In this limited series, we explore the progress, challenges, and future trends in GovTech through conversations with leaders across all levels in the sector.
Marisa Denker has deep expertise in inclusive public and stakeholder engagement, strategic communications, stakeholder management, and participatory research. She is the founder and CEO of Connect the Dots, a WBE/DBE firm focused on inclusive public and stakeholder engagement. Connect the Dots specializes in community-informed decision making in large-scale transportation, planning, and economic development projects. Marisa is also an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founded A Playful City, and in 2020 Marisa was nominated as Urban Changemaker of the Year in Philadelphia.
Q: How would you describe your role in the GovTech space?
A: I founded and run a company called Connect the Dots. As a firm, we focus on community engagement – we design and deliver engagement processes for large-scale transportation, planning, and economic development projects for the public sector and nonprofits. We specialize in designing creative and tailored engagement strategies to best meet people where they are. To us, good, inclusive engagement means multi-layered engagement. So we approach the work by including technology, in-person, remote, and hybrid engagement methods.
Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges GovTech currently faces?
A: A challenge for GovTech and the engagement space is that engagement is typically funded on a per-project, one-off basis – such as to redesign a bus network, update a rec center, develop a transportation plan. So the engagement happens during the project life cycle, but what should ideally happen is that engagement is also implemented outside of the project’s life cycle. Otherwise we build such momentum and civic capacity and then it just stops, and our clients have to start all over again when a new project begins. When there is continuous engagement and two-way communications before, during, and after a project, you can build an ecosystem for engagement that lends itself to building deeper trust and creating more efficiencies across projects
Q: What are the GovTech advancements that you’re most excited about?
A: Government agencies and other stakeholders are even more so focusing on and seeing firsthand the importance of equitable and inclusive engagement. We’re even seeing this extend into RFPs. In RFPs, we are now seeing more requirements for robust, equitable engagement processes. The challenge now is making sure that the words are actually put into practice by supporting all the different layers of engagement and collaborators that are needed to meet people where they are.
We’re also seeing a real willingness from government agencies to be more experimental and innovative with design. They’re open to trying new things that would help them meet people where they are and are increasingly recognizing that traditional engagement – like an online survey or simple public meeting – is not enough to meaningfully reach their communities. We’ve seen a lot of interest in tailored strategies that include creative pop-ups – we even used a consultation snack cart to get people engaged as part of a Regional Rail Master Plan for SEPTA!
Q: What are some of the different planning processes governments might want to use community engagement for?
A: Lots and lots of projects. The typical ones we help with are transportation-related and more generic planning projects. Examples range from multi-modal, pedestrianization, micro-transit, bus network redesigns, cycling plans, and more. There’s also a lot of benefit to using community engagement for comprehensive plans, master plans, neighborhood plans, or economic strategies for regions and counties. Engagement should also be part of placemaking projects – to reimagine vacant buildings, streets, and the public realm. When considering if a government should include community engagement as part of their planning process, I like to think about it as: where people will be impacted, they should have a voice.
Q: What sets apart successful community engagement?
A: One factor that makes for successful community engagement is thinking about the process so that it gives back to the people participating. It’s key to make engagement itself of value to people, so when we’re designing engagement strategies we always consider how we can give back and make sure we are not being just transactional. Can we build a shared community resource list along the way? Can participants be trained in community engagement by being part of these processes? There’s also been a move to show people that their time is valued, and to break down barriers to engagement by offering stipends, but also going beyond them and offering things like childcare or even helping people put dinner on the table by sending food to their homes if we’re doing virtual engagement. After the engagement process, the community should be in a better position than when we started.
Successful projects also measure the impact of engagement and factors such as whether we received a diverse and representative level of participation. When you’re using engagement for a planning process, you also have to make sure you break down the content by focusing on accessibility – drill it down to make sure content is clear and that the reason why we’re asking the questions is really clear. Then, make connections between the insights they’re sharing and the decisions made so the community doesn’t feel their feedback is getting lost in a vacuum. And finally, successful, equitable community engagement is about sharing and shifting power. This means offering ways for community members to be a deeper part of engagement initiatives, such as through a citizen’s advisory committee through which they can choose vendors and even methods of consultation, so that they have more equal seats at the table. All of these factors are ultimately about building trust, and while trust is hard to measure I like to say that engagement moves at the speed of trust, so the process should have enough time to do it right.
Q: What’s the role of online engagement in all of this? How can digital help local governments?
A: Digital tools help provide a consistent hub for community engagement and serve as a source for information both in and out. They can really support engagement outside of the project cycle too, because GovTech tools can foster a more continuous engagement process. By having a central hub to share information, it’s also easier to close feedback loops by sharing what’s been heard, how decisions have been influenced, and more. Digital community engagement tools are therefore part of the ecosystem for engagement.
Q: What do the government engagement teams you work with care about most?
A: It depends on who you talk to, of course. But I think government engagement teams care a lot about making good plans that work for their community. They don’t want to lose time creating plans that are going to be met with resistance, or won’t have a positive impact. Meaningfully enabling people to build into plans helps to drive buy-in that enables smooth delivery. Governments are beginning to recognize that if you’re going to invest in big processes, engagement has to be a part of them in order to increase the chances of success.
Q: How can governments address historic inequities through community engagement?
A: A big way that governments can help address historic inequities through community engagement is by shaping inclusive engagement processes that prioritize the voices that have traditionally been marginalized and not included at the table. We like to think about engagement in terms of the ladder or spectrum of participation, and that really points to more sharing and shifting of power. For instance, in West Philadelphia we worked on a project that was primed for a lot of investors to engage because of incentives. Rather than letting investors come in and pick what they want to do top-down, we worked with community members to create a letter from the community to future investors that outlines the community’s needs and expectations – that served as a first port of call in the Investor Prospectus.
Q: What’s your advice on utilizing continuous engagement?
A: The key is to make sure there are strong engagement ecosystems set up ahead of projects. We suggest first doing an ‘engagement audit’ to understand what systems and components are already in place – and what’s working and not working. Then, you can add in building blocks for successful engagement like ambassador programs and citizens planning committees.. Developing tailored engagement ecosystems and methods for each community helps to build civic capacity versus it having to be activated per project. The concept of civic capacity is about all the different stakeholders having more points of collaboration between organizations, citizens, government, and even private sector actors.
Q: What’s the role of bottom-up engagement in all of this?
It’s so important to share and shift power. Public sector entities working directly with community leaders as partners is critical and valuable to all parties.
For example: We helped develop the City of Lancaster’s citizens’ planning committee, which included about 15-20 people. We helped select the group to be representative of the city’s diverse population. The idea was that we met with them once a month, even before the city’s comprehensive planning began. We did a lot of training about what a comprehensive plan is and how it gets developed so that the participants felt aligned and ready to engage in the process. We worked with the citizens’ planning committee to create a rubric for the consultant RFP process and together we selected the comprehensive plan consultant, which was one way to share and shift power. Now that the consultant has been hired, they’re meeting monthly to help design and deliver the engagement strategy and are really active at the table where decisions are being made.
Want to learn more? Read some of our other pieces:
- Blog: GovTech trends with Crandall O. Jones
- Blog: GovTech trends with Beth Simone Noveck
- Guide: Community Engagement: a Practitioner’s Guide