Photo of a stimulus check

The historic, $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides about $350 billion in direct funding to state and local governments. The stimulus package is largely considered to offer tremendous and much-needed relief to cities and counties nationwide, and in comparison to the federal support provided via the CARES Act in 2020, this bill is much more flexible and thought to be better designed to ensure that communities of all sizes receive support.

Although the relief package authorizes significant flexibility in spending, the resources it offers are still limited and the need is immediate. Tensions are already emerging between local governments’ medium and long-term growth allocation strategies, and what their residents would like to see funded today. Local governments that have a robust community engagement strategy in place will be able to:

1. Allocate funding more equitably and with the biggest impact by better understanding expressed community needs and priorities.

2. Get residents and council on board with medium and long-term growth funding strategies.

3. Better measure the impact of their spending decisions.

Let’s dive into each of these use cases.

1. Incorporate community input into allocation decisions to ensure all community members’ needs are met and that funding is spent equitably and with the biggest impact.

Ensuring that all corners of the community are being heard from when it comes to allocating resources is impossible without a set civic engagement strategy in place. Additionally, good resident feedback data, whether organic or proactive, is invaluable when allocating funds.

Organic feedback is broad-reaching and can give a sense of residents’ most pressing needs and priorities, while proactive feedback involves actively seeking feedback by engaging with residents. Although vastly different, together the two form a holistic and granular view into your community members’ most urgent needs and wants. Understanding directly from residents what they need enables local governments to drill down accurately on how and where to invest resources so that stimulus funding can be distributed to address the various needs of community members.

A great example of proactive engagement for nuanced investment comes from the local government in Decatur, Illinois. In 2020, the city ran very specific community surveys in order to build a well-informed grant program around the allocation of its CARES Act funding, including setting specific parameters for business relief grants that reflected the expressed needs of its residents. After the city announced how it would be distributing grants—based on survey responses—the city tracked organic discourse to measure how its allocations were met by the public. By honing in on what residents needed, the city confidently allocated funding—with 57 percent positive feedback on its federal spending decision making.

2. Get residents and council on board with medium and long-term growth funding strategies.

Local governments will certainly be making some funding allocation decisions to invest in medium and long-term growth that don’t necessarily seem to align, on their face, with residents’ immediate needs. Examples might be investment in infrastructure projects, data tools, plugging budget holes (a spend that the CARES Act didn’t allow for), or improving basic services. An agency that has the foresight and knowledge on how it needs to prioritize stimulus funding must still be able to effectively communicate both the what and the why.

Tracking organic resident discourse, measuring levels of resident satisfaction, and understanding why residents may be pushing back as local governments begin disbursing funds will help local governments better respond to their community members and get them on board with allocations.

Consistent civic engagement encourages local government leaders to adjust and refine messaging and communication, and having a continuous feedback loop can help increase transparency as well as confidence in leadership. For example, when finalizing their FY2022 budget strategy, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, leveraged both organic resident feedback and survey responses to make initial and ongoing budgeting decisions.5 They again leveraged the feedback when communicating these decisions with residents, much to their satisfaction.

With residents aligned, getting council on board with investment recommendations will also be easier. Resident input data can be a powerful tool in aligning council with policy and budgeting recommendations because councilmembers often hear from a smaller, non-representative slice of the community. Using broader community input can play a pivotal role in helping councilmembers see the bigger picture.

With residents aligned, getting council on board with investment recommendations will also be easier. Resident input data can be a powerful tool in aligning council with policy and budgeting recommendations6 because councilmembers often hear from a smaller, non-representative slice of the community. Using broader community input can play a pivotal role in helping councilmembers see the bigger picture.

3. Measure the impact of funding decisions with good performance management.

Impactful and equitable stimulus allocations require oversight metrics, and good performance management should also include resident sentiment. A continuous resident feedback loop can help local governments measure the effectiveness of programs in the year ahead and sentiment trends can help local governments adapt when necessary. Measuring resident sentiment and satisfaction levels is also key for understanding if residents and their local leaders are on the same page, as well as good indicators about the levels of confidence in the prospects of the community and what’s to come.

Ultimately, for resident sentiment to be useful for performance management, it must be timely and there must be a consistent and ongoing way to measure it. Local governments that can continuously track resident sentiment levels and adapt to results will be more impactful and be better positioned to stretch limited budgets effectively.

In Conclusion

How local governments decide to invest in their communities is dependent on a few factors, but one of the turnkeys to effective funding allocation is their ability to continually understand their community members’ needs, as expressed by residents, both broadly and immediately.

For more ideas on how you can provide effective and equitable relief with stimulus funding using the right community engagement strategy, download Zencity’s complete guide.

Headshot of author Assaf Frances

ASSAF FRANCES is director of urban policy and partnerships at Zencity, where he manages special research projects, the company’s engagements and relationships with industry, state, and national government organizations. Zencity is a community insights and analytics platform that provides actionable data to local government leaders based on their residents’ input. Using advanced AI and a team of analysts, Zencity collects, aggregates, and analyzes both organic feedback and direct input from everywhere residents are talking about their city or county and its services online.

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