April 22, 2020

It’s never been more critical for local governments to be in constant communication with their constituents, responding to challenges that arise from the fast-changing COVID-19 crisis, while helping people prepare for the abrupt and longer term disruptions playing out across the country.

How can government agency staff share information and collect critical data during social distancing mandates, especially with communities that don’t have ready access to online tools?

From brainstorming effective solutions to increasing government trust, community engagement matters. FUSE fellows have been collaborating with government agencies on strategic, innovative ways to reach out to residents and hear their voices, especially those in underserved communities.

As civic leaders face unprecedented challenges that require improvisation and creativity, FUSE fellows are sharing best practices gathered from their own work, as well as what they’ve learned from other cities and counties. These are the insights we’re gathering and sharing on how to connect with communities in these challenging times.

Communicate with intention.

Engagement around COVID-19 is most difficult because it is a quickly changing, amorphous, and open-ended crisis, with high degrees of pressure on government agencies and a consistent need for judgement calls.

  • Researchers and academics with the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Coronavirus Local Response Initiative developed key takeaways regarding crisis communication, such as conveying information in a transparent, trustworthy, consistent, and coordinated manner, while expressing empathy for constituents affected and maintaining hope. Bang the Table, which developed software used by government agencies to connect with communities, published “How to Approach Digital-First Community Engagement.” And Embracing Equity, a social change agency focused on education, is sharing “4 Tips for a Strong and Equitable Virtual Experience.”
  • Community engagement should be welcoming to all, particularly underrepresented groups historically left out of the planning process. Marginalized communities often feel disconnected from those at the front lines of government. Community engagement efforts should emphasize that these voices have an impact on decisions and outcomes. This might mean surveys directly tied to impact and government response — like this one released by Oakland, California, asking businesses and nonprofits about needed support — or public summaries of the input gathered in listening sessions, meetings, and town halls.
For tech help, craft creative partnerships.
  • To reach underserved communities and vulnerable constituents who may not have access to the internet, government agencies can partner with school districts and community organizations working to provide tools and internet connections to families. For example, the Los Angeles United School Districts released $100 million to provide students with laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots and partnered with Verizon to provide families with free wireless internet access.
  • A Detroit partnership of community organizations extended a local internet connection, set up an intranet service for community members, and plans to use solar-recharging stations to host Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • In San Jose, California, a longer term digital divide effort resulted in the San Jose Digital Inclusion Fund, which is helping organize efforts like laptop distribution and providing information on reduced-priced internet plans. Get Connected Los Angeles, a partnership including L.A., the California Emerging Technology Fund, and EveryoneOn, helps residents find low-cost internet options, access to computers, and digital literacy services.
To solicit equitable community feedback, lean into partnerships with community-based organizations.

Marginalized communities can be justifiably distrustful of government systems that have failed them in the past. Now is the time for agencies to partner with and support the community organizations and nonprofits that have long-standing trust and connections with underserved communities and are acutely aware of their needs. And if your agency can afford it, offer to pay a stipend for their help.

  • For example, agencies can ask local economic development organizations to promote the city’s small business impact survey to gauge businesses’ needs, and in turn, provide services and support.
  • Seattle’s COVID-19 Response Fund included government, philanthropic organizations, and businesses that partnered to deploy emergency capital to community organizations serving residents most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Partner with private companies offering needed services.

In light of the current crisis, companies are increasingly interested in partnering with government agencies and nonprofits to help.

  • Seattle, for example, has leveraged its reputation as a tech hub and reached out to Qualtrics, which provides survey software, to explore potential partnerships.
  • In early April, the New York City Economic Development Corp. put out a call for businesses to turn out emergency medical supplies and has since coordinated production.
  • San Jose is working with DoorDash to deliver food to vulnerable populations.
Recruit volunteers to help people with digital connections.

There’s a vast network of people who are searching for ways to help — now is the time to tap into people’s desire to be a part of the solution, especially if that help can be delivered remotely.

  • Oakland is developing a network of youth volunteers to call seniors and help them with technology, such as patching them into Zoom meetings.
  • The Google form to recruit volunteers serves double duty by asking what languages participants speak to help build a secondary network of people who can assist non-English speakers.
  • Trusted community members, such as faith leaders who use technology to provide online access to services, might also be able to help people get onboard with technology.
Go where people already are — in person, in line, or online.

To get the widest reach, smart community outreach means using old-school, traditional tactics, as well as new ones.

  • In Oakland, the city has already crafted an inclusive economic development plan after engaging property and business owners. The plan has set a blueprint for COVID-19 outreach, in which the city is individually reaching out to those same owners to hear their struggles through one-on-one phone calls. Outreach flyers can be distributed directly to front doors and to businesses that have remained open, such as grocery and corner stores. Delivery services might be open to helping distribute various communications to residents as well.
  • Social media provides new opportunities to share information as platforms see a major boost in usage. Straightforward language, bold graphics, and links to trusted information sources go a long way. They’re all used on the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment’s Facebook page, which made a post regarding unemployment insurance go viral with 1.6 million views and over 200,000 shares. Tips for an effective social media post include breaking down jargon as much as possible and tapping into government employees with social media followings to share information on their own channels. Bigger audiences will translate into larger feedback.
  • As WhatsApp is best known for its international use, try connecting with immigrant communities using this popular messaging platform. Try the video platform TikTok for youth engagement, Nextdoor for neighborhood-based outreach, targeted radio for constituents who may not use the internet, and PatientsLikeMe for immuno-comprised populations. Through Facebook ads, you can choose your audience based on age, gender, education, job title, and other demographics.
Speak to people in their own languages.

There are 47 million-plus immigrants in the U.S., and it’s imperative that their voices and perspectives are counted in any decisions that will affect their communities.

  • Los Angeles County’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has executed a series of round tables with ethnic media outlets and community partners to tackle topics based on questions the agency has received.
  • The Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs also created a Language Access Working Group and aggregated “frequently asked questions” about COVID-19 into different languages.
  • In Oakland, constituent-specific Zoom meetings were held in Spanish and Mam, an indigenous Guatemalan language.
  • If using Microsoft Teams to hold public meetings, there’s a live function that does auto translations. Here are tips on hosting multi-lingual Zoom meetings.
Take special care to reach people experiencing homelessness.

The most vulnerable people will take the biggest brunt of the fallout from this pandemic. For the unhoused population, having access to services and resources is more difficult than ever.

  • In Austin, the city created an interactive map accessible by smartphone to identify hand-washing stations, toilets, and showering stations. Knowing that many people experiencing homelessness don’t have cell phones, the city is also handing out flyers with the information and, when possible, purchasing and distributing mobile phones to help them access more information.
  • In San Jose, a partnership with a nonprofit homeless services organization resulted in a new mobile medical assessment program with virtual doctor visits.
  • Paso Robles, California, contracts with the El Camino Homeless Organization, which hired an Emergency Resource Outreach Specialist to build trust with homeless individuals. As part of its outreach, the organization is distributing “safety bags” that include food, face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
Use data dashboards to keep people informed about virus infection rates.

Sharing the right type of information will keep the public aware and vigilant. That’s why many cities, counties, and states are updating numbers daily.

  • Boston created a dashboard to show such relevant information as the number of COVID-19 cases in the city, state, and country.
  • Los Angeles County’s dashboard outlines park closures, ongoing programs, mobile test sites, and meal distribution sites for students and older adults.
  • States, such as California and Texas, are doing the same to provide context for why state mandates are being put in place.
  • Former FUSE fellows that have created data dashboards for their agencies shared advice on how to develop these tools.
Solicit feedback from staff, front-line workers, and residents.

With each Zoom town hall, government agencies are getting better at engaging with the community. Apart from sorting out the technology, it’s important to hear back from participants about whether the platform was effective.

  • Use a range of approaches, from texts and digital surveys to old-fashioned phone calls, to hear from residents so they can inform proposed plans and to make sure that everyone in your department, not just front-line workers, is connected to the customer.
  • Reach back to your invitees and ask them what they thought of meetings, like Oakland did following an online town hall.
Take stock of digital resources, and identify best platforms for outreach.

As live City Hall meetings are cancelled during shelter-in-place mandates, digital platforms, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, have become primary tools for civic engagement.

  • To make the best use of these tools, the San Francisco Planning Department is mapping the digital platforms used across San Francisco agencies to identify what staff has used, pros and cons of each platform, and vendor enterprise accounts already in place through its Department of Technology.
  • Staff is assessing which tools work best for different audiences and applications, such as public hearings, community advisory committees, public workshops and meetings, and web-based surveys and questionnaires.
  • The team is also working to determine standards and become more consistent across departments so that communities don’t have to learn different technologies to interact with them.

By involving constituents, government agencies have an opportunity to explain how the system works, set expectations, hear what matters most to people, gain trust, and better serve their communities.

Emily Nonko is a New York City-based freelance writer who has covered urban policy for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Next City, and Curbed, among other publications.

photo credit: Sai De Silva