Innovators Stephanie Reid, Executive Director Philly Counts 2020, Melissa Bird, Executive Director, District Census 2020 and Michael Baskin, an advisor to the Foundation for Civic Leadership, team up with Govlaunch to share strategies for effective census engagement and how this process may be the gateway to establishing robust citizen engagement overall.
The census is a challenge faced by all cities with a shared deadline they cannot alter. The need for cities to ensure everyone is counted forces a focus on historically disengaged, hard-to-count populations with low levels of trusting interactions with government - no small hurdle to overcome.
When discussing best practices in citizen engagement, there is really no better test case than the census. Because it only matters if people participate.
A non-political catalyst to spark comprehensive action
While other consultations have engagement goals on things from city planning to public works projects, the goal for the census is 100% participation. And those in local government know just how hard this is.
The census determines funding, resource allocations and fuels countless datasets relied on across industries, sweeping beyond local government into healthcare and beyond. Poor census engagement (or poor metrics relied on for census “performance”) impacts data integrity and ultimately exacerbates any discussion of inequity.
Michael Baskin, an advisor to the Foundation for Civic Leadership, sees the opportunity. He says: “The urgency of the census creates a once-in-a-decade opportunity for a city cohort to focus on full participation, build their capacity to lead collective efforts, and grow relationships with a range of partners committed to ensuring every resident counts.”
Stephanie Reid, Executive Director Philly Counts 2020 has spearheaded the work break census engagement down into more of a networking and trust building exercise - one that will positively impact Philadelphia far beyond the close of the 2020 census.
Melissa Bird, tasked to rally communities in DC to boost census participation is faced with an enormous digital divide (22% of DC households do not have personal internet access), and similarly encourages local governments to leverage partnerships and network building to reach these communities.
Local governments across the board are grappling with various ways to engage their communities. Engagement aficionado Baskin believes the census is key. He says: “Census operations can be the scaffolding for full and inclusive participation and engagement going forward. The actions cities take now to execute a ‘Get Out the Count’ strategy will serve as a foundation for deeper engagement with historically underrepresented communities.”
Proven techniques here can be relayed to other important aspects of a local government’s work.
Citizen engagement efforts unite us
Local governments large and small have varying degrees of engagement efforts underway. We are starting to see a shift toward more strategic, think-outside-the-box type projects to spur engagement, address equity issues, and to reach traditionally underserved communities or groups. (A full list of citizen engagement projects can be found here).
Through the pandemic, we have also seen the impact digital strategies can have on engagement. Those with efforts already underway to leverage digital citizen engagement tools have fared better than those without. San Joaquin County, CA and Fairfax County, VA leveraged their existing municipal chatbots to address new questions relating to COVID-19. Milwaukee County spun up a COVID-19 Dashboard using GIS technology, which detects racial disparities...the list goes on.
While public servants collectively aim to better the lives of their citizens, engagement is a critical piece of service delivery. Robust services may be available, but governments must take it one step further to consider how information is being shared, if that information is accessible, and how to boost interactions with the public in equitable and inclusive ways to improve upon the services delivered.
To do this, many local governments must toss aside much of what they have traditionally relied on for engagement and look toward more of these creative tactics (and tools) to better engage their community.
This cycle of the census, disrupted by a pandemic gave local governments an excellent test bed for new ideas and creative ways to connect with their communities...not all of which were digital.
In this two episode series of the Govlaunch podcast, we break down some insights from innovators Stephanie Reid from Philadelphia and Melissa Bird from D.C. who led census engagement efforts for their cities.
Collaborators on this article are members of Democracy Fellows which supports municipal governments in building towards 100% community participation and works directly with Fellows to address local democracy deficits to civic participation. City government officials, as well as elected / appointed officials' offices are encouraged to apply for a Democracy Fellowship on the program's website.
You can listen to the episodes or learn more about innovative strategies local governments around the world are taking to better engage with the breadth of their constituency and more on the Govlaunch Podcast.