad range of residents. In February 2021, more than 25,000 people completed the survey. One clear theme that emerged from the results was a concern about public safety. ​​Specifically, many respondents expressed a desire to increase their sense of safety by improving lighting and maintenance in parks and other public spaces.

With clear data to point to, Mayor Cava proposed increased funding in this area in her administration’s first budget. To help turn survey results into a community-driven policy framework, Mayor Cava’s team also held a series of workshop events with county leadership and staff, nonprofits, community leaders, and policy experts.

Staging workshops and public forums and conducting surveys may seem to have no downside, but beware significant pitfalls. If residents perceive engagement activities as pointless, turnout and response rates might be low. If public events aren’t scheduled at convenient times and locations, or if surveys aren’t offered in languages that a diverse array of residents can understand, there’s a danger that engagement efforts lead to decisions that perpetuate inequities by excluding the very residents that city governments are striving to reach.

Here are five common pitfalls and tips for avoiding them:

1. Irrelevant or useless data.

How to avoid: Have city engagement specialists, community groups and the teams that will use findings vet the structure of community engagement and any survey questions.

2. Insufficient or unrepresentative turnout or responses.

How to avoid: Use both online and accessible in-person forums. Promote equitable engagement through partnerships with community-based organizations and by canvassing communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. Incentivize participation through monetary/nonmonetary rewards.

Example: The 2019 Portland Insights Survey, which gathered data on residents’ policy and budget priorities, and satisfaction with government services, to inform City decisions. The survey was conducted in five languages, online as well as in-person, by 37 canvassers focused on communities of color. Canvassers targeted underserved populations, visiting employment centers, libraries, and religious institutions, as well as large community events such as cultural festivals. One result: The City collected more than twice the number of responses as a similar survey conducted three years earlier.

3. Outreach feels condescending and extractive.

How to avoid: Show respect for residents’ time and ideas. Communicate with a respectful level of complexity.

Example: The Big Easy Budget Game, which allowed residents to create their own City of New Orleans budget after seeing the City’s current budget. The online game, created by the Committee for a Better New Orleans, takes about 10 minutes to play on a desktop or mobile device. The nonprofit analyzed and published data from residents’ budgets in annual People’s Budget reports. The 2017 report highlighted the public’s desire to reduce police and prison funding in favor of addressing blight and improving infrastructure.

4. Marginalized communities are unheard or excluded.

How to avoid: Eliminate barriers related to language, technology, physical ability, work schedules, and childcare responsibilities.

Example: The City of Austin’s Quality of Life initiatives, which sought to improve conditions for the City’s African-Amerian, Asian and Hispanic populations through targeted community engagement sustained over multiple years. Public forums, town hall events, and print/online surveys surfaced residents’ lived experiences and opportunities to improve services and financial supports. Members of each community prepared reports offering recommendations and presented them to Austin City Council.

5. Engagement feels performative to participants.

How to avoid: Design surveys and other data-gathering activities to avoid confirmation bias. Make sure public engagement is necessary and will support decisions. Plan how useful data will be leveraged in decision-making, and explain the plan to participants.

Fort Collins, Colorado offers an example of a community engagement process that led directly to a tangible — and meaningful — outcome. Earlier this year, the City decided to hire its first Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Officer to build and lead a DEI Office. City leaders turned to the community in the design phase, asking residents to help define the role and office, and then to vet candidates.

“We knew there were people in the community who cared deeply about what this office looks like and could help it succeed,” says Karen Burke, director of human resources in the City of Fort Collins.

To develop the job description, the City hosted 20 listening sessions (including four in Spanish) with a total of 224 participants. Among other things, feedback from residents helped the City clarify the role’s decision-making responsibilities. Burke believes the robust community engagement process has set up the new Chief DEI Officer, hired in July, for success.

Ultimately, thoughtful and targeted community engagement can generate a clear mandate for change. On a more practical level, it can also help ensure that a City’s equity-informed strategies pay off with results. Fort Collins’ community engagement around DEI required sustained effort, says Burke. But “it was worth the time, the money and the energy to design a role and program that matters.”

Nina Bennett, a leader in HR&A’s growing Equity in Governance practice area, is a Director based out of the firm’s Texas office.

Anjali Chainani, the former director of policy for the City of Philadelphia, is a senior advisor at What Works Cities and leads the City Budgeting for Equity & Recovery program.

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