BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Public Engagement and Transparency Is Key to States and Localities Using Federal Aid to Advance Racial Equity
As states and localities continue to decide how to use the remainder of $350 billion in flexible federal recovery funds (FRF) from the American Rescue Plan, they should actively engage communities ― especially those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic ― and increase transparency about their spending processes and choices. Public engagement and transparency are critical to ensuring that the funds are spent in ways that meet communities’ priorities, address the greatest harms of the pandemic, and build an inclusive, equitable recovery. Many states and localities have been collaborating with community organizations, gathering information on residents’ priorities, and regularly communicating updates to the public. States and localities that have yet to begin this process should consider these models.
States and the District of Columbia received $195 billion in flexible funds from the Rescue Plan. Local governments received $130.2 billion ($65.1 billion to counties, $45.6 billion to larger cities, and $19.5 billion to smaller cities ― the largest amount of one-time federal aid ever provided to local governments). States and localities have until the end of 2024 to obligate these funds and until the end of 2026 to spend them. Federal rules provide considerable flexibility to use these funds to replace lost revenue, address the pandemic’s economic and health impacts, provide premium pay to essential workers, and create broadband and water/sewer infrastructure. Most states and localities have already used some of these funds but also have a significant portion left.
Public engagement and transparency in FRF spending decisions are also key to addressing long-standing racial inequities. Historically, people of color had limited to no power in policymaking, which allowed white lawmakers to extend and cement racial disparities in power and wealth. Thus, states and localities must be intentional about how they allocate their remaining FRF. Direct community feedback strengthens states’ and localities’ ability to better meet people’s needs, especially those who have been systemically excluded and whose daily lives are shaped by these fiscal policies.
States and localities should offer multiple avenues for civic engagement to center community priorities for FRF. In particular, they should remove or account for obstacles to engaging in public engagement processes, including caretaking responsibilities, language barriers, and limited technology and broadband access.
Some states, but more so cities and counties, have strengthened civic engagement and transparency through a range of tools, including local advisory boards, community outreach campaigns, and online spending dashboards:
- Establishing new processes to improve collaboration between policymakers and community leaders and residents, such as advisory committees drawn from a broad cross-section of the public, and to diversify community input in spending decisions.
- Chester County, Pennsylvania, created a committee of volunteer county employees and community residents, representing a range of ages, gender identities, socioeconomic statuses, and geographical areas.
- Cook County, Illinois, partnered with the Civic Consulting Alliance, a diverse group of community-based organizations, and councils in underrepresented communities to shape engagement strategies in FRF spending.
- St. Louis, Missouri, consulted with a Stimulus Advisory Board of 25 community stakeholders from social service agencies, disability advocates, refugee and immigrant advocates, racial equity organizations, and local organizations.
- Offering various outreach mediums creates opportunities for individuals and families to learn about FRF and to share their priorities.
- Denver, Colorado, led a community outreach campaign called RISE Together Denver, which sent 25,000 mailers to traditionally underserved neighborhoods, set up pop-up events, put up flyers at local libraries, and launched e-blasts through county offices and social media campaigns. Residents engaged through calling into telephone town halls and online participation.
- Durham, North Carolina, partnered with North Carolina Central University, Durham County, Neighborhood Improvement Services, and the Equity & Inclusion Department to discuss outstanding needs, share common goals, and generate ideas for FRF spending. Residents reviewed the spending priorities and provided feedback on how to increase transparency moving forward.
- Fresno County, California, conducted an online community outreach survey in late 2021, which was offered in over 40 languages with physical copies at local libraries.
- Using newsletters, press releases, and online updates on FRF spending creates transparency around how allocations can meet community needs. And for residents who want to engage in advocacy, these tools can also inform spending of the remaining funds.
- Delaware’s governor has made FRF newsletters and allocations available online.
- Honolulu, Hawai’i, solicited feedback on funding priorities through a community engagement survey in early 2022 and created a dashboard of approved funding by category.
- Missouri’s governor launched a website in 2022 with information on how nonprofit organizations and residents can apply for grant programs funded by FRF, in addition to the state’s spending decisions.
- Establishing processes to promote FRF spending in communities hit hardest, and to prioritize people most impacted by the pandemic and long-standing inequities when allocating FRF.
- King County, Washington, developed a shared vision with over 600 county employees and 100 local organizations to create an Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan.
- Los Angeles County, California, created an equity dashboard that was developed with the county’s Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion Initiative team to make FRF data available to everyone.
- Massachusetts formed a Federal Funds Equity & Accountability Panel to track allocations using metrics such as economic and demographic equity. The state is also in the process of setting up a data dashboard and community survey.
These approaches reflect the extent to which states and localities have prioritized the experiences and perspectives of their communities. However, as they spend the remainder of the federal aid, states and localities will have many additional opportunities to target their FRF spending decisions toward advancing racial equity and meeting community needs ― and they should seize them.