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Community feedback increases 13x in Lancaster, PA with both offline and online engagement methods

Lancaster, PA, USA

At a Glance

The City of Lancaster used offline and blended engagement to bridge their digital divide and increase participation across their diverse community. This led more equitable conversations around complex topics, and demonstrated the strategic value of community engagement to leaders.

Problem Addressed

A mid-sized city of over 60,000 with a greater metro area of just over 525,000, Lancaster is as diverse as some of the world’s largest capitals. While known for its Amish population, 40% of Lancaster residents are Spanish-speaking and the city resettles the most refugees per capita in the United States. With a population so rich with diversity, the City wanted to ensure that its many upcoming projects across transportation, housing, policing, and other issue areas were informed and shaped by feedback that fully reflected the Lancaster community.

With the pandemic keeping residents at home, the Mayor’s Office and Department of Neighborhood Engagement (DoNE) needed to address the city’s own digital divide, and find new ways to engage several traditionally offline and underrepresented communities. Milzy Carrasco, appointed in 2018 to run DoNE, led the charge.

City of Lancaster used/is using their online community engagement platform, Engage Lancaster, to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

The DoNE team met with various stakeholders and agreed that an online platform was necessary. They needed something that was easy to use and had strong language accessibility, and they wanted access to hands-on support and engagement expertise. Working with CitizenLab, they launched Engage Lancaster to move their approved projects online with a plan for ensuring everyone could be heard.

To create something truly innovative, DoNE borrowed best practices from CitizenLab’s network of over 300 local governments and organizations. Milzy reflected, “We have access to what other cities are doing - and with cities facing the same pandemic challenges at once, that helped expedite our work and improve it in real-time.” To ensure the community would use Engage Lancaster, the DoNE team also met with local stakeholders in schools, places of worship, housing authorities, after-school programs, and even local businesses to ask them to commit to the platform. They also used their active social media accounts to promote Engage Lancaster and encourage people to move their comments to the platform for community-wide dialogue.

Hyper aware of the ways digital divides could exclude some groups - particularly low-income residents, the elderly, and recently resettled refugees who often lack access to digital tools and can be hesitant to take part in government consultations - DoNE wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to weigh in. They took several steps towards inclusion, including:

+ Involving residents from the start by co-designing surveys and flyers directly with the community, and giving them a say in how and when to distribute those materials to ensure high participation.

+ Distributing digital and paper surveys (in multiple languages) and then uploading paper responses onto the platform so that the data sat alongside digitally entered ideas and comments.

+ Creating a branded Engage Lancaster video in multiple languages to guide residents on how to use the platform.

+ Adding QR codes to paper flyers and posters so that viewers could easily be redirected to the mobile site.

+ Sharing information through public service announcements on local radio, via paper flyers, door knocking, and targeted outreach to community leaders. DoNE is also exploring new ways to reach residents, including sending flyers out with quarterly water bills.

DoNE set out ambitious goals for Engage Lancaster, launching deliberation projects on everything from their Green Infrastructure Program to a participatory budget of over $9,000,000 of public funds. DoNE also used Engage Lancaster as an opportunity to facilitate tough conversations around policing and public safety, using the platform’s deliberative features to host listening sessions for the recruitment of the City’s next Chief of Police and facilitating a Community and Police Working Group that deliberated on issues such as the use of force, civilian complaint forms, and body cameras.

Outcomes

  1. The platform now hosts over 750 registered participants, including a 13x increase from traditionally underrepresented communities.
  2. With a representative and inclusive base of residents on the platform, the City felt comfortable hosting complex and difficult conversations, including around policing.
  3. Equitable conversations around complex topics - transportation, housing, policing - demonstrated the strategic value of community engagement to City leaders
  4. Offline engagement efforts such as PSAs on local radio, paper flyers, door knocking and targeted outreach reached traditionally offline communities
  5. Paper survey responses (in multiple languages) were uploaded to the platform. The data sat alongside digitally entered ideas and comments

Lessons Learned

  1. External community engagement facilitates change to internal City processes and culture; as Milzy put it: “Engagement has gone from something we should do to something we have to do.”

Something Unique

DoNE found that using a centralized platform broadly encouraged cross-department collaboration and the adoption of standardized tools, like communication templates and language access plans. As Milzy put it, “having a process for working across departments through a project management checklist really helps streamline our work before a project even launches. We now use the system we developed to train our internal departments on project management!”

Who Should Consider?

Small, mid-size, and large communities eager to create more inclusive and engaging opportunities for resident participation and engagement.