Part of the Disruptors Series
Jan. 7, 2022
Michelle Stephens has had two front-row seats to the pandemic-fueled revolution in public participation. First, she's head of planning practice at Bang the Table, a company that provides communities across the country with a variety of tools to orchestrate public engagement. Stephens is also on the planning commission in Lafayette, Colorado, a small municipality between Boulder and Denver.
In the Denver area, as in much of the country, lockdowns, and social distancing requirements forced public meetings to go online. But the pandemic has also opened up civic engagement in unexpected ways, allowing that critical aspect of community planning to blossom over the last year and a half. Decision makers are hearing new voices and ideas when it comes to planning and budgeting — and they're engaging differently, too, thanks in part to some innovative solutions in civic tech.
Making (digital) space
Connecting with a broad, representative swath of community members has long been a struggle, which means resources often fail to make it to the people who need them the most. According to 2019 research from Boston University, in-person neighborhood meeting participants in that region tended to be older, whiter, and wealthier than the average resident — and that group has successfully wielded its influence to delay change, like attempting to block affordable housing construction, for instance. Researchers there found that the disparities between meeting attendees and everyone else are even more vast than those between voters and nonvoters. Stephens can relate, having seen the older, affluent, squeaky-wheel stereotype in public meetings before. But online engagement offers a powerful shift.
"We're seeing a downward trend in the age of people attending local government meetings, like participatory budgeting workshops with city councils," she says. "We're starting to see under‑45 crowds show up, instead of mostly people who are retired or those who are very passionate in one way or the other."
This change in who is attending meetings during the pandemic has been evident in Denver, where policy makers are using Bang the Table and other tools to give residents a voice in how to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds. In a series of digital town halls, residents could vote on policy goals in three categories: community, business, and infrastructure. The poll, run in conjunction with the meetings, asked participants to prioritize values that related to each of those recovery areas. Then a more in-depth survey allowed them to provide deeper feedback about why they wanted to prioritize, say, housing or mental health in the "community" category.
Wearable tech is maturing, with most products related to health, finance, and communication. Through monitoring and location-based services, data from wearables can provide insights on local activity patterns.
To try to avoid the pitfalls of the digital divide, the city also pushed engagement via texts and phone calls, contacting 120,000 residents in lower-income communities to encourage participation and ensure people knew about the events. About 6,200 of those people remained on the call for longer than 10 minutes. Callers could then press zero to speak with an operator and provide comments to the larger meeting. Meanwhile, polls were also available via text message.
This isn't participatory budgeting in the classic sense, where a small pot of money is set aside for direct spending based upon community preferences. Instead, the engagement campaign was meant to ensure policy makers understand the priorities of residents, and the recovery areas that matter most to them, when it comes to the hundreds of millions in federal rescue funds Denver received.
"I was a little nervous going into the outreach efforts, and I really worried about whether or not we would have diverse voices show up," says Kiki Turner, deputy director of public affairs at Denver's Department of Finance. Historically, she says, white residents have been heavily overrepresented at in-person meetings.
To Turner's surprise, the demographic makeup of participants "almost exactly matched Denver's demographics," she says. "Digital outreach eliminates some of the barriers that our more vulnerable residents face to civic engagement, whether it's childcare or timing or transportation to events."
Turner also says these outreach events didn't dissolve into acrimony, as is so often the case at in-person public meetings. Instead, planners were surprised by how vulnerable attendees were. At one telephone town hall, she recalls, the first resident who called in said she wanted to ensure stimulus funds were allocated to mental health care. Her son recently died by suicide, a tragedy she believed was due to a loss of support structures during the pandemic.
One of the municipal employees on the call suffered a suicide in his family as well, and he shared his story. It resulted in valuable discussions on the topic, with other people calling in to talk about their experiences of suicide and mental health crises in their families. Turner says mental health support is "a top priority" for funding in the wake of the town halls (although an exact allocation of the rescue money hasn't been decided yet).
"We saw people being really vulnerable and candid during this community outreach phase," says Turner. "People were really eager to tell their stories and to connect with each other," and with city staff.
Building upon the success of this effort, Denver will take its experiments with new forms of community outreach during the pandemic into a formal participatory budgeting framework this fall. The feedback sessions regarding CARES Act funding priorities were meant to give planners and other policy makers a sense of how the public wanted money to be spent, but it was not required that they follow community guidance exactly.
Now the city has allocated $1.7 million in capital funds that will be spent on projects approved by a series of community votes, much like the forums held about the recovery funds. Community stakeholder groups will begin by considering capital proposals, and voting will commence later this year.
Bang the Table's Stephens says Denver is not alone in using new technology-based forms of engagement popularized by the pandemic. And there are other civic tech solutions on the market that suit a variety of community sizes, types, and needs.
"This has brought budgeting into the hands of people who are not typically in the process," says Stephens. "[The pandemic] made it so government agencies became aware of the importance of a digital-first approach."