Community input is the most important pillar of government work, but it is often the hardest to capture. Digital divides, language barriers, and severed trust with communities can hinder communication between public servants and residents, preventing constant feedback on whether City programs are meeting the needs of constituents. In San José, we are committed to bridging these gaps.
This past June, our team joined the City of San José’s Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI) to launch a community engagement strategy for the City’s Data Equity project.Our team understands that quantitative data works best in partnership with qualitative feedback. After completing our data analyses, we turn outward, engaging with residents and community stakeholders to help build policy recommendations that will improve City services.
Though our work has only just begun, with 300 community partners reached and over 40 meetings booked, our conversations have already brought important lessons about community engagement done right—getting us closer to a smarter, more responsive, and more engagedCity Hall.
Lesson 1: Your audience matters
When our team initially set out to contact community organizations, we knew that our first step was to reframe how we talked about our work and its findings. We had spent countless hours diving into the nuances of our data with data scientists and academics, but believed that community partners’ time would be best served by a five-to-ten-minute presentation of our top-line findings. By crafting one presentation and set of talking points framed for a mainstream audience, we would be able to engage all community organizations—or so we thought.
Seven conversations into our community engagement launch, a community partner halted our presentation to ask us to “please, speak plain English.” During our next call, our partner organization wanted to speak exclusively about data, recent state policy changes, and federal poverty thresholds.
Community organizations are not a monolith. They have different priorities and comfort levels with data. Building trust and forming strong partnerships with each organization depends on our ability to adapt our language and “big asks” to each organization we speak to.Customizing slide content and talking points for each partner presentation is critical to meaningful engagement.
Lesson 2: Incentives matter
“When you do a disaster relief town hall, no one cares. The moment you do a raffle, everyone cares.”
While many community partners have remarked on the need for City Hall to improve its community outreach through traditional channels, stakeholders who work with our most marginalized communities have instead focused on the power of creative outreach. If you want good turnout for a family focus group, bring pizza. If you want to build partnerships with community organizations and the people they serve, show up at their resource fairs, community concerts, and talent shows with swag and flyers.
City Hall has to do more than produce digital marketing campaigns and circulate feedback surveys. Rather than asking the community to come to us, we must take the extra step to go to the community—and bring incentives to participation.
Lesson 3: Restoring trust matters
Some of the most difficult conversations our team has held to date have also been our most important. Community stakeholders have shared their hesitations to connect us with the residents they work with because some feel the City has wronged or neglected them in the past. Others have spoken about a general mistrust of government, especially by communities of color and non-English speaking and low-income residents.
In these conversations, we have learned that the best way to begin restoring trust is to be open to criticism, diligent in our follow up, and resourceful to our community partners beyond our Office’s mission. In many cases, we are serving as the first touch-point these organizations have had with the City in years.Whether they request that we transcribe most of our commitments in writing right after our meeting or connect them to a different office in City Hall instead, we are eager to serve as the path to a renewed relationship between these organizations and the City.
Lesson 4: Community solutions matter
We launched our community engagement work with two main goals: to share the findings from our data pilots with the community and to hear about their experience accessing the City services our team is analyzing. From the get-go, community partners made it clear that they did not just want to dwell on the problems; they were also eager to extend solutions.
Meaningful community engagement, we have quickly learned, goes beyond informing the community or asking about their experience to identify pain-points. Community conversations should pave the way for policy changes to City programs that truly reflect the lived experience of the residents who rely on these services and programs.And there is no one better than the residents themselves to start shining a light on those solutions. After all, that’s what the work of government is all about: by the people, of the people, and for the people.