At a Glance
In trying to engage residents typically left behind in the legislative process, the Town of Ashland, MA used survey research to make Town Meetings more inclusive and accessible. The strategies used doubled the average Town Meeting attendance and decreased the average age of attendees from 64 to 48.
“Town Hall is intimidating. Working adults may not have the luxury of attending meetings,” said Jenn Ball, Ashland, Massachusetts Assistant Town Manager.
Plus, under Ashland’s “Open Town Meeting” form of government, legislative decisions can only be made by registered voters who have the ability to show up at the time and place designated for the Town Meeting.
“These meetings have traditionally been dominated by older adults who do not have kids living with them, leaving out the vast majority of Ashland’s families struggling to balance work, kids’ activities, and family life with civic participation,” said Ball. “This lack of involvement meant an unrepresentative sample made many of the town’s most consequential decisions.”
Ashland, MA used/is using Polco's National Community Survey to address this/these challenge(s).
Indeed, in 2016, The National Community Survey (The NCS) also showed room for improvement related to several aspects of community engagement in Ashland.
Ashland implements a number of strategies to break down barriers to resident engagement. Prior to COVID-19, leaders prioritized attendance at events and organized informal meetings with people in their homes.
"We find that informal, in-home meetings and showing up at community events are invaluable in developing the trust necessary for good governance,” said Ball.
Leaders also developed an online group to identify concerns facing people struggling to attend meetings in-person. Based on this group's feedback, the Town provided free childcare for all Town Meetings prior to COVID-19.
As a result, the average attendance of in-person Town Meetings prior to COVID nearly doubled. At the same time, the average age of attendees decreased from 64 to 48. All meetings are virtual during the pandemic.
Another strategy the Town invested in even prior to COVID is gathering feedback online.
"While people are clamoring in many ways for in-person interactions now that we have to meet virtually, I believe online meetings have opened up a lot of different types of people to be able to participate,” said Ball.
The Town commits to evolving its communication strategies. For example, 2016 NCS results identified website and social media as key sources of information. So over the last three years, leaders have built Ashland's online presence. Today Facebook posts reach ten times more people than they did in 2016.
Last, the Town seeks to build community through creating more spaces for people to come together. Ashland turned a vacant property into a community event space. During COVID-19, the Town hosts virtual programming.
These efforts have led to significantly improved ratings on The NCS. In 2019, Ashland residents rated many measures of resident engagement at least fifteen percentage points higher than they did in 2016.
These improvements led Ashland to be recognized as a Finalist for the Voice of the People (VOP) Awards for Transformation in Community Engagement. The VOP Awards are the only awards given in local government based on resident opinion.
Despite this significant progress, Ashland is always striving to reach more residents.
“In the 2016 NCS, we looked at aggregate data to revise and implement our initiatives. While this yielded very positive results, we will use the 2019 data to identify groups of people that feel excluded from opportunities to participate,” said Ball.
The Town recently created a People of Color group that will help town officials understand survey data and develop policies to promote equity.
The Town has also recently hired a new Communications and Cultural Affairs Program Coordinator who will create community events and improve communication methods.
“We strive to always increase community engagement to ensure all of our residents’ voices are heard,” said Ball.
- Between 2016 and 2019, Ashland improved its National Community Survey ratings by over fifteen percentage points for many categories related to resident engagement.
- Average Town Meeting attendance nearly doubled between 2016 and 2019. Facebook posts reached on average 10 times more people in 2019 than in 2016.
- The average age of Town Meeting attendees went down from 64 to 48 between 2016 and 2019, increasing the diversity of residents who engage.
Who Should Consider?
Local government leaders passionate about improving resident engagement, especially those focused on eliminating barriers to increase the diversity of voices heard.