DON’s Public Outreach and Engagement Program: A respectful first contact with government

Home » DON’s Public Outreach and Engagement Program: A respectful first contact with government

One of the programs I am especially happy to see taking shape is the Department of Neighborhood’s work to make city government accessible and intelligible to traditionally underrepresented communities, that is to say, immigrants and refugees, seniors, people living with disabilities, renters, small businesses, youth and more.

DON’s director Bernie Matsuno, and employees James Bush and Sebhat Tenna briefed our Parks and Neighborhoods Committee this morning, September 6. They reported that in 2012, DON launched their Public Outreach and Engagement program, an outgrowth of the Planning Outreach Liaison program first formed in 2009 to help gather feedback for the neighborhood planning process.

In city vocabulary, the terms “outreach” and “engagement” have different, and importantly different, meanings: Outreach is a one-way communication mode, that is, getting information to people.

Engagement is a necessary second step, because it is about listening to feedback, building relationships, and fostering a continuing conversation. For the city, learning and adapting a two-way communication mode is critical. DON is among those leading the way.

On the right, a DON liaison trains advocates for Fair Housing.

The pilot recruits community members to serve as liaisons between communities and city government.  They communicate in the community’s native language.  Because these liaisons are neither working for city government, nor elected by the community, they are able to preserve neutrality that helps them gain public trust.

I just want to brag a little bit about Department of Neighborhood’s pilot and what they have accomplished so far.

Initially formed to work with the City’s Department of Planning and Development, the pilot has opened the program to all City Departments and now has 22 liaisons serving 19 historically underrepresented groups:

  • African Americans
  • Amharic Speakers
  • Somalis
  • Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese Speakers)
  • Cambodian (Khmer Speakers)
  • Youth
  • Seniors
  • People Living with Disabilities
  • Afaan-Oromo Speakers
  • Tigrinya Speakers
  • Laos Community
  • Filipino (Tagalog and English Speakers)
  • Vietnamese
  • Hmong
  • Mien
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives
  • Renters
  • Hispanic and Latino Communities
  • Small businesses

For some people reached by DON’s liaisons, it’s the first encounter with government in the US that they’ve had. They are invited in to give feedback on projects that will affect them, or, as in the case of the planned Puget Sound Energy’s power outage in the International District/Chinatown earlier this year, they are informed, in their own language, by people they know and trust, about infrastructure improvements and how they will be affected.

Training materials and presentations are in Khmer.

Here’s what the POEL pilot has accomplished so far:

  • 22 trained POELS in 12 language/cultural groups
  • 700 community members served
  • 4 projects completed, 2 projects ongoing, 3 projects in the pipeline

In addition to facilitating updates of the Neighborhood Plans for Rainier Beach and Lake/Bitter Lake/Broadview neighborhoods, with DPD, the program is supporting city departments with outreach and engagement on the following projects:

(The POEL program was intended to be a pilot of 5 to 6 projects. By December of 2012, the program will have completed 9 projects and served 8 departments.)

DON tells me that the POEL program is already nationally known and has won two awards. The pilot is running for a cost of about $193,000. I can only imagine if I were an immigrant in another country and someone from my neighborhood reached out to me and explained what was going on in English.  Worth every penny.

Thank you, DON!