“The most important part of community engagement is being in community. That starts with humility and meeting people where they are.”
The Cities Coalition for Digital Rights hosts monthly webinars on topics from the field of Digital Rights to disseminate city members’ ongoing work and create a space of discussion and collaboration where cities and organizations can learn from each other.
On September 23rd, 2021, it was the City of San José’s turn to share their experience on community engagement. Christine Keung, the City of San José’s Chief Data Officer, and Christopher Maximos, a summer fellow within their Data Equity unit, explained their community engagement experience within the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation. Their team carried out an engagement process over the summer to improve a childcare scholarship programme fostered by the Parks, Recreation & Neighbourhood Services Department.
The scholarship programme consisted of citywide partial scholarships dedicated to making childcare affordable. After conducting an analysis of prior registration data, the Mayor’s team recognized disparities with whom the programme was reaching. The programme primarily offered scholarships to residents who lived close to the hubs run by the Parks and Recreation department, smaller families and, even though it was targeted to those with lower incomes, lower income families in the higher-income neighbourhoods of San José. Ultimately, the program was running efficiently but not effectively.
In order to address these gaps, the Data Equity team focused on engaging the city’s community to ask for feedback to improve the programme. Over the course of the summer, the team contacted the affected targets through family resource centres, school district administrators, cultural and faith-based organizations, ultimately reaching over 300 stakeholders and scheduling 40 meetings. The engagement process involved 1) meeting individually with community organisations to introduce them to findings and hear their initial reactions to the data collected; 2) facilitating roundtables with organisation leaders and Parks & Recreation Department employees to assess policy changes and 3) collecting direct feedback from parents and youth inquiring about the quality of the scholarship programme and barriers to participation.
From this experience, the Data Equity unit drew some insights on the lessons learnt that might be interesting for other cities that aim to carry out community engagement processes. During the webinar, Christopher highlighted the following:
- Cities should develop adaptable messaging around data and policy that can be tailored to audiences of all knowledge levels and contexts.
- Cities should both increase the value of offering feedback through material incentives and lower the bars of engagement through asynchronous feedback methods. These steps are especially important to reach residents who are traditionally excluded from the engagement process.
- Even during topic-focused engagement processes like this one, residents may offer feedback or express their concerns on municipal policies. Cities should accept criticism rather than eschew it and ask residents how they can restore their trust.
- Cities should welcome solutions from residents in the community engagement process, even in the initial needfinding stages. Moreover, cities should develop a clear mechanism to record community solutions and center these solutions in their conversations with partners.
As a closing remark, the City of San José’s Chief Data Officer, Christine Keung, pointed out that “the challenges we face around community engagement and around equitably reaching out to the pockets of the community and not just the same groups is true for cities around the world”.