5 Opportunities (and Challenges!) of Community Engagement

Posted by Kirsten Wysen on

When Seattle/King County set out to decrease health and social gaps among low-income residents, we embraced a new way of working and engaged in a Collective Impact initiative. In my post yesterday, I shared some of the core learnings about community engagement that informed the creation of our Communities of Opportunity partnership.

Even though our Collective Impact initiative is new, we have found the process of working directly with communities to be both rewarding and vital in designing and planning our initiative. But, as I mention, the opportunities also come with challenges.

Here are five opportunities and challenges we’ve faced in community engagement:

1. OPPORTUNITY: Education of residents

At the 2013 Community Forum, Dr. David Fleming, Director and Health Officer of Public Health-Seattle & King County, presented color-coded maps of health and well-being inequities in the county. This visualization of the data (below) was a powerful way to educate residents about core issue we faced in Seattle/King County. The illumination of the intersection of place and well-being sparked attendees to think about issues in new ways. Receiving knowledge in a new way also encouraged us to explore areas where we work “better together”— and where we need to break down siloes to address underlying root causes of poor outcomes.

Maps of Seattle/King County showing concentrations of poor health and social outcomes in dark red in the lowest income parts of the county.

2. OPPORTUNITY: Surfacing of new ideas

Community stakeholders contribute different perspectives to policy, programs, and interventions. The ideas surfaced at the Community Forum ranged from creating a “food innovation district,” to creating a neighborhood-level resource portal, to building partnerships between health plans and housing providers. If not for the forum and the input of cross-sector stakeholders, the Communities of Opportunity partnership may have neither imagined these solutions nor discovered the widespread desire for shared goals.

3. OPPORTUNITY: Gaining buy in early on

At the forum, County Executive Dow Constantine spoke to the meeting participants. He implored everyone to harness the power of Collective Impact and declared that, with the combined efforts of everyone in the room, we could “do something extraordinary.” This enthusiasm from a top regional player demonstrated commitment to the ideas generated in the meeting. It also gave participants confidence that the ideas of the initiative had the support to really take hold in the communities where they work.

4. CHALLENGE: Little advice has been given about how to engage with low-income community members

A common question at a recent gathering of The Integration Initiative sites was: “How do we actually engage at the grass-roots level with the low-income people where we are working?” We heard anecdotes from other health, human services and foundation efforts to work from, but didn’t find a coherent body of work on ways to effectively bring low-income communities into a Collective Impact initiative. Richard Harwood of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation called this type of engagement creating a “civic culture.” We need more concrete examples of successful grass-roots community engagement in Collective Impact to learn from. It’s too easy to create tables of “the usual suspects” instead of opening the circle to those with different backgrounds and perspectives. One of our mantras is “if it isn’t hard, it isn’t equity,” but a little guidance on how to make inclusion work well would be welcome. We think our second mantra “if it isn’t fun, you’re not doing it right” can also guide our work on this.

5. CHALLENGE: Hard to define “community representative”

How do you know at which level to engage in a community? Who actually are the grass-tops and the grass-roots players? Should you speak to local elected officials? Representatives of community-based organizations? Neighborhood leaders? People walking down the street? Communities of Opportunity has spoken with many different community representatives and we will continue to engage at all levels of the community. Our King County Community Engagement Guide provides advice about how to structure interactions honestly with community groups depending on whether their input will be advisory or decision-making. Yet we need more clarity on which community representatives can provide the most helpful input around the design and implementation of a Collective Impact initiative. And what kind of feedback loops we can use to ensure we are on track with pursuing community priorities.

Many of the communities highlighted in our maps of King County have clearly articulated actions plans that spell out a comprehensive set of priorities they believe will make their communities healthier and more livable. We are committed to taking the lead from the local organizations and people who live in these neighborhoods, so we can build on existing hopes and dreams rather than lose energy by imposing solutions from the outside.

Do these opportunities and challenges resonate with your experiences? If you have had a different experience engaging with your local communities, let us know in the comments.

