Equity is a top concern for local governments everywhere. Developing policies and programs that achieve equitable outcomes can be a challenge. This is especially true when it comes to figuring out how to spend American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Many local agencies wonder how to design a process that authentically engages diverse populations.
To get answers on how to budget with equity at the center, we hear from two leaders from Sonoma County, California. Alegria De La Cruz is the Director of the Office of Equity and Oscar Chavez is the Assistant Director of Human Services. They share how their County leads with equity as they decide how to allocate their ARPA Funds.
We also hear from Cory Poris Plasch, Vice President of Strategic Development at Polco. She shares best practices in community engagement.
Sonoma County: Budgeting for ARPA With Equity At The Center
Sonoma County formed an ARPA Equity Group. The vision for the group is to address the needs of disproportionately impacted low income communities and communities of color through an equitable distribution of ARPA funds.
The mission of the Equity Group is to establish priorities, metrics, and accountability measures for the use of ARPA funds.
The ARPA Equity Group grounded themselves first in data. They looked at the geographic areas of their County where COVID-19 hit the worst. Then they layered that map with the Human Development Index (HDI) and Human Poverty Index (HPI) to paint a holistic picture of the needs of their residents. They also looked at data related to industries hardest hit by the pandemic.
While the data was extremely helpful to the group, they also recognized that quantitative data does not tell the whole story.
“It was really critical for us to sit and recognize that these numbers and stats have to be humanized. These dots are people and they need us to see them in a different way in this process,” said De La Cruz.
To elevate resident voices, Sonoma County leaders held ARPA Town Halls. They recruited attendance through social media, direct outreach to organizations, and asking their partners to get the word out. They leveraged all existing communication channels and processes. All Town Halls had Spanish interpretation.
“We really wanted to understand what they were feeling and experiencing on the ground,” said Chavez.
Digging Into Root Causes
After looking at data, the Group dug into root causes related to the disparities.
The team decided to tackle root causes that seemed deep and important, yet not so complicated to be something they couldn’t move the needle on. They believed this approach would help them to make the best investments using their ARPA funding.
“We wanted to sit in this place that was very productive. With these one-time limited funds, we needed to identify some mid level root causes. And we needed to link the why to the solution,” said De La Cruz.
Developing Priority Investment Areas
Based on the data and root cause analysis, the Equity Group developed recommended priority investment areas. The Group will present the recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. County leaders will then develop an RFP process.
They plan to also implement a results-based accountability framework to be able to track their process. They also plan to monitor the work of Community-Based Organizations and provide technical assistance as needed.
“All this work is really about people and making sure that the investment goes to those who are hardest hit by the pandemic. As a result of these investments, are we really better off? Are we helping those most disproportionately impacted?” said Chavez.
Why Community Engagement?
According to research from National Research Center at Polco, public trust in local government has decreased in the last two years. For example, public trust in police departments has declined significantly between 2018 and 2020.
We can build public trust through engagement. In fact, specifically related to ARPA, the Treasury urges local governments to engage their communities in developing plans to use their payments.
The Treasury also specifically mentions the disproportionate negative impacts of the pandemic on low-income communities, people of color, and tribal communities. Engaging these communities will help us to use ARPA funding to reverse inequities that have been made worse by the pandemic.
So beyond the Treasury’s guidance, why is resident input valuable? According to Poris-Plasch, engaging residents helps to increase transparency and accountability. This leads to stronger trust. Additionally, community engagement can help projects be better designed for the people that actually live in the community. Last, resident input can offer important insights to leaders related to how tolerant people may be to increasing taxes.
Community Engagement Best Practices
How can we better engage all residents as we plan for how best to spend ARPA?
The first step is to understand which residents are less likely to engage with government. Residents with lower income, youth, residents who are undocumented, people of color, and people with limited English proficiency are all less likely to engage with government.
Barriers that prevent resident engagement include lack of time, limited understanding of local government, and the fact that meetings can be intimidating.
Best practices for community engagement include:
Engaging the Community and Being Accessible
“Huge increases in trust come from simply getting out and walking the blocks and talking to residents,” said Poris-Plasch.
Building Relationships with Community Partners
“Definitely build those relationships before you need to lean on them,” said Poris-Plasch.
Continually Asking for Feedback
One of the silving linings from the pandemic is that people are more used to being online. Many young people, residents with lower incomes, and people of color use their cell phones for online access. In fact, 76% of those with a household income of less than $30,000 per year have a smartphone. Online feedback allows you to ask for feedback more frequently.
Closing the Loop
Make sure you let your residents know how their feedback informed key decisions. Share easy to read graphs and charts to show progress along the way.