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Equity & Engagement: Bridging the gap between government and underserved communities.

Underserved communities were given that unfortunate little moniker because they are difficult to reach—and therefore serve—for a range of regrettable reasons. Much of the time, government entities are not trying hard enough to engage with underserved communities. Government communicators have a responsibility to communicate equitably about the services they provide. Because of systemic inequities, government must go out of its way to reach these communities. And the effort has to be intentional.

With the right mix of tactics and technology, agencies can easily bridge the gap between government and underserved communities. Our own Luke Norris, vice president of platform enablement and digital government, sat down with Chris Hernandez, communications director for Kansas City, Missouri to discuss equity and engagement at this year’s 3CMA (City-County Communications & Marketing Association) conference.

Address them by name.
For starters, when trying to reach underserved and often othered constituencies, it’s important to use inclusive language that best represents their identities. Chris Hernandez, for example, like many other people of Latin descent, prefers the term Latino over Hispanic. Also, consider the addition of non-binary pronouns like they to include gender non-conforming community members. Put your audience at the center of your efforts. Many times, communicators inadvertently aim to satisfy their own, internal objectives first and fail to optimize the needs of their target audience. Think specifically about your audience. Who are they and what do you want them to do? Regardless of your objective, their perspective is most important.

Give your audience groups specific personas. This exercise helps you understand who you’re trying to communicate with and uncover their goals, pain points, preferred communication styles, and frankly… their perception of you (if they are aware of your agency at all). Be honest and you’ll get to the heart of what motivates your audience, which will help you reach and resonate with them. When community members are addressed more directly, they are more likely to feel welcomed to engage, which will encourage more participation from these marginalized groups.

Do the right thing.
When it comes to community engagement, there is a right (and wrong) way to go about getting feedback. Even civic projects that seem overwhelmingly positive need to be properly vetted by members of the community to ensure success. Hernandez recounted an incident where Kansas City leaders attempted to change a street name in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. While this seemed like a noble effort, the city consulted with church pastors in the Black community, but did little else to engage with or inform the general public. This oversight led to questions about why that particular street was chosen, which happened to be one of only two streets with Spanish names. After encountering widespread rejection, the project was ultimately overturned by a referendum. Later, the city attempted the name change project again. This time with a more thorough community engagement method that explored the rationale behind the project as well as alternative projects. The second effort was met with sweeping acceptance and several interconnected streets were renamed to honor Dr. King. Other cities, like Kansas City and Oakland, have implemented evaluative inclusion processes before enactment.

Strive for happiness.
Did you know that dissatisfied residents mean more work for government employees? Yep. Community members who are displeased with government initiatives, policies, or processes increase an agency’s overall workload because they are three times more likely to seek help from staff and will do so on three to four separate occasions, Hernandez noted. That means more phone calls, more visits, more emails, more work for government employees to address and resolve. This statistic makes a strong argument for cultivating an environment that residents—all residents—can be happy with, even if it means more effort—upfront—from government.

Utilize mobile phones too.
Almost everyone has a cellphone. According to Pew Research Center, 100% of people between the ages of 18 to 49 have a mobile phone and most of those people prefer to interact via text over email. Using this medium by way of govDelivery, you can create asynchronous communications and gather feedback as well.

While text is a highly effective way to reach all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, it is a particularly effective tool for connecting with hard-to-reach populations without a physical address or those who move around frequently. Pew Research Center also noted that younger adults, lower-income Americans, and those with a high school education or less rely on smartphones for online access. Government services that are accessible online are especially beneficial to underserved communities.

In addition to making your services available online, make sure the interface is user-friendly and thoughtful. So, parties who visit your site can easily access the information or services they sought out.

See how they did it.
In Fairfax City, Virginia, community projects weren’t engaging residents the way city leaders anticipated. The city introduced a racial and social equity initiative called “Connecting Fairfax City for All” and needed a platform that facilitated anonymity so residents could feel comfortable engaging openly about the city’s civil war history. By using EngagementHQ, Granicus’ community engagement solution (formerly provided by Bang the Table), Fairfax City residents were able to drop pins in various locations to pose questions around historic markers or street names and start a healthy dialogue around these sensitive topics. Using the software, the city created a project hub that combined information about the project, including schedules of upcoming meetings and videos of previous meetings—all in one convenient location.

With an end-of-life system during a global health crisis, Clay County, Florida made it a priority to continue delivering critical information and services to its residents. “Our residents aged 65+ weren’t responding to our comms via the social channels we were counting on. We built a portal and subscription service and saw an 83% click rate with our digital communications. We were able to educate and engage all of our residents through the channels that worked best for them,” said Samantha Radomski, Clay County’s administrative and web content specialist.

Employ many methods.
To reach all walks of life, including the underserved, a multichannel communications approach is key. Granicus’ civic engagement platform is the first and only solution purpose-built to connect government to the people they serve. The platform improves experiences between residents and government across several capabilities including website and content management systems (CMS), digital communications and feedback, online services, agenda and meeting management, short-term rental compliance, and the digitization of public records. The Granicus Experience Group (GXG), an in-house team of digital experts, can also step in to support our entire range of services. They work side-by-side with you to help you reach your goals.

Click here to learn more about the civic engagement platform and how you can utilize it to reach the hard-to-reach.