How to Steer a Collective Impact Initiative through Community Engagement

Posted by Kirsten Wysen on

Community engagement is a critical part of making lasting changes in low-income places. It’s worth the effort, resources and time to do well at both the grass-roots community level and at the grass-tops political and organizational leader level. “Communities of Opportunity,” a cross-sector partnership in Seattle/King County, recently joined The Integration Initiative with a bold goal of decreasing health and social gaps among low-income residents in our county.

The initiative was born from a 2013 task force charged with preparing two King County departments for national health reform. The task force recommended working to change community features in low-income places that contribute to today’s poor health and social outcomes. At the same time, The Seattle Foundation was interested in similar place-based work. Rather than doing business the old way and proceeding on independent tracks, King County and The Seattle Foundation decided to work together in 2014 to co-design a framework that would set the stage for engaging other partners and investors in a Collective Impact approach. One of the guiding principles the partners share is to actively design strategies and interventions with input from all levels of stakeholders from the southern parts of the county, where the greatest disparities lie.

An important pre-cursor to the Communities of Opportunity partnerships was a large open invitation community forum in late 2013. The community forum brought grass-tops and grass-roots leaders from multiple sectors together to explore what it would take to make changes in under-resourced regions of the county. The 175 participants came up with dozens of ideas about how to work in the intersection between health and community development. From that point, the initiative has worked with a smaller design committee, also composed of cross-sector representatives, to identify three places in South King County to employ these strategies. The committee is advising that we use a “mutual selection” process so communities can decide if they want to work with us too.

Even though we have only recently begun this Collective Impact initiative, we have found the process of working directly with communities to be both rewarding and vital in designing and planning our initiative. However, these benefits also come with challenges.

Stay tuned for more insight into the benefits and challenges we’ve faced in steering a Collective Impact partnership.

3 Fabulous Flavors of Feedback Needed for Collective Impact

Posted by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson on

At Living Cities we think of Collective Impact as a set of principles: (1) a cross-sector partnership that has collectively agreed to a (2) shared result they aim to achieve and a (3) commitment to behavior change based on a (4) feedback loop of measures and outcomes that signals whether or not they are on track. (whew!) But anyone doing this work knows that, in application, it can be messy and confusing. To stick with the recipe analogy from my recent blog about the yummy tensions of collective impact, feedback is the binding agent that holds all of the other ingredients together. But it isn’t something that you can just throw into the mix. It has individual, flavorful elements that have to be carefully incorporated into the larger process. When done well, this creates an enabling connective tissue upon which the Collective Impact partnership can thrive.


When I busted onto the social-sector scene, I succeeded admirably in one thing: pissing everyone off. I was used to speaking in terms of "accountability", "corrective action" and "metrics". When I didn't hear that language back, I assumed (you know what happens when you do that) that it just wasn't there and started to come across as patronizing. I learned the hard way that the private, public and social sectors have different languages. That doesn't mean we don't want the same things, we just tend to go about trying to achieve them in different ways. What I quickly learned was that, while we used different language, we were often doing similar activities. During my work in youth development, we called the sum of these activities “feedback culture.” But it wasn't your run of the mill constructive criticism. Each young person we worked with had to sign a contract about committing to professional behavior (accountability). At the end of each week, what they did or did not do well was read in front of their peers by category (metrics). But that wouldn't have done anything without coaching. So that same group of peers would also give feedback about what they did well and what they could do better so that the person had the opportunity to change behavior (corrective action). What my youth development organization called feedback culture, I believe most professionals would call anxiety-laden.

For the young people I had the privilege of serving, the end result was a career pathway to make a better life for them and their families. Cross-sector partners need this level of transparency and vulnerability. They need the courage to share what's going well, what's not going well, and why in order to improve continuously That requires building trust that everyone in the group is coming from a place of caring and that the temporary discomfort is worth it in order to reach the end result the group is committed to.


It is always hard for me to hear people say things along the lines of, "it's all about the data". That might seem strange since I was an electrical engineering, computer science double major. But what I've found about data is that it is surprisingly subjective. A savvy person can make data do or say whatever they want in order to prove a point of view. Also, the data is not the point. What matters is whatever the data allows passionate people to understand and change. As Jeff Edmondson and the StriveTogether folks often say, the best data doesn't help you prove, it helps you IMPROVE.

Although we spoke about feedback loops in my earlier blog, one thing to note is that “feedback loop” does not equal “information technology system”. Feedback Loop literally means collecting the information that is needed to know whether or not you are on track. When people start thinking about data, they often go on a mad spree trying to collect EVERYTHING…blades of grass, wind speeds, rainfall percentages. The best feedback loops are processes that are elegant and iterative. They inform you about the validity of your choices as quickly as possible. I love the blinking speedometer example; those flashing numbers inform you whether you should speed up or slow down, but the desire and choice to do so is still ultimately your own.

Another important distinction is that many organization ALREADY HAVE feedback loops. The challenge is that they exist within the boundaries of their own organization. That brings us to my last element of feedback.


Inevitably, if your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is audacious and scary enough, no one organization will house all of the information needed to be able to assess progress toward the goal. When I was speaking at an environmental conference recently, we walked through an example using an initiative with the goal of reducing CO2 emissions in Washington D.C. by 25% in five years. I asked them, “What are you doing to drive this change?” The answers were fast and furious.

"Planting trees!"

"Engaging employers to change their polluting behaviors."

"Burning down power plants." (That last one was a little alarming but every room has a wild revolutionary.)

When I asked how they would know that the CO2 emissions were reduced, and if they had that data themselves, most folks scratched their heads and said, "Uhh…no." Most of them could tell you the number of trees they planted, or the private-sector people who signed up to change their behaviors, or even their progress toward their goals. It's not that they weren't collecting data. It’s that the issues they are ultimately trying to impact are so interconnected with larger, more complex systems that it is easy to “achieve” programmatic success in a vacuum without seeing any improvement big picture change. Achieving a BHAG will require laying down infrastructure that gets you the right information when you need it. That's what is so awesome about the first two flavors of feedback. If your cross-sector partnership builds a feedback culture and feedback loops that keep them informed if they're on or off track, inevitably there will be a tension with getting the information they need fast enough so that they can change course, if needed, in real time.

A great example of what can happen when people take that journey together is what happened when Cuyahoga County, in Ohio, began preliminary research for a Pay for Success deal aimed at decreasing the average number of days a child spends in foster care. In the process of building a Pay for Success model (which, by the way, is one of the best emerging models that is naturally aligned with the principles of Collective Impact), they realized that part of the reason children were not being picked up from foster care when their parents were released from jail was because the criminal justice systems and the family services systems didn’t “talk”. Since they needed to prove outcomes to receive a financial return, they were not comfortable with convoluted paper pushing processes. The county decided then and there that they would invest in building infrastructure between the two systems so that they would automatically notify each other. This change will last regardless of administration changes, or people being promoted. And as a result, no mother will feel that it is not her right to reach out to her children and no child will wonder why her mother doesn't care enough to take her home. When it's all said and done, that's when you know you've achieved enduring systems change.

Social Physics As A Public Utility

Posted by Jake Auchincloss on

This piece is cross posted from the Data-Smart City Solutions blog hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

Prime innovation ecologies are at a premium these days, as both municipal and private-sector officials scout out sites to host the next innovation district or biotechnology firm. A new branch of science, social physics, will help them develop innovative neighborhoods to deepen their bench of prospects.

Developed by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, one of the world’s foremost experts on big data, social physics derives fundamental rules of social interaction from the “statistical regularities in human movement and communication” made tractable by information technology and big data. This is the descriptive aspect of what Prof. Pentland terms “reality mining”: Who is going where, with whom, in what mood, for how long, by what route, to buy what – and all the patterns of conversation along the way.

The key finding is that innovation is an emergent property of interpersonal networks that precisely balance engagement with exploration. Engagement refers to a densely transitive hub of face-to-face ties. These hubs forge ideas into good ideas into actionable ideas by volleying them back and forth in a richly social pattern layered with the implicit communication that accounts for most of the information exchanged between people. Ties of exploration, oftentimes electronic and/or transient in nature, connect these hubs of engagement, seeding them with new ideas in order to prevent them from becoming echo chambers.

The predictive dimension of social physics, though, is what earns it the “physics” moniker. Because humans are habituated through the influence of their peers, their behavior can be forecast by mapping and measuring their interpersonal interactions. As individuals, we can perceive this only dimly because we lack an aerial view of the network, but statistically the findings are overwhelming: Our ideas, norms of behavior, germs, fashion choices, and even weight gain are extrinsic properties, mostly determined by who we see every day. So, just as physicists can predict the behavior of an object in space, social physicists can predict a human’s behavior in a network.

The benefit for city planners is that if engagement and exploration can be measured, they can be managed. And the measurements are getting very good.

Researchers at Prof. Pentland’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, its partner institutions throughout the world, and its spin-off companies, like Sense Networks and Sociometric Solutions, are able to tap into the data that stream through telecommunications providers, search engines, mobile gadgets, social media, credit card payment systems, and sociometric badges to precisely map the social dynamics within an organization or location. Furthermore, the City Science Initiative at MIT, managed by Dr. Ryan Chin, has recently launched CityScope, which acts as an “urban observatory, urban intervention simulator, and decision support system”, that allows planners to dial-tune policy inputs to map their effects on a physical representation of their neighborhood or city.

Instead of describing each technology in isolation, consider this hypothetical example of how they might be integrated: A merchants’ association in a well-situated but underperforming downtown retail center decides that it wants to improve the center’s network dynamics in order to generate innovation. Helped along by grants from the city and non-profit organizations, the association contracts with the City Science Initiative for a comprehensive year-long study that requires tracking all credit-card transactions, the location data from all mobile phones, the content of all social media output from the retail center, the construction of behavioral profiles of mobile users, and even the imposition of sociometric badges, which when worn around the neck can measure the distribution and quality of face-to-face interactions, on employees, customers, and pedestrians in the downtown center who opt in.

Using CityScope, the City Science Initiative then projects onto a scaled, three-dimensional model of the retail center the hubs of engagement and ties of exploration. Macro trends, like foot traffic through the light rail and commuter stations and the spatial concentration of different demographics at different hours, can zoom into granular profiles, i.e. behavioral avatars of the pedestrians on Main Street plaza, between 8am and 10am on weekdays; the quality and the quantity of the face-to-face interactions they’re having with each other and which stores they’re having them in; how long they stay at each site; what types of things they’re purchasing; where they go after their purchase, and by what route.

Standing at the helm of CityScope, city officials can then calibrate the network dynamics of the retail center by dialing up or down a host of variables instantiated in the model. Graphics for exploration and engagement are indexed to these variables, so that planners can see in real time and in three dimensions what happens when, for example, permits for sidewalk seating are granted more liberally, or zoning density and mixed-use allocations increase, or the exits for transit stops are shifted across the street to be nearer to open cafes. "Graphing network dynamics onto a user-friendly platform like CityScope,” Dr. Chin explains, “will provide city planners with new insight into how to, literally, build innovation."

As it stands now, planners in charge of capital investment and improvement budgets may be the most receptive, because the money is substantial enough – over $100 million annually for Boston, for example – and the backlog of worthy projects long enough that an apolitical, time-intensive planning tool could synchronize with the already deliberate process for triaging the funds.

Ideally, though, the theory of social physics and the increasing sophistication of its measurement will change the way cities think about fostering innovation. That thinking today is capital intensive: administrations assume that synergy is inevitable when they lure in human capital, whether by recruiting STEM-heavy firms or place-making for the creative class, and build physical capital, like innovation centers. The productivity of the network is an ex post facto and qualitative consideration.

Instead, cities should ultimately treat network enhancement as a public utility, to be measured, improved, and published as open data. Let the market then internalize this new information to determine how capital, both physical and human, is allocated.

Jake Auchincloss is a research assistant at the Ash Center and a dual degree candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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