People’s Climate Innovation Center works at the intersection of community-led design with both local governments and communities and facilitators who want an equity-centered approach to planning and policy making. We often start with the Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership and other tools to ground government staff in authentic community engagement and outcomes. We are also often asked to sit at the table representing community interests and perspectives as a trusted partner to influence the movement of resources to frontline groups – whom we believe should be at the table making decisions about their own futures. We know that community engagement overload is real and further perpetuates the harm of decades of disinvestment, performative equity, and extractive “engagement” processes. We also know that there are government staff who get it, who are totally well intentioned in seeking public input for better outcomes, and who are striving to change organizational culture within broken systems of power and decision-making.
With the Biden-Harris Justice40 Initiative, federal agencies with covered programs have been tasked with ensuring that at least 40 percent of grant program dollars reach under-invested communities. Agencies have spent the last year creating recommendations and metrics for meeting this goal, in part by asking for input and feedback from community groups, intermediaries, and movement ecosystem leaders, including those appointed to the White House Environmental Justice Council (WHEJAC). While these efforts have been a needed step in transforming how public dollars are awarded, the public engagement process has been exasperating and in some way, has created barriers to participation and transparency that the J40 Initiatives intended to address.
We recently added up the hours of invitations our team received to listening sessions, public feedback meetings, and interviews from just one federal agency which totalled nearly 20 hours. These are not compensated hours, and are often duplicative public engagement opportunities from staff within the same department. This is not uncommon as we continue to learn from our involvement in various efforts including the Justice40 Accelerator which was launched to support BIPOC-led groups working on climate solutions to navigate the federal funding process to access J40 grants. In an effort to support just the pre-application process of relationship building and information sharing, we created a checklist of best practices for government agencies seeking community input and for communities who are asked or evaluating their role in an engagement process. Clear expectations are key, as is context setting and clear outcomes. This is not an exhaustive list rather a growing one; it pulls from many sources and experiences both of our team and from our partners.
There is a growing list of resources on how local government (and federal agencies) can approach public engagement in order to shape planning processes for better outcomes. That said, it still remains necessary to emphasize that any public engagement invitation from an agency or local government should include the purpose of public engagement. Too often, invitations for community participation come when it is time to share an agency’s progress or plans instead of o an invitation to gather feedback from community members or work collaboratively in order to assess problems and identify solutions. Many “listening sessions” are organized so an agency can report on their plans with no facilitated space for engaging the audience to meaningfully participate or make decisions on the plan. This is both draining on community time (a precious and finite resource) and energy as well as a lost opportunity to involve the expertise of community members. In order for the public to evaluate the engagement opportunity and determine if they should participate, it should be made clear upfront what the format of a meeting is, the agenda, the process, and if community members should be prepared to speak to a topic or represent their community.
One step further than a clear invitation for public participation, is for agencies to involve community members in designing the agenda for public forums and have either a community group or a neutral third party trained in community-led planning to facilitate meetings in order to build trust, ownership and help balance power dynamics throughout the process.
Too often, community input is sought in order to check a box in the public planning process. Rarely is it clear that community has ownership in these processes and is equally represented to that of agency representation (either in numbers or power). Government should strive to have adequate representation from a diversity of community groups and interests, and ensure that community members will NOT be outnumbered by government employees (or consultants) in meetings. At the very least, the practice of at least acknowledging the imbalance when it exists and a commitment to improve “with specific next steps” is important. Closed door meetings, surveys, and focus groups tend to repeat the pattern of pushing underrepresented voices to the margins and seeking selective input from the same “trusted” partners. It also adds to the burden on the community to continually show up in order to have a seat at the decision-making table.
Communities have the expertise and valuable knowledge needed to design and implement lasting solutions. Community members should be treated as consultants or other paid experts when asked to participate in information sessions, review panels, interviews, speaking engagements, etc. Beyond the real need to compensate community members as a respectful consideration for them to dedicate their time, resourcing shifts the power balance to those who have the most to gain and lose from policy decisions. If systems change is to happen, ending the culture of extractive community engagement must be a first step.
Agency staff should always be upfront on where in the process they are, the timeline for decision-making, who and how decisions will be made, and how public input will inform decision-making and outcomes. Naming the non-negotiables or what some may refer to as “what are the no’s or can’t do’s?” can help ground public representatives in where things stand. The role of accountability in how community input will and is being used can’t be underestimated. One of the steps along the Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership is the message from government to community that “You are making us think, (and therefore act) differently about the issue.” Meetings where no one took notes or had plans for next steps or reported out what outcomes came about from community input are disappointingly the norm. Clear agendas, expected outcomes, documenting input, ongoing communication, feedback loops, iteration and next steps are key to addressing public input fatigue.
This list is intended for community groups to evaluate the opportunity for public engagement in government planning processes and to set expectations.
When invited to participate in public processes (meetings, forums, panels, committees), is there a clear opportunity to:
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