Photo by Kalea Morgan on Unsplash
This series on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Government was written by Vince Vu. Stay tuned for the five-part series on Diversity, Equity, and Belonging in Government. Read Chapter One.
Chapter 2: Engaging with “Community Engagement”
Welcome back to the second chapter of our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) in Government series (“the Work”)! If you have no idea what I’m talking about or want to do some refreshing, please go here for chapter 1 of our series in engaging with the Work.
Last time, we laid the foundation for where to begin when you’re starting from scratch engaging in the Work. We talked about shared terminology, definitions, and rollout strategies. I even gave you a warning about the massive amounts of data required in a good DEIB program, and what type of data you’ll want to start collecting.
This week, I want to spend some time discussing one very critical part of not only successful DEIB programs, but also a critical part of all government services: community engagement.
I know. That phrase….is a lot. For some of us, that phrase makes us tired – it’s something that we’ve tried to articulate and argue for tooth and nail in everything that we do, often to no avail. For others, that phrase makes us bitter – we’ve all had projects that claimed to “engage the community” but really just checked a box. In my case, I have a LOT of feelings about that phrase.
For one, I’ve been in both those situations and more. Community engagement makes my job really hard. It blows up all my timelines and budgets and casts doubts about whether I’m actually doing the right thing. Community engagement, however, is something that people like us MUST have in everything we do – there simply isn’t another option. I don’t think it’s accurate enough to say that community engagement is something I’m passionate about, but it’s definitely something I have a lot of passion for.
The good news is that community engagement applies both internally and externally. It applies if you’re working on programs that are externally facing with residents, of course. But, it also applies if you’re working on internal communities – or employees. Because of this nifty double-dip, it’s helpful to become familiar with community engagement concepts no matter what your role is, or if you’re working on internal or external programs. And, it’s why I’m going to spend this entire chapter on it, even when talking overall about employee DEIB programs.
I think the first step to authentically engage with the community is acknowledging that community engagement is SUPER hard. How? Let’s count the ways:
- It’s nebulous – What does community engagement mean? How does it differ from communication? Or marketing?
- It’s labor-intensive – Reaching people where they are is difficult. People are busy – the last thing most of them want to do is engage with yet another bureaucracy.
- It’s tricky, methodologically – How do you know that you know that you’re getting the voice of the people, rather than just the voice of the squeaky wheel?
With that said, our moms didn’t raise us to be quitters. The number one thing I suggest when engaging with the community is to follow a good – say it with me – framework.
To Me, You Are (the) Perfect (Community Engagement Framework)
This is my favorite community engagement framework, adapted from the fabulous folks at the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2):
Here’s how the model works:
- You read the model from left to right.
- On the left, you have the “lowest” maturity level for community engagement.
- On the right, you have the “highest” maturity level for community engagement.
- The larger goal in government is to mature your programs from left to right, although this is entirely program-dependent.
- While in theory, we all want to move left to right, there isn’t any “shame” about where your program is currently. In fact, blanket rule – there’s never any shame in any of my posts, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed at where your program is at, ever! Even (ESPECIALLY) if you’re just starting out in your organization’s DEIB journey.
- The first sentence in each of these buckets describes what the organization typically does at this stage of the community engagement journey.
- The second sentence in quotes – “We will…” – is kind of like a brand promise. It’s the implicit (and sometimes explicit) understanding of the role that the organization and the community will play together.
Now, I always think it’s easier to understand big frameworks like this when you put it into the context of real-life situations. Here are some examples of typical engagement activities in government mapped to different parts of the maturity model.
Outreach – “We have a Twitter, and we use it to cross-post articles we submit to our webpage.”
Consultation – “Thanks for your feedback! We’ll take this into consideration.”
Involvement – “We built policy X from community feedback. Here are all the different themes that we heard, and here’s the exact feature of the policy that it maps to.”
Collaboration – “Policy X was built from community feedback, staffed by an executive committee that was composed of 3 staff members and 4 community members, all of which had an equal vote.”
Empower – “Policy X was chosen over Policy Y due to overwhelmingly positive community feedback.”
One concrete thing that I ask all of my government partners to do is to start mapping their programs onto the appropriate stage of maturity for community engagement.. Mapping will define the appropriate types of feedback and engagement activities you’ll need to execute. Mapping will also paint a clearer picture of how you can incorporate this kind of feedback in your programs.
Now – coming full circle – how does this interact with our DEIB program?
No matter what type of DEIB program you have – you will be activating SOME form of community engagement. The difference here is that your community will be more internal than external – but that really doesn’t matter for the Work itself. When you start building out or improving your DEIB program, be radically honest about what level of engagement your program has – and work deliberately to move it to where it needs to be.
The last thing you want to do is to create a DEIB program that is a mismatch between what you want to do, versus what your communities (internal or external) ask of you.
So, a quick review of all the content covered so far. When designing your DEIB program, think about the following:
- Create some shared terminology.
- Be mindful of how you’ll roll out the new initiative.
- Be prepared to capture all the right types of data in your DEIB program – operational and experience data.
- Follow established community engagement frameworks to ensure that you’re listening authentically to employees.
In our next series, we’ll chat about how to understand insights with an equity lens. Onward, comrades!
A special note on “voice” in government:
Ok, communications folks, please don’t come at me. Y’all are much better and more qualified than me to make recommendations on tone and voice, but I will say that in my experience, every single government output – again, whether intended internally or externally – could stand to be made MUCH more conversational and informal. Think of the type of tone you’ll want to use on these materials. If you’re engaging with the community in a normal, human way, you will be more likely to receive real authentic feedback. Conversely, try gussying up your language to be stuffy and formal – and all you’ll get are formalities. Your mileage may vary, but please take some time to think about humanizing your messages!
Here are some articles on creating a voice for your organization:
Beyond the Chatter: Developing a Credible Voice
Creating a Voice for Your Organization
Vince Vu is the Head of Government Strategy at Qualtrics, focusing on state and local government. He advises government agencies and organizations on effective experience management (XM) programming, including program design, survey assessment, resourcing, and change management. Prior to joining Qualtrics, Vince managed research and data analytics teams in multiple government settings at the city, county, and state levels. Vince earned his Masters in Public Policy, specializing in advanced policy analysis. Connect with Vince on LinkedIn.