The Catch-22 of Equitable Strategic Planning — and How to Avoid It

Adah Nuchi

Adah Nuchi

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A strategic plan is a medium-term blueprint for a city’s future, typically built on a timeframe of two to five years. It’s goal: to examine and determine all aspects of livability, from downtown revivals to transit systems to youth services. But if a strategic plan is meant to improve livability, it should do so for all of its residents. That’s where equity—or the freedom from bias and favoritism—comes in. Incorporating equity into your strategic plan from the get-go creates a fairer city—one that takes the needs of all its residents into consideration and does its best to serve them. 

Yet incorporating equity from day one presents city managers with an enormous challenge: an equitable strategic plan can’t exist without a strong understanding of resident needs, and an understanding of resident needs can’t occur without citizen participation in local government—something that is abysmally low. How then can local governments increase citizen participation and strive for equity? 

What is equity in local government?

First, it’s important to understand what exactly equity is when it comes to city strategic planning. While many people think of race first, equity involves much more. The International City Managers Association (ICMA) calls on city leaders to “Consider issues of equity and inclusion that go beyond race, ethnicity, and gender, and include variations in age, sexual orientation, ability, economic status, educational attainment, immigration levels, and community size.” Only when doing so, will governments be able to understand the interests of all their residents and provide services, solutions, and policies that strive to meet these needs.

Why your city needs an equitable strategic plan

Why is equity necessary? Too often, local government leaders are able to hear the voices of only a select few residents: those who have the means and time to be heard. At the same time, many residents face heavy barriers to participation in local government. These range from physical barriers, such as accessibility to public meetings because of time or location, to barriers like a historic lack of trust in government or lack of knowledge that citizen participation is even an option. The result is that a small group of people—collectively known as the STP or Same Ten People—participate in local government and have their interests represented—despite the best intentions of local leaders to serve the needs of all community members. In order to remedy this imbalance, local government leaders must make a concerted effort to hear additional voices, especially those that may face participation barriers such as those discussed above.

Community Meeting Participation

Setting your city up for equity: 5 ways to remove barriers to citizen participation in local government

Problematically, the barriers that exist to participation discussed above, are also barriers to achieving an equitable strategic plan, and therefore create a catch-22 for local government leaders. This is because in order to plan for equity, city and county managers must understand what all of their residents need. And yet, without full participation from all sectors of the population, understanding what residents need is impossible. 

Therefore, in order to create an equitable strategic plan, it’s not enough to simply try to be inclusive. The barriers to citizen participation must also be removed, giving voice to a wider sector of the population. Below are five ways local government leaders can begin to remove those barriers in order to increase civic engagement:

  1. Change your public meetings: Community meetings held during evening hours often exclude single parents, shift workers, and essential workers, who don’t have the flexibility to join a meeting in the evening. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many community meetings moved to an online format, showing that alternatives can exist. Having meetings at a variety of hours during the day, trying a hybrid of in-person and online meetings, or giving residents the option to participate without attending are all ways to broaden the reach of public meetings.
  2. Bridge the language gap: In the US, 67.3 million residents, or about 20% of the population, speak a language other than English at home. Disseminating information about initiatives and opportunities for citizen engagement in the languages that reflect the community—including undocumented residents—can help ensure more people participate in shaping the community they live in.
  3. Strengthen your outreach: One of the barriers to participation is simply a lack of knowledge that participation is even possible. Finding new ways to let people know their voice is valued can help increase participation in local government.
  4. Leverage trusted community leaders: In many underrepresented and marginalized communities, there is a historic lack of trust of the government, due to both a widespread dismissal of their voices, and because of active negligence and mistreatment by the government. Yet marginalized communities are most in need of services and initiatives that can improve the quality of life. Leaning on trusted community leaders to encourage participation, can help sway members who believe their voices don’t count.
  5. Utilize a variety of channels: Traditionally, public participation in local government has been limited to community meetings and surveys. Yet those methods aren’t practical for the world we live in today. It’s up to cities and counties to reach their residents where they are—online—through social media and other non-traditional channels. 

How to incorporate equity into your strategic plan by using community feedback

Regardless of how the barriers to participation are removed, gaining representative community feedback is essential to the creation of an equitable strategic plan. Below are three effective ways to use community feedback when planning for equity.

  1. Reach inactive residents. Too often, the only voices that are taken into consideration are the squeaky wheels, or active participants who “opt-in” to civic engagement. But what about the many members of the community that don’t actively participate in local government? There’s good news: more often than not, their opinions are still being voiced, just not through active participation channels like community meetings. Instead, they’re being voiced through comments and likes on social media posts, on news articles, or through calls to 311. 

    To reach them, city leaders must try less conventional methods. Zencity aggregates anonymized reactions to articles and social media posts to help local government leaders better understand where resident priorities lie. 
  1. Find people where they spend their time: online. For years, community surveys were a hallmark of understanding a job well done. Yet much like public meetings, mailed and phone community surveys reach only a very small part of the population. With only 7% of the US population reportedly not spending time online, distributing topic-specific surveys through the internet is a way to connect to a much larger audience, reaching 93% of Americans

    Leverage the online world for surveys, whether it’s for your annual or biannual community survey or for shorter, topic-specific community surveys. Strategic online distribution, like the type Zencity provides with some of our survey solutions, can ensure both a representative and statistically valid sample, with feedback from all corners of the community. Learn more about the new Zencity Community Survey from our team.
  1. Make the case for council. A city strategic plan must be approved by elected officials, such as council members. Yet council members often face the same issues of representation as city managers, hearing only from a small number of residents. 

    By gathering wider community feedback, local government leaders can present council members with the data needed to get a more equitable plan approved. Zencity’s actionable insights and topic-specific dashboards provide city and county managers with the data they need to get council on board.

When visualizing a city or county’s future, local government leaders must make sure that future is representative of all corners of the community. Yet without breaking down or circumventing the barriers to participation, the Catch-22 of equity is unavoidable, and creating an equitable strategic plan is impossible. For city managers looking to build a representative city, it’s time to expand to non-traditional means of outreach, and ensure that more members of the community know they have a valued voice.