These higher rungs represent new models for agency engagement—and call for new capabilities from affected communities. Some agencies are actively working to build those capabilities. In 2022, for example, U.S. EPA launched a series of workshops to help “individuals and organizations working in underserved and disadvantaged communities to address their environmental and public health concerns and provide improved community-to-community networking and other communications between all stakeholders.”22
While it may seem that increasing community engagement will further lengthen an already demanding public input process, on the contrary, it can de-risk projects by preventing public opinion from shutting down the process in design. Meaningful public consultation must take place at an early enough stage for changes to be incorporated. If consultation simply intends to inform the community of what is taking place, it merely pays lip service to the process and raises the likelihood of substantial objection and public outcry. Incorporating changes earlier in the process is far cheaper than waiting until later, which is why it’s so important to engage the community as early as possible.
As a starting point, many federal agencies are auditing their programs for opportunities to improve their community engagement. The Department of Commerce, for example, plans to make its science and data more accessible and usable to underserved communities.23 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Weather Service, will work across multiple programs to ensure that historically underserved and socially vulnerable communities can access the data and programs they need to build climate resilience.24
California’s Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) is a grant program that empowers disadvantaged communities to set goals, select strategies and choose projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in their neighborhoods. The law establishing TCC outlined a broad engagement guideline for the Strategic Growth Council (SGG), the state-level cabinet committee administering it. In addition to reaching out to disadvantaged communities, SGG must consider comments from regional agencies, local governments, and various other stakeholders while creating funding guidelines and selection criteria. To ensure a more equitable funding and implementation process, the law also requires SGG to award grants for projects demonstrating community engagement in all phases and to earmark at least 5% to 8% of the grant value specifically for community outreach and engagement.25
New models of engagement
Community engagement will continue to evolve as new tools and approaches become available, and as the use of data across stakeholders becomes commonplace and pervasive.
New technologies have created entirely new forms of engagement. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and web scraping (the use of bots to extract website content) can increase government’s ability to collect and analyze data exponentially. Chatbots and virtual personal assistants can increase our ability to engage meaningfully with larger audiences.
One example in another field illustrates the ways in which new tools and channels can create new opportunities for connecting with citizens. When the nonprofit, The Public Good Projects (PGP), attempted to reduce unintended pregnancies among Black and Hispanic teenagers in Syracuse, New York, it didn’t begin by creating a website or social media presence. Instead, it recruited local young women to discuss the challenges they encounter in finding information about reproductive health. After conducting focus-group discussions with more than 30 of them, PGP learned that participants preferred to consult a confidential, trusted “friend” for their questions. In collaboration with these participants, PGP co-developed a chatbot from scratch, with participants weighing in on the chatbot’s gender, appearance, and features, as well as its name: Layla.26
Crowdsourcing through smartphone apps or web platforms can engage large numbers of people and reduce barriers to engagement. When US representatives Raul Grijalva and Donald McEachin began exploring legislation to address environmental justice, they crowdsourced opinions through an interactive online tool. The lawmakers used it to make the drafting of proposed legislation more participatory and inclusive from its inception. McEachin said they were looking beyond typical input from lobbyists and public interest groups because “we want to be in a position where we’re listening and hearing from you [the people]. This needs to be a bottom-up solution rather than a top-down solution.”27
The tools of communication and engagement will continue to evolve, as will each group’s willingness and access to them. A multipronged approach that continually considers what is effective will be essential to ensure that efforts don’t remain stuck on the bottom rung of the engagement ladder.
Measure benefits and burdens
Agencies now have access to a wider and ever-growing array of data that can help them measure the impacts of their actions on specific communities. Large government statistics programs, such as those at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, National Center for Health Statistics, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, now employ informal data-capture tools such as web scraping, in addition to their traditional and increasingly accessible numerical data. Some agencies are starting to think beyond descriptive data collection or point-in-time assessments to start evaluating how communities change as a result of their policies and investments.
Efforts to harness this data for engagement vary by agency, programs, and investment type. Some efforts are farther along than others, but what matters is that many efforts are underway and will continue to improve. Data will be essential to deploying once-in-a-generation investments in infrastructure, climate, and community resilience as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Justice40 is one example of using data to drive equity, and represents one of the first attempts by the federal government to explicitly prioritize benefits for disadvantaged communities via a measurement system approach.28 Benefits measurement is already widely utilized across the federal government as part of competitive grant funding, with agencies including US Department of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, all requiring benefit and cost analysis. Justice40 builds on this approach, considering not just things like reductions in congestion, air pollution, and hazard risk and improvements in economic opportunity, but also whether those benefits are being directed to people and places that need them most. Governments at all levels will have to be open to using both quantitative and qualitative data to monitor their progress. The data used should represent the lived experience and may include community sentiment gathered using social media, ethnographic research, and anecdotal information. Part of the purpose of enhanced engagement is to ensure that what’s measured is what matters to the community.
Rather than relying strictly on quantitative data, for example, ProPublica used chatbot technology to text community members and ask them about their perception of smoke in the air from crop burning in Florida’s sugar fields. While air-quality meters were not showing anything abnormal, many young locals were experiencing breathing difficulties. This short survey helped journalists identify the everyday realities of life near the fires, regardless of what was indicated by potentially faulty monitors.29
As Dr. Tony G. Reames, deputy director for Energy Justice at the US Department of Energy, observes, “We can only change the things that we track and measure.”30 Equity can be difficult to measure because changes in health and wealth tend to occur over long periods. Organizations must therefore use both short- and long-term metrics to course correct over time.
Developing measures reflecting social impact is a challenging process. Developing climate equity measures provides an example that highlights the dynamic and multi-dimensional nature of that challenge. To get started with measuring climate equity, agencies should first understand their mission impact on communities and identify objectives that are meaningful to both the agency and to the communities they are seeking to impact. Once those objectives are identified, agencies should update their measurement framework to include climate equity, using both the quantitative and qualitative data currently available to inform decision-making for the programs that most impact the communities identified. Agencies should establish a portfolio view of their investments to dynamically track their impact against established objectives, with an eye toward maturing their agency’s measurement capacity over time (figure 5).