Reaching underserved populations in government isn’t just about checking boxes; it’s about building trust, breaking down barriers, and actively involving these communities in decision-making processes. During our inaugural GovCX Collective event, Reaching Underserved Populations, we hosted an amazing panel of empathetic experts: Jennifer A. Crewalk, Ph.D., April Harding, Diem Mooney, Ph.D., and Stephanie Wade. They shared their experiences, insights, and strategies on how to connect with underserved communities effectively. Let’s dive into the top takeaways from this enlightening discussion.
1. Accessibility is Key
Diem emphasized the importance of accessibility in government outreach efforts. It’s not enough to assume that everyone has equal access to technology or that they trust it enough to engage. Diem’s team took a proactive approach by setting up shop in public libraries, providing an in-person platform for groups like elderly individuals who might not have access to the internet. User experience (UX) and accessibility should be at the forefront of government research and outreach strategies.
2. Real Change Lies in Your Willingness to Try Something New…and Again, Libraries!
On the topic of public libraries, Stephanie pointed out that in her experience, librarians have been enthusiastic adopters of innovation. Libraries can serve as allies for reaching underserved communities outside of the typical town hall meeting. “If you go for the easy answer [during research], you’re just going to hear what you’ve always heard. The goal of doing really good CX work and doing innovation really well is about learning the things that we don’t know and that means we have to go outside of our comfort zone…” says Stephanie. By centering participants in research, understanding their lived experiences, and avoiding the easy answers, government agencies can build trust and engage more effectively with these groups.
In addition to libraries, faith leaders and social service providers tend to be good partners as they’ve already earned trust in the community and can point you in the right direction. “Schedule those extra couple of weeks to meet with those underserved communities…that’s where the real change happens.”
3. Cultural Competency and Sensitivity Are Foundational Elements
Diem stressed the importance of cultural competency and sensitivity when designing outreach strategies. Without these qualities, researchers risk misinterpreting and skewing data, missing the mark in their efforts to understand what’s important to different groups of people. Cultural competency isn’t an afterthought; it’s a fundamental aspect of successful government engagement.
Jennifer also highlighted that context matters. To truly understand the needs and experiences of underserved communities, it’s crucial to ask open-ended questions and avoiding assumptions. Jennifer went on to describe how her team got much richer data when they stopped doing individual interviews and started doing more focus groups, allowing people to invite others that they were comfortable with. “Some of the communities I work with don’t necessarily orient themselves as an individual…they’re part of a collective worldview and a lot of their decision making is influenced by people close to them.”
4. Genuine Engagement Builds Trust
Stephanie shared a remarkable example from Mobile, Alabama, where an innovation team focused on rebuilding a community where the local government was disinvested. They didn’t just extract information from the community; they genuinely engaged with residents, building rapport over time through different modes of communication – door-to-door, email, and paper mail. The team’s approach fueled their ability to reduce dilapidated buildings in the area by 58% in three years, showcased the power of authenticity, and won them additional time in Mobile.
5. Data Drives Advocacy
Systemically, you must have data behind your work to be able to grow and scale your efforts. Stephanie highlighted how data-driven stories can change hearts and minds within government agencies. By showing the impact and cost savings of their efforts, her team gained support and resources to scale their initiatives. Data should not be seen as an enemy but as an advocate for change.
6. Measuring Success and Identifying KPIs is a Collaborative Effort
April discussed how identifying key performance indicators (KPIs) is essential but can be challenging. She reminded us that it’s important to figure out how to tell stories in a data-driven way without omitting the actual people affected.
Diem emphasized the importance of collaborative KPI selection to ensure that the data collected aligns with stakeholder interests and expectations.
Jennifer added that storytelling is crucial in conveying the importance of qualitative data, and that using visuals and direct quotes from constituents to make the data relatable.
7. Humility and Self-Awareness Play a Part
A final, vital takeaway is the importance of humility and self-awareness. Diem reminded us that we won’t always be the right person to engage with certain communities, and that’s okay. Ego shouldn’t stand in the way of effective outreach. Instead, recognize when to step back and allow those who can build trust and rapport to take the lead.
Reaching underserved populations in government requires more than just good intentions. It demands an intentional approach that includes accessibility, cultural competency, trust-building, and data-driven advocacy. A recurring theme of the discussion was that there is no “end” when it comes to cultural competency; there’s always room to grow and learn. By adopting this mindset and actively involving underserved communities and learning from their experiences, government agencies can develop more inclusive and impactful solutions that truly serve citizens’ needs.
To be a part of more forward-thinking conversations like this one, join the Collective